Systems thinking is ultimately about seeing the forest for the trees in a world that seems to become more complex as we speak.
Systems thinking relies on a wide variety of approaches. An important distinction exists between so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ systems methods. Hard systems thinkers approach the world as scientists and engineers, trying to identify come to grips with complexity by relying on simplified but essentially objective models of reality. Soft systems thinkers start from the acknowledgment that there is not a single, God-like viewpoint from which to study complexity. The challenge is then to articulate the characteristics of the problematic situation as seen through the prism of different worldviews. The aim is to come to a pragmatic ‘accomodation’ between these worldviews and to act on that to improve the situation. Soft systems thinkers also rely on models, but they do so to help articulate different perspectives as a basis for a learning process. So, in an nutshell, we might say that hard systems thinkers tackle complexity by constructing ‘models of reality’ whilst soft systems thinkers build ‘models for (intervening in) reality’. Philosophically and methodologically we are dealing with quite different approaches then.
shiftN has experience with both the hard and soft approaches to systems thinking. Arguably, we do not see ourselves as hard core modellers. However, we have found ourselves to develop ‘hard’ simulation models but using them as tools to get people talking. We also have significant expertise in using soft systems approaches in a wide variety of situations. Once our clients catch on to it, they usually find it very a refreshing and powerful approach to tackle their challenges.