Lessons Learned — Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking

"You never learn by doing something right ‘cause you already know how to do it. You only learn from making mistakes and correcting them."
Russell Ackoff

Design and "design thinking" is gaining recognition as an important integrative concept in management practice and education. But it will fail to have a lasting impact, unless we learn from the mistakes of earlier, related ideas. For instance, "system thinking", which shares many of the conceptual foundations of "design thinking", promised to be a powerful guide to management practice, but it has never achieved the success its proponents hoped for. If systems thinking had been successful in gaining a foothold in management education over the last half of the 20th century, there would be no manage by designing movement, or calls for integrative or design thinking.

Systems thinking, as written about and practiced by Russell Ackoff, C. West Churchman, Peter Checkland and others, contained within it many of the impulses that motivate the application of design ideas to strategy, organization, society, and management. Ideas such as engaging a broad set of stakeholders, moving beyond simple metrics and calculations, considering idealized options and using scenarios to explore them, shifting boundaries to reframe problems, iteration, the liberal use of diagrams and rich pictures, and tirelessly searching for a better set of alternatives were all there. If the business and management community had bought it, we would not be having the many discussions about design, design thinking, and expanding management education to engage the intuitive, to embrace values, to look beyond available choices. We would already be doing all of that and more. But systems thinking, despite its wartime successes never really captured the imagination of business leaders. And we must learn from its mistakes.

I have been an enthusiastic student and teacher of systems thinking for almost three decades. I was a student of Russ Ackoff''s and I did my PhD in decision theory largely because of the work of pioneers in cybernetics and systems theory. I have taught systems thinking to undergraduates, MBAs, and executives. I have heard their objections to the arbitrariness of any particular system’s boundaries, to the impossibility of balancing the incommensurable objectives of a system's many stakeholders, and to the difficulty in identifying clear measures of a system's performance. Still, many of my students over the years have found much to take away. And I receive email messages years after those courses have been completed that suggest that the ideas and techniques are useful and important to some students.

Systems thinking started with an impulse that insights from Gestalt psychology and biology might be useful in understanding and affecting complex organizational and social problems. It developed into a large, highly interconnected theory that is itself a complex system. Systems thinkers remain convinced that if managers saw things through the lens of that theory, the world would become better. But the number and sequence of things that must be done has become so arcane that to master it seems all but impossible to the managers in question.

I recently spent two days at a workshop with around a dozen architects and managers. The facilitator was one of Russ Ackoff's former colleagues at the Wharton School. It is a reflection of what has become of systems thinking that it took most of the two days for the facilitator to explicate all that he thought we needed to know before we could begin either critiquing or applying the ideas In addition to obvious material on the nature of systems, we learned about chaos theory, living systems theory, Santiago theories, the four foundations of systems methodology (holistic thinking, operational thinking, interactive design, and socio-cultural models), five systems principles (openness, emergent properties, multi-dimensionality, counter-intuitiveness, and purposefulness), the five interactive dimensions of social systems (wealth, beauty, power, value and knowledge) and the related five dimensions of an organization (throughput processes, membership, decision, conflict management, and measurement), the elements of a throughput system (time, cost flexibility, quality, measurement, diagnostic, improvement and redesign), the nature of holistic thinking and iteration, the laws of complexity, loops and feedback, and more.

All of this was presented as foundational knowledge that was necessary before we could get to what it was that brought most of us (or at least me) to this particular workshop — designing for human interaction. In addition to the number of frameworks and ideas, and the density of the interconnections among them, there was a strong normative quality to the material and its presentation. "If one hopes to make any progress at all," we were told, "you need to both understand and accept these related ideas."

This particular version of systems thinking is not unusual in this respect. Peter Senge's 1990 edition of The Fifth Discipline describes one manager's reaction to a five-day introductory workshop on his approach, which among other things, requires growing comfortable with eight archetypes: "It reminds me of when I first studied calculus (p. x)." Systems dynamics, the Soft Systems Method and other approaches face similar concerns.

Each of systems thinking’s various manifestations demands some degree of subscription to an orthodoxy (a particular view of just what systems thinking is). And each requires that the user master a large number of related ideas and techniques, most of which are not particularly useful on their own.

These requirements are at odds with how we tend to acquire new knowledge. Rather than accepting a new idea because we must, we like to try it out. A new skill is most likely to interest us if it contributes to both short-term and long-term learning objectives. And the easier it is to try out parts of a theory, the more likely we are to jump in.

The drive to nail "design thinking" down has the same normative flavor that has restricted the spread of systems thinking. The urge to create a framework that specifies what and how a design thinker proceeds seems not just futile but dangerous to the survival of a movement aimed at expanding the kinds of thinking that managers, policy makers and citizens engage in.

What is the alternative? I would suggest that we should focus instead on building and describing an arsenal of methods and techniques, many of them drawn from various extant design practices, that are applicable to the domains and problems in questions. Describing these techniques as well as the conditions under which each is of value would constitute an invaluable program of research.

You might think of the various pieces of knowledge that we produce as a component in a kind of intellectual scaffolding that can be used to support the efforts of others. Rather than having each flavor of "design thinking" rushing off to build its own comprehensive model of what "real design thinkers" do, we might better spend our energy on identifying what is useful in what we have tried or seen done, the conditions under which it seems to break down, and so on.

In addition to engaging a much larger community in knowledge-sharing, such an approach will provide the users of design thinking with "trial-size" access to a growing body of knowledge. One wouldn't have to buy the whole of "design thinking", for example, to accept that there are places in management where sketching could help out, or that for a large class of problems spending more time on problem framing and reframing will pay dividends down the line. In time, each manager will do what we have learned designers do, adopt those methods, techniques and ideas that best suit their own personal style and the nature of the problems that they typically encounter. In the end then, rather than learning and subscribing to a theory or system of thought that is based on ideas from design, managers and policy makers will become designers of a sort particularly suited to their circumstances.

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24 Comments

  • Dede M Falcone

    In the comments below, it seems that there is some notion that Business ( with a capital B) doesn't quite utilize Systems Thinking due to a determination that ST has no provocative value-add regarding the complexity of a large business in an even larger industry. I think the terminology needs of Systems Thinking Designer is to consider input & output as it relates to outcome for complex modeling...not just simply trying to identify all the outcomes and possible negative externalities associated with the design but thinking about the product and the users of such product before it reaches finality as output. This should the be essence of design: form following function regardless of the environment.

  • John Smith

    And yet, systems thinking remains a well-respected and significant area of study, even essential, for anyone pursuing a degree in the art of business, not-for-profit organization leadership, public policy or the like.  Design thinking will gain a similar status once we find the next big social/psychological/managerial breakthrough.  

    The information age is like the enlightenment age went and married the McDonalds fast-food chain to create a cheap, fast, information flood.  We need to memorize and know LESS than we used to.  But we must be able to recognize new connections across all of these important concepts ("systems thinking", "design thinking" and "continuous improvement" to name a few) and learn to quickly adapt to an ever-changing workplace and world. Therefore, I think systems thinking, design thinking and other "ways of thinking" or seeing the world will continue to give valuable insights to those who choose to use them to make new connections or answer new questions.

  • Eleatic

    I am not sure if the phrase below refers to the Operational Research efforts in England during WWII. Does it?

    "But systems thinking, despite its wartime successes never really captured the imagination of business leaders. And we must learn from its mistakes. "

  • Buckminster83

    I also agree with Gong and Chetan (I've not had a chance to read the other comments yet).  It's like they were speaking from my very notes. 

    I can't actually comment further at this time because I'm at a loss at the accuracy of these two comments. And I've become too excited by this to not comment.

  • John Rudkin

    HI all. I was trained as a Design Educator, and spent many years in schools teaching (with some notable successes) students in Creative Design, Technology - and later ICTs. Design and Design Thinking (because no one called it that exactly), was a simple and powerful framework, but its flaw was always that it couldn't easily accomodate serendipity, inspirational flashes or the sheer genius moments. They exist. Indeed these important contributor to Creative DEsign are often the things that turn Design into an art. The rigidity of the Design Process was that you had to go through stages - and I saw well intentioned students adding "versions", wasting time, rather than taking their creative leap and then analysing it for value. The mind goes through a fast process when "inspired", and sometimes all of those experiences, observations and collected data can organise and frame themselves. That is Creative Genius. Design can allow for this if we want it to.
    Systems Thinking (as I have experienced it) can be applied almost like a mantra, a religion. It is neither. I can see the value of data driven analysis; I have learned greatly about the use of techniques to organise that data and share it; I understand the principles......but taken to its logical conclusion it can never deliver the oft stated "perfect", nor can it ever truly finalise. It is in essence and iterative, growing, looping theory that offer "end-to-end" solutions that cannot match that requirement or ever be anything but failures (its own definition) in some way. This is sad, but lets get it in perspective. It is one way of doing things. It is rigid, it is exclusive (or where I have seen it, it is excluding because you have to buy in 100% or you "fail". I'm a cup half full person.....but I'm not just saying that because we need to look at things positively.....its because I'm an enquirer. I'm interested at what is in the glass, why it is only half full, how it was made, who made it, why they made it, why it is there and who the person is that drank half of it.....why?

  • Desmond Sherlock

    Interesting I never knew that designers worked on such stuff. I am a trained Industrial Designer and have been working on an idea that I call Rethink Perfect (originally "I could be wrong") based on the principle that I need to be reminded that I am not always "right" and probably far from it. Yet at the time of decision making, in that instant, we we think we are and that is probably how our decision making process works. But, before and after, we know that we could be wrong, of course. From this point I have developed a number of tools of engagement that continualy reminds us to rethink our decisions and to filter out the negatives and amplify our positives. 25 years down the track and I am still working on the title. This rethinking business aint easy!

  • RalfLippold

    Observe, observe, observe.

    Reflect.

    Rethink.

    Do.

    .... do the steps over and over again!

  • Holger Nauheimer

    I agree with Fred that some schools of systems thinking have lead to forms of orthodoxy. Others have opened our eyes to new ways of looking at social systems. So, for me it is less whether systems thinking is dead or not but rather what has developed since. For me it is in particular the complexity science lense. Through studying systems theory, I started to understand that there is more beyond. I like Dave Snowden's (http://www.cognitive-edge.com) simplified categorization of simple - complicated - complex - chaotic. Simple systems can be understood through experience, complicated systems by systems thinking, for complex systems we need a more holistic and dynamic view (complex systems can only be understood retrospectively). For chaotic systems we mostly lack the skills to understand.

    I also like Fred's comment: "I would suggest that we should focus instead on building and describing an arsenal of methods and techniques, many of them drawn from various extant design practices, that are applicable to the domains and problems in questions." We have just published a metaphorical meta model (wow - two "metas" in three words!) which can incorporate all these arsenals. We call it the Change Journey (http://www.changejourney.org) and it is based on the assumptions that each organizational development / change process is distinctively different - the only thing that organizations can do is to design their own path. This what our tool - the Change Journey Map is meant for, to help organizations finding their own journey.

    Holger Nauheimer

  • Noah Raford

    Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst possible system of governance, except for all the other ones." The same could be said for "design thinking".

    Managers want to make money and succeed in accomplishing their goals. If someone selling DT methods helps them do this, they'll buy it. If it works, they'll keep buying it; no matter what it's called or why it works.

    Business decision-makers mostly operate in non-analytical, short-term oriented, politically pressured environments. Systems thinking "failed" because it required managers to think broader than their immediate goals and concerns.

    While I disagree that systems thinking failed, the lack of pervasive adoption must be shared both by systems thinkers and management executives. Excessive attempts to canonise the method reduced its flexibility and application at the same time managers were rewarded for prioritising short-term, narrow-focus decisions.

    The same political drivers to rarefy the brand of DT are already at work and the short-term focus of 90% of managers hasn't change either. That's why I think we'll be seeing a big bust in design thinking in the next few years, followed by whatever management fad comes next. Some of the lessons of DT will become second nature, just as some of the lessons of system thinking have become part of the air we breath in business. But most of the hype will fall to the wayside in the long run, in my experience.

    Great post and important reflections. Thanks.

  • Buckminster83

    Indeed.  Systems Thinking is altruistic and by nature is tainted by an attempt to allow it to belong to any one purely non-altruistic thing.

  • Jennifer Jarratt

    As a futurist, I studied systems thinking (Forrester, Meadows, "Limits to Growth" etc.)At the time systems models of the world's future were in vogue. Since then, while I still believe a systems view is essential to being a futurist, I think the structure of organizations, particularly large ones, make it difficult for business leaders to use systems approaches as a way to manage a business strategy. That's because most business thinking is incremental. Incremental design, incremental problem solving, incremental new products. There's no doubt that incremental approaches can work well. Design & systems, however, require you to take big step away from the current problem and use some method(s) to gain a broader look at it. If you come up with an original solution, you will need extraordinary capabilities or influence within the organization to get the organization to adopt it.

    I enjoyed the article and I believe you are right, but it probably will happen anyway because that's what we like to do!

  • cathy lawrence

    Seems to me that a parallel of this 2-day workshop you describe (and the detail you use to describe it in this article) would be ...

    EITHER spend 2 days explaining the practice of counting by units. Use diagrams, graduate to the theories of calculations, and finally introduce the abacus on day 2, going into the history of the object, earliest examples, and delve into the colors and shapes of the beads, the lengths and natures of the wires and the frames, a list of famous people who used it different ways… and in the last hour, let the students see the actual thing – but not touch it, my, no!

    OR spend 2 wonderful days using the danged abacus to solve a series of increasingly difficult math problems -- intuitively and then explicitly understanding the underlying complexity, elegance, and power inherent in this apparently simple tool.

    I know my "takeaway" in version 2 would be inclusion, empowerment, understanding, and eagerness to bring the message back with me and share it with others. Information that’s all about itself is a closed door. Information that gets out of its own way is an open door through which you can see the outcomes you’ll get if you step through …

  • Michael Smythe

    It is a quaintly modernist notion that we might ever come up with THE answer for ever and ever, amen. Humans being in in general, and designers in particular, are relentlessly addicted to novelty and re-invention of the 'old'. The alternative is stagnation.

  • Chetan Dhruve

    I agree with Gong.

    Moreover, Systems Thinking (ST) hasn’t failed, any more than the theory of gravity has “failed”. If you fail to use a way of thinking, that doesn’t mean the thinking itself has failed.

    A lot of people operate in systems without understanding that they do. Human interactions and relationships are systems, yet people try to analyze human behavior (eg that of your spouse/boss/colleague) by trying to analyze individual behavior without any reference to the system in which the individual operates. Again, failure to use ST in these contexts doesn’t invalidate ST.

    Also, you’re advocating what’s fundamentally a ‘trial and error’ approach – “we might better spend our energy on identifying what is useful in what we have tried or seen done, the conditions under which it seems to break down, and so on.”

    The approach you’ve described happens to happens to be a cornerstone of ST. And you’re also advocating an approach in which individual managers adopt the style that best suits them –“…managers and policy makers will become designers of a sort particularly suited to their circumstances.”

    ST says this too – that there are different ways of looking at the same problem, and that there is no single “perfect” solution. Our definition of the problem, of success (or failure) depends on who we are, how we see the problem, and what we do about it.

    Also, many people seem to think it’s ok to ignore ST in the heat of battle, like it's a choice. This is like saying it’s ok to ignore gravity in the heat of battle because the theory of gravity is only a theory, it’s not practical (try flying over your opponent in a sword-fight). You can't ignore gravity - so it's better to understand it. You'll be better prepared that way, rather than realizing in the middle of a swordfight that you cannot fly.

  • Arne van Oosterom

    Hi Fred,

    Although I would have liked to, I have never studied systems thinking. Therefore it's hard to know exactly which lessons I can learn from it. All I can tell is what design thinking means to me personally.

    I do recognise the problem of overcomplicating things in such a way nobody understands what you're talking about. I see this process happening in service design and design thinking. It's almost as if we need to be complicated and scientific in order to be taken serious. Common sense just doesn't sell.

    The service design and design thinking communities are working very hard to come up with their own unique theories, diagrams and language. Sounding very scientific, intellectual and abstract while trying to explain each other a brand new set of methods. This is a pitfall I recognised for some time. For me this is a real obstacle while having conversations with my clients. We need to talk the same language.

    I see design thinking as an ongoing search. Searching for ways to put to use all those things we often mistake for vague, soft and irrational input, but are actually very important tools while making decisions and solving problems. Feelings. We can try very hard, but we really can't do without them, can we. They belong to our survival kit. And I don't think that our efforts trying to take emotions out of the equation has been conducive to creating a better world for ourselves.

    This is why design or creative thinking is important. It puts empathy centre stage, an innately human ability. All adults have it, and we turn into very asocial creatures if we lose it (actually we'd turn into teenagers. Their brain has a lack of empathy).

    Maybe the lesson learned is that design thinkers should not be building another island. We have to build bridges. And building bridges is not about stealing, borrowing, being influenced or even learn from other disciplines. A bridge is nothing but a bridge.

    The real and difficult challenge is to 'not' to build an island, but to improve and educate ourselves by connecting or integrating all we learned, acknowledging that everything is a part of everything. We should be multidisciplinary through collaboration and focus our efforts on finding out how companies and governments can be organised in such a way they can listen, learn and act accordingly. It is time for our "teenage" companies and governments to grow up. The world needs it.

    And naturally there will always be challenges. Change is a constant. Therefore trying to come up with one and only one truth is a futile exercise. We don't know the questions we'll be asking ourselves in the future, that's why we will always be searching for answers. And isn't that what life is all about?

    Just always keep the old KISS-rule in mind (Keep It Simple Stupid), and if that's too simple to put on Twitter just paraphrase Leonardo Da Vinci "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication".

  • Peter Jones

    Fred's article has it right - except that I don't believe systems thinking was a failure, it just set inappropriate expectations. It would have been a real failure had it been authentically used in action, and found useless. I agree with Gong these are very rich theories that provide boundless vision for other thinkers. I have been a fan of Ackoff, Beer's VSM, Warfield, Ozbkehan for years. I'm not sure I am a better leader because of them. They are different domains.

    However, the people who made these theories work in action are often the innovators themselves. Russ Ackoff has plenty of stories of successful applications, but then he has the personal capacity to transform the deep theory into simple working language and decision framing. He personally owns that capability to think - which illustrates, to me, why we call it systems 'thinking.'

    A core issue I see is that few theories have ever been useful to business LEADERS. Even the best 'business' theories sit on the shelf, theories of growth of the firm and good strategic theory. Why should we lament the brush-off of systems (or design) thinking when theories that promise economic growth are also ignored in practice?

    Decision makers work from sensemaking, action, and reflection on action. Few, and remarkable, leaders will ever attend a 5-day Peter Senge workshop in the first place. And if they do, how do they work from that tentative knowledge? The kind of tacit knowledge that leads to innovation has to be earned in practice and decision making (Ackoff's "making mistakes". Theoretical models are rarely used in action, regardless of elegance, and when they are, they may result in situations like Robt McNamara's Vietnam war theories.

    The working models used by leaders must be simple and retainable. What theoretical models do we have that an executive could learn in a day and then retain in memory for useful application? Few indeed.

    Systems theory, and even the spectra of deep academic theories on strategy, organizational behavior, marketing, product innovation, and communications - yes, and ethical theories - are largely ignored in the heat of action. Deep values come to the fore when rapid responses are required, and we should hope they are good ones. We should educate to theories, because like planning, they prepare the mind with innovative options. But we should ensure our students learn to value reflection in action, and learn the power of motivating by positive values. New theories and better thinking will follow when leaders are rewarded for guiding by positive examples and humane vision. After the recent work I've seen at CWRU, I have to say that difference is being made today.

  • Peter Jones

    Fred's article has it right - except that I don't believe systems thinking was a failure, it just set inappropriate expectations. It would have been a real failure had it been authentically used in action, and found useless. I agree with Gong these are very rich theories that provide boundless vision for other thinkers. I have been a fan of Ackoff, Beer's VSM, Warfield, Ozbkehan for years. I'm not sure I am a better leader because of them. They are different domains.

    However, the people who made these theories work in action are often the innovators themselves. Russ Ackoff has plenty of stories of successful applications, but then he has the personal capacity to transform the deep theory into simple working language and decision framing. He personally owns that capability to think - which illustrates, to me, why we call it systems 'thinking.'

    A core issue I see is that few theories have ever been useful to business LEADERS. Even the best 'business' theories sit on the shelf, theories of growth of the firm and good strategic theory. Why should we lament the brush-off of systems (or design) thinking when theories that promise economic growth are also ignored in practice?

    Decision makers work from sensemaking, action, and reflection on action. Few, and remarkable, leaders will ever attend a 5-day Peter Senge workshop in the first place. And if they do, how do they work from that tentative knowledge? The kind of tacit knowledge that leads to innovation has to be earned in practice and decision making (Ackoff's "making mistakes". Theoretical models are rarely used in action, regardless of elegance, and when they are, they may result in situations like Robt McNamara's Vietnam war theories.

    The working models used by leaders must be simple and retainable. What theoretical models do we have that an executive could learn in a day and then retain in memory for useful application? Few indeed.

    Systems theory, and even the spectra of deep academic theories on strategy, organizational behavior, marketing, product innovation, and communications - yes, and ethical theories - are largely ignored in the heat of action. Deep values come to the fore when rapid responses are required, and we should hope they are good ones. We should educate to theories, because like planning, they prepare the mind with innovative options. But we should ensure our students learn to value reflection in action, and learn the power of motivating by positive values. New theories and better thinking will follow when leaders are rewarded for guiding by positive examples and humane vision. After the recent work I've seen at CWRU, I have to say that difference is being made today.