Systems Thinking – 7 Lessons for Ambitious Endeavors

Systems Thinking – 7 Lessons for Ambitious Endeavors


Recently I stumbled upon a post on WSJ written by Scott Adams who is the creator of the famous comic series Dilbert. Scott Adams is a very successful individual and, in this article, he shared some personal secrets that played a huge role in his personal and professional journey. The whole narrative was incredibly interesting, but there was a part that attracted the majority of my attention:

“Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways. To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.”

Although I would never suggest that goals are for losers, I admit that Adams raises a great point in this paragraph.


Most of the time, when we encounter a creative problem or we find ourselves in the midst of an ambitious endeavour, our success is closely related to the goals we set in order to achieve it.


The problem with goals, however, is that they are quite stressful. We either reach them or we don’t.


They’re fragmented and full of panic and sometimes they lead us in ineffective circles.


The only way to break this pattern is to focus on what we can do in order to make this process less overwhelming.


What mental shift can we employ in order to increase performance and reduce anxiety?


For me, and probably for Scott Adams too, this mental shift is called systems thinking and, with this, I was able to figure out ways to inspire trust within myself and my abilities, increase the effectiveness and efficiency of my workflow and eventually achieve great things with regards to my personal and professional development.


I am pretty sure it can help you achieve great things too, so stick around.


The Blind Men and the Matter of the Elephant – Short Story


Beyond Ghor, in Afghanistan, there was a city.


All its inhabitants were blind.


A king with his entourage arrived nearby; he brought his army and camped in the desert.


He had a mighty elephant, which he used to increase the people’s awe.


The populace became anxious to see the elephant, and some sightless from among this blind community ran like fools to find it.


As they did not even know the form or shape of the elephant, they groped sightlessly, gathering information by touching some part of it.


Each thought that he knew something, because he could feel a part. The man whose hand had reached an ear said: “It is a large, rough thing, wide and broad, like a rug.”


And the one who had felt the trunk said: “I have the real facts about it. It is like a straight and hollow pipe, awful and destructive.”


The one who had felt its feet and legs said: “It is mighty and firm, like a pillar.”


Each had felt one part out of many. Each had perceived it wrongly.


This ancient Sufi story is a great way to introduce someone to the core idea of systems thinking concept:


When we mistake the parts for the whole we lose perspective and miss the context in which seemingly isolated events occur.


Especially when it comes to problem-solving and creative thinking, what we usually fail to grasp is that the problem we face is part of a system of problems and that also the problem itself can be regarded as a system that can be broken down into smaller parts/problems.


Let me illustrate my point with an example from an area most people find challenging and consider it a major problem in their lives – dating.


Let’s say Alex is a naturally born introvert that suffers from social anxiety and has only had a few relationships with girls in his life.


Alex feels depressed because his need for intimacy is left unsatisfied. He admits to himself that he has a problem with his dating life and realizes that it is time to take action.


Alex decides to buy a book on dating, written by a famous dating company that suggests great “pickup lines” to use when you interact with women.


If Alex somehow manages to randomly meet women through his social circle and decides to use these lines, what will most probably happen is that he will be rejected.


The initial rejection will definitely lead to disappointment and will not only leave the problem unsolved, but it will also evoke feelings of frustration, confusion, and anger within him.


Alex’s example is a very classic case where a systems thinking approach is neglected.


Alex fails to recognize that dating is a part of a bigger system called self-development and that in order for the dating part to function effectively, it needs to be properly interconnected with other parts of the self-development system.


At the same time, he ignores the fact that dating consists of many parts and that learning “pickup lines” might be useful, but it is also useless if it is not combined with other parts such as body language, confidence, congruence and teasing to name a few.


The problem with Alex and all of us is that we are raised in an event-oriented thinking world.


What I mean by that is that we see the world as a complex succession of events rather than as a system as a whole.


Event oriented thinking assumes that each event we experience has a cause and that changing the cause will correspondingly change the event.


In Alex’s case, for instance, he experiences an event called “lack of intimacy.” He thinks that the cause is his lack of dating skills and he things that an event like buying a book on dating will help him experience an event of intimacy.


The rest of the system that produced the event need not be considered.


Dating is one of the numerous examples of creative challenges we constantly face in our lives but we fail to tackle it effectively due to our inability to adopt a system-oriented thinking.


People face similar challenges in their workplace, in their businesses, in their social encounters, but also in smaller everyday tasks like cooking or working out.




Systems-thinking is quite a revolutionary concept that has been used widely in areas like organizational design, quality management, and project management.


The purpose of this article, however, is not to introduce you to effective managerial and organizational practices but to suggest effective ways to use systems thinking as a tool for your personal growth.


Below you will find what I consider the most important lessons one can learn by adopting a systems-thinking approach in his life.


1. Sometimes a System That We Believe Is failing Is Actually Succeeding, but for a Different Purpose than We Thought the System Had.


When we look at a system, rather than comparing it to what we want it to do and then saying it is failing if it doesn’t do that, we should instead look at what it is doing well, and then study how it is designed to do that.


Then, if we wish to change the outcome, we can redesign the system for a new purpose.


Personal growth takeaway:


Whenever you are facing a setback or things don’t go the way you have planned, there is absolutely no reason to get discouraged.


Let’s say you studied hard for an exam but you eventually failed. The reason of your failure depends on various reasons but that doesn’t mean that the system of studying failed.


While studying you unconsciously train your memory muscle and you improve your analytical thinking, which results to a better problem-solving ability.


Eventually, you will succeed in this exam and the overall studying system improves.


Systems Thinking can help us see that “failing” systems may really simply be designed for a purpose other than what we assume or have been told.


2. Difficulties in Solving Problems Often Stem from the Fact That Problems Do Not Occur in Isolation, but in Relation to Each Other.


For example, young people may join violent gangs and we may try to solve that issue by putting more police on the streets. However, the problem of youngsters joining gangs is often related to family dysfunction in the homes of those youngsters. And the family issues may be related to unemployment, and so on.


Personal growth takeaway:


Whenever you feel frustrated by a problem you are facing and you think you are never going to reach a solution, try and think of other areas that affect your problem.


Let’s say you are facing social anxiety problems and you go to therapy to somehow identify the source of this problem hoping that this will eventually help.


Despite your therapist’s ambitious attempts to connect your social anxiety with your childhood and events from your past, you still experience a feeling of unease whenever you interact with strangers.


Since therapy doesn’t really provide tangible results to your problem, you need to rethink it by identifying other areas that are connected to it.


How about going out more often in order to get used to the presence of strangers?


How about grabbing a regular drink more regularly with people you meet in your workplace or your university?


How about hiring a confidence coach to push you out of your comfort zone?


All those areas are parts of the system called social anxiety and the only way to effectively deal with this system is to focus on its parts.


Systems Thinking can help us see that what may seem an isolated problem is actually part of an interconnected network of related issues.


3. Feedback Reinforces the Process of Learning.


It is an important part of systems thinking to always learn from your experiences regardless of whether they are negative or positive. For you to be aware of what the system you work in tells you every day is an asset. By knowing to watch from the feedback you get – both immediate and delayed – you develop an awareness to learn from what the system tells you.


Personal growth takeaway:


In every ambitious endeavor you embark on, be constantly aware of your accomplishments and try and evaluate your progress on a regular basis.


Feedback coming from both yourself and other people related to the endeavor (always ask for feedback from people who have knowledge on the topic, not friends and family) is a step of huge importance to the “learning while doing” concept.


4. Feedback Application May Involve Delays in the Result.


It is important to be aware in every system, as we attempt to optimize it, that results after applying feedback do not happen instantly.


When the temperature rises in the heating system, there may be a slight lag before the heat responds by turning down.

Another important example involves medication, where an increase in medication in the bloodstream may not lead to a decrease in symptoms immediately.


Understanding these delays is important so that we don’t overreact during the lag period, thinking that no change is happening, when in fact it is just delayed. For instance, if we give a person medication and they don’t instantly get better, it would be dangerous to decide we need to give them more medication immediately when in reality we simply need to wait for the medication they already received to kick in.


Personal growth takeaway:


We usually have a bad tendency to judge early whenever we attempt to change something in our lives. If we don’t see immediate results in any change we attempt, we usually feel discouraged and give up.


The idea of delay is crucial to the systems-thinking concept. It takes time to experience lasting, optimized results and this is visible to any serious system.


Stay focused, enjoy small wins, embrace delay and eventually you will enjoy successful results.


5. Attempting to Solve Complex Issues without a Systems Thinking Approach May Lead to Unintended Consequences, despite Our Best Intentions.


There are many cases where an attempted solution sounds good on the surface, yet because of feedback cycles and delays that we haven’t taken into account, this “solution” may make things even worse. This concept is summed up by the common phrase that “sometimes the cure is worse than the disease”. This is the case when the cure is only addressing a part or a symptom of the system, rather than creating a root solution.


Personal growth takeaway:


Let’s say you lack self-esteem and therefore you do poorly in many areas of your life.


You realize that it is time for you to take action. However, instead of embracing your problem and trying to view it holistically, you start putting a lot of pressure on yourself in order to perform.


On top of that, you start being judgmental whenever you don’t experience the desired outcome.


This pressure will most probably backfire because you don’t allow yourself to enjoy the process associated with boosting your self-esteem.


6. Different Networks of Problematic Issues Often Take on Similar Patterns of Feedback Cycles and Delays Known as Systems Archetypes.


If we think of each system as a story, system archetypes are the classic stories that we keep seeing over and over again. By measuring our system against the classics, we can quickly identify dominating behavioral patterns.


Personal growth takeaway:


Many areas you try to work on have similarities with others. If you try to change a specific bad habit it would be wise to compare this habit to another bad habit you had in the past and you managed to fix it.


Specific behavioral patterns are visible within systems that show similarities and becoming aware of them can easily improve the process that leads to a desired outcome.


7. The Most Effective Place to Act in a System for Optimal Results Is Often Counterintuitive.


Often, the leverage point in a system is not where it would originally seem to be. For instance, in the previous example with the relation between self-esteem and pressure, lack of pressure doesn’t always suggest improved results. Former experiences of the individual play a tremendous role in the way it handles pressure. In some cases pressure can backfire but in some it can also create an environment for thriving to take place.


Personal growth takeaway:


Whatever your personal ambitions and goals might be, when it comes to systems thinking, you need to embrace open-mindedness. You need to understand that our uniqueness plays a huge role in the way we react to feedback and organize our thinking processes.


What works for you might not work for another person and vise versa. Systems thinking supports open-mindedness because open-mindedness empowers versatility and versatility is one of the cornerstones of personal growth.


Embracing systems thinking requires consistency and constantly exposing yourself to challenging situations. “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses” is a great place to start.

Featured image: M C Escher’s Drawing Hands © 1999 Cordon Art B V, Baarn, The Netherlands. 

Adrian Iliopoulos

I am the founder and main contributor at "The Quintessential Mind" - A unique personal blog that offers a holistic approach to self-development. I am striving to create high-quality content by investing in a reality-based form of self-help, informed by a deep understanding of psychology, philosophy and my own personal experiences and social adventures.
Adrian Iliopoulos