What Does the Systems Thinking Teach us About the Problems of Problem-Solving Practice

The systems thinking theory combines understanding how complex systems integrate with each other and solve complicated problems that involve multiple inputs outputs from these systems. The theory can also help us to build a clear vision about the system while proposing a solution that considers seeing the complex system as a whole picture rather than individual parts. This approach contributes to building a solution that considers all the system’s aspects and related systems. In our previous article, The Six Systems Thinking Steps to Solve Complex Problems, we discussed the systems thinking as a tool to solve complex problems.

In reality, solving problems is not as easy a job as we read in books or articles. In many situations, the solutions, themselves, may lead to more complex problems and the endeavors that attempt to solve a simple problem in a project or a company end up with catastrophic consequences. So, the question is how can we solve a problem while trying to avoid causing the company further problems?

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The Fifth Discipline

One of the systems-thinking related theories that proposes an answer to this question is the Fifth Discipline theory. It was coined by Peter Sense, senior lecturer at MIT, in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning organization. His theory focuses on transforming a firm into a learning organization through undressing complexity, developing a reflective conversation and fostering aspiration. In order to achieve this transformation, these five disciplines were introduced in the book:

  • Personal Mastery refers to the employee’s personal ability to learn and grow. Employees who have high personal mastery are continually learning and improving their capabilities.
  • Mental Models suggest that employees will develop their own mental characteristics based on their views, assumptions, and prejudices, and while their actions don’t align with what they say, their actions align with their mental models. Therefore, it is important for the manager to understand the mental models of their employees in order to be effective system thinkers.
  • Shared Vision refers to the picture of the future that is shared by the employees inside the organization that can be used to create a connection between them through common aspirations and motivation.
  • Team Learning depends on personal mastery as it aims to align the team’s capabilities and develop them to achieve the holistic goal of the team or the organization.
  • Systems Thinking refers to seeing the system as a whole rather than individual parts. The systems thinking depends on the above disciplines to ensure they are building a smart system that is able to identify causes and effects and work toward solving problems efficiently.
the fifth discipline
The Fifth Discipline can turn the company into a learning organization.

The 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline

In association with the Fifth Discipline theory, Peter Sense suggested 11 laws that reflect different situations that may face the application of a specific solution, which are assumed to be as a result of a problem-solving process. One or more of the below situations may occur and have a negative impact on the problem-solving process.

1- Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions

Since the organization is a connected system, the current problem is a more than likely to be a result of a previous solution adopted either by existing employers or previous ones. So, before adopting any new solutions, it is very important to understand the history of the existing problem. What is the previous solution that produced it? Is the problem related to existing organizational policy or vision? If so, this means that any new solutions will turn out to also be a problem because of the company’s strategy or policy. The cause/effect diagram can help building a link between all of the possible causes for the problem including the previous solutions adopted by the organization.

2- The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back

When you plan to push the system toward a specific solution, the system tends to resist the change, resulting in a phenomenon known as “compensative feedback.” Through this process, the implementation of the solution should consider factors such as: how the system will accept the intervention and the expected feedback (response) from the system, how the changes will affect the existing elements inside the system, such as employees, and what different parties understand the benefits of the change to be. If the system is expected to push back against the solution, then the prior preparation stages can be implemented, such as partial applications of the solution or by increasing the employee’s awareness of the benefits of the changes.

3- Behavior grows better before it grows worse

One of the more noticeable situations when applying a solution for a specific problem is  that the system may start to backfire and interact in an undesirable way before showing improvement. For example, changing the project development process may cause negative effects, such as delays in the project delivery, chaos, and a lack of clarity among the project stakeholders. Once these side effects end, the benefits starts to flow, as a better process is adopted that can improve the development cycle and final product. This can be solved by being prepared for this period. For example, the change in the process can be done outside the peak time or applied to a small group of employees first before adopting it with the entire team.

the fifth discipline
The 11 Laws can provide clear awareness of the problems that may occur while applying a problem-solving solution.

4- The easy way out usually leads back in

In some cases, the best solution is to understand the problem from a systematic approach to eliminate it. Systems thinking depends on having an understanding of the system and the other related systems. Therefore, before solving a problem, it is important to understand more about it and how eliminating it will affect other related systems in order to avoid creating bigger problems. For example, using pesticides to eliminate field pests, such as frogs, may lead to increasing harmful insects. In this case, the solution should consider the consequences before adopting a solution.

5- The cure can be worse than the disease

The solution for problems can become worse than the original problem if the main problem is not well-defined. Sometimes, the proposed solution doesn’t fit with the existing system or problem. In this situation, a clear understanding of the problem should help to suggest solutions that work with the existing system. For example, a company changes their design team because the product is not consumer-centered, which may cause the company to bring on a new team who isn’t familiar with the product, thus making the results worse. However, if a clear definition of the problem was set in the beginning, we may end up realizing that that more communication between both the marking team and the design team was the only solution needed.

6- Faster is slower

If the solution aims to increase the system productivity beyond its optimal rate, the system may actually slow down to compensate for this change in growth rate. All systems have an optimal growth rate, which is far less than its fastest growth rate. If the problem tends to increase the rate over the optimal growth rate, then the system will react by slowing down its growth to reach the optimal growth rate. For example, if you push employees to work harder for a longer period of time, you end up with a burnt out team who slow down their progress in order to overcome their exhaustion.

7- Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space

When we covered the cause/effect relationship in a previous article, we didn’t cover how they relate to each other. Many people think that the cause of the problem, the effect of the problem, or the problem itself are connected in terms of time and space, however, the cause or number of causes may create effects that are at different times and locations. For example, if transportation costs increase, then the future prices for a product may increase in the market, which causes the consumer satisfaction rate to decrease…etc.

8- Small changes can produce big results—but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious

Small, well-focused solutions can lead to demonstrate significant impacts, especially when they are implemented in the right place and time. For example, finding the right combination of procedures to solve a problem can contribute to building a long-term, sustainable solution.

9- You can have your cake and eat it too — but not all at once

A majority of problem-solvers base their decisions on the “either or” selection method, as they believe that problem-solving tools can only provide one solution in a specific amount of time. However, the systems thinking method teaches us that we need to look at the big picture. We can provide a complete solution that accomplishes all of the required goals if we consider achieving these solutions based on a determined timeline. In this context, we need to understand the problem, the company, and if the problem is actually an effect of a bigger issue.

10- Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants

Problems need to be seen as a whole rather than individual parts. Dividing problems into sub-divisions may lead to more problems than solutions. Subsequently, the solution should be planned with consideration for the whole system or organization rather than individual departments.

11- There is no blame

One of the common difficulties when solving problems is to point a finger at someone as the sole guilty person, however, in system thinking, everyone is part of a whole system. So, me, you, and all of the other stakeholders are all part of the problem and the solution. The solution should always consider the stakeholders while planning the solution. For example, solving problems requires the involvement of all of the stakeholders in order to learn about each one’s perception of the problem and suggested solutions.

Problem solvers face challenging issues related to the application of their solutions in reality, which may lead to failed problem-solving processes. If we have a look at the systems thinking theory, we may find solutions for these practical issues. The 11 Laws of the Fifth Discipline highlighted situations that problem-solvers face when applying the systems thinking as a problem-solving method inside organizations. Considering the above 11 laws during the problem-solving process may contribute to building a real and applicable solution.


Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.