Six key questions in whole systems thinking

| 14th August 2018
Cartoon of the Sufi fable of the six blind men and an elephant

Cartoon of the Sufi fable of the six blind men and an elephant

Dr DANIEL CHRISTIAN WAHL explains how to define, approach and utilise whole systems thinking - in an extract from his book 'Defining Regenerative Cultures'.

Whole-systems thinking invites us to see complex issues from multiple perspectives, to suspend our judgement by questioning our own assumptions, and to honour insights from different disciplines and different ways of knowing.

A whole-systems understanding of the world acknowledges that a whole is always more than the simple sum of its parts. It pays attention to the diversity of elements, the quality of interactions and relationships, and the dynamic patterns of behaviour that often lead to unpredictable and surprising innovations and adaptations.

As change agents in the transition towards a more sustainable human presence on Earth, many of the interrelated problems we face are rooted in a way of thinking that has not paid enough attention to whole systems and their dynamic interconnectedness, dynamic relationships, and context.

Whole-systems thinking has to be a transdisciplinary activity that maps and integrates relationships, flows and perspectives into a dynamic understanding of the structures and processes that drive how the system behaves.

Placing together

Experts and specialists are important contributors to most sustainability projects, but we also need integrators and generalists who can help to put the contribution of each discipline into systemic relationships, and help to contextualise the contributions made by the specialists.

Too often we employ limited progress indicators or inadequate measures of success based on the dominance of a particular discipline or perspective.

One way to define the word ‘system’ is as a set of interconnected elements that together form a coherent pattern we can refer to as a ‘whole’. 

Such a system exhibits properties of the whole that emerge out of the interactions and relationships of the individual elements. This definition could be applied to a molecule, a cell, a human being, a community or the planet.

In many ways a system is less a ‘thing’ than a pattern of relationships and interactions — a pattern of organisation of constituting elements. The Greek root of the word system is ‘synhistanai’ and literally means ‘to place together’.

Defining boundaries 

Systems thinking and systemic intervention is a possible antidote to the unintended and dangerous side-effects of centuries of focusing only on reductionist and quantitative analysis informed by the narrative of separation.

Yet, it is important to maintain the awareness that the systems view itself is also just another map that - as Alfred Korzybski put it - should not be confused with the territory.

We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts. Neither the whole nor parts are primary; they come into being through the dynamic processes that define their identity through relationships and networks of interactions.

One of the most important questions in any systemic approach is to ask ‘what is the system in question’. In doing so we define boundaries that provide us with the necessary ‘enabling constraints’ to make sense of a situation.

Questioning assumptions

Yet, these boundaries are themselves a way of seeing that make a distinction between the system in question and its environment. We should regard the boundaries that delineate one system from another as places of connection and exchange rather than barriers that separate or isolate.

In more general terms, whole-systems thinking invites us to see complex issues from multiple perspectives, to suspend our judgement by questioning our own assumptions, and to honour insights from different disciplines and different ways of knowing.

Thinking in this way helps us to pay attention to the fertile ground of synergistic, whole-systems solutions. It can help us to more clearly see the opportunities in the multiple converging crises around us.

Whole-systems thinking stops us from seeing ecological, economic and social constraints as irreconcilable challenges.

It invites us not to view different stakeholder perspectives in a competitive, win-lose frame of mind, and encourages us to explore win-win-win solutions that improve the overall health and sustainability of the system as a whole

Regenerative economy

Whole-systems thinking is living systems thinking. 

I believe that a systemic understanding of processes by which life continuously regenerates conditions conducive to life offers a pathway to creating regenerative businesses and organisations within a regenerative economy as enabling factors of a regenerative culture. 

Here are six questions to contemplate when dealing with systems:

  • What is the system in question and how are we defining what belongs to the system and what does not?
  • What is the wider context that the system in question operates in?
  • What are the key agents whose interactions and relationships define the system structure and drive the system’s behaviour?
  • How is our perspective of the system in question shaped by our worldview and value system?
  • What are the key ‘emergent properties’ of the system that could not have been predicted by simply looking at the individual ‘parts’ of the system?
  • How does our participation in the system and our way of describing it affect what we are observing?


This Author

Dr Daniel Christian Wahl is the author of Designing Regenerative Cultures (2016). This article is based on a piece first published on Medium. 


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