Events, Behavior, Structure

Why is it sometimes so incredibly difficult to change one’s behavior? Why do some events and outcomes seem to repeat themselves over and over regardless of our best attempts to change them? And why do some countries and areas have more crime, poverty and other societal issues than others? If you have read my older posts, you might agree with me that crime and poverty are not first and foremost the failing of an individual, but the results of system level problems. In this blog post I want to introduce an effective systems thinking approach for identifying the root causes of systemic problems.

The tip of the iceberg

We humans tend to become pre-occupied with reacting to events that require our immediate attention. I’m guessing this is partly because of our ancestors’ survival instincts. Our primitive ancestors were forced to react immediately – to fight or flight – to threats in their environment or perish. Being armed with the same instincts, our emotions guide us to quickly react to arising problems. This is a necessary skill if you want to survive in the nature, but the bias towards the immediate sometimes prevents us from understanding the real reasons behind certain problems. The problem is that our instincts are not always so good at recognizing which problems are truly important and which ones are merely urgent. This hinders our ability to see the bigger picture and to recognize slowly evolving changes that affect us.

With increased complexity, the issues we deal with as individuals and as a society require much deeper understanding than the problems our ancestors had to face. Quick fixes never work because the underlying root causes are left untreated. To make matters worse, our ancestors’ survival instincts cause us to over-react emotionally even when the problem at hand would require us to keep our cool. News and other media amplify this problem by giving emphasis on bad news. The media also tends to focus on reporting one-time events, celebrity news and entertainment, which distorts people’s world view and hides the real issues.

The over-emphasis on one-time events is dangerous. It prevents us from understanding the real problems behind issues and creates a quick-fix culture. If the economy is down, we blame the government. When there is disease, we treat the symptoms. Where there is poverty, we give money to the poor or blame the individual. What we need to understand is that events and the perceived state of affairs are the end results of complex processes instead of simple cause-effect relationships.  They are only the tip of an iceberg.

What is hiding under water?

How can we re-orient ourselves to understand the whole iceberg? Peter Senge, a well-known organizational learning expert and a systems thinker, tackles the issue in his book The Fifth Discipline. According to Senge, there are always multiple levels of explanation to a complex situation. Understanding the different levels of complexity can help us find the root causes of problems and prevents us from jumping into conclusions about a situation. Take a look:


I recently read a news piece about a Finnish nickel mine company, situated in my home region Kainuu. The article stated that the company had failed the expectations of its shareholders and the people in the region. The article also described comments from the shareholders, many of whom were small investors and had invested large portions of their savings on the company’s stock. Most of the shareholders interviewed in the article complained that the company and the CEO had failed them, with some stating that the company had outright fooled them out of their money.

The shareholder’s view represented in the article is a demonstration of an event-level explanation. It provides a simple cause-effect analysis of the situation where the mining company and its leadership are seen as the cause for the shareholders’ problems. Losing money is seen to be the outcome of the company’s bad managing. It is extremely tempting to find simple causes behind problems because it protects our own ego and presents the path of least resistance. Unfortunately event explanations are usually based on quickly made conclusions and generalizations that tell more about our own prejudices and fears than about reality.

Patterns of behavior

The second level of explanation already goes much deeper than event explanations. Rather than fixating on single events, we can attempt to find patterns of behavior and long-term trends that affect our lives and our society. In the nickel mine example we might find that small investors are often financially uneducated, which is why they are more easily tempted to place their savings into single investments. The problem definition is now fundamentally different from the previous one. Instead of perceiving the company’s management as the root cause, we would accept that companies sometimes do fail and conclude that the real problem is our inability to take this into account when investing.

Here’s another example: suppose the occurrences of type two diabetes in a nation are rising. A reactionary response, based on an event level explanation would be to prescribe medicine for the disease. Understanding patterns of behavior would, however, enable us to see that obesity is the real problem, which would prompt a very different solution. Instead of treating the symptom, i.e. diabetes, we would try to influence people’s behavior in some way to reduce obesity.

Systemic structure

The third level of explanation is concerned with systemic structures. It essentially means identifying and understanding the structures that push us to behave in a certain way. Structures that affect our behavior include but are not restricted to:

  • physical structures, e.g. transportation infrastructure, architecture
  • cultural & social structures, e.g. social norms, social classes
  • legal & institutional structures, e.g. laws, organizations, regimes
  • economic structures, e.g. financial systems

All the above structures affect our behavior in many ways and are an extremely important to understand. A complex problem must be addressed in the context of the larger whole it is a part of. In the  nickel mine case we could try to identify structures in the financial and cultural systems that drive people to take too much risk. Perhaps there are structures in place that cause us to look for short-term gain or to be impatient with our investments? We could also ask questions about our current economic system: are there some key areas in our system that drive harmful behavior in publicly owned companies? Are we using the right metrics to measure companies’ performance and the economic system as a whole? These kinds of questions help us look at the bigger picture and identify the deeper  causes of problems.

Mental models

The final and the most important level of explanation deals with our mental models. Our human systems are ultimately a reflection our own thinking and the prevailing mental models in our society. Systemic structures are also an outcome – an artefact of sorts – of human thinking. Observing different cultures reveals differences in mental models. Time, for example is viewed very differently in different parts of the world, which has a major impact on the way people behave and plan their lives.

Because mental models influence everything we do it is the ultimate leverage when pursuing change. Therefore, instead of over-emphasizing the significance of one time events, we should observe our thinking habits and see how they affect systemic structures and patterns of behavior.

How to use the different levels of explanation?

Here are some suggestions for using Senge’s framework:

  • Next time you watch news, think about the behavior and the structures that might have caused the events being discussed.
  • If you find yourself blaming someone or something for a problem in your life, try to think of ways you could have prevented it with your own behavior. What could have been done differently? Try to find a structure that might have caused any potential un-beneficial behavior.
  • Observe your own thinking: can you identify strong mental models or mind-sets? If you can identify your mental models, try questioning them. Are they true? Why or why not? You can also try to think of ways your mental models are affecting your behavior.

Stock and Flow Pt.1 – Introduction and Intuition

So far I have done my best to provide some intuition about systems thinking and why it might be important to you (while sharpening my own thinking as well). Through the few examples, we now understand that a system is the product of the interactions of its parts and that the structure of the system causes its behavior. We also know to look for circles of causality instead of fixating on one time events. I will now introduce another very important concept that will further enhance our basic understanding of the systems we deal with in our every day lives. It will also allow us to develop some real systems thinking skills and habits.

Stock and flow

If you let water run freely into a bathtub with the drain plugged up, the water level will start to rise steadily until it fills the bathtub. You have built a stock, in this case a small body of water, into the bathtub. By unplugging the drain in the bathtub, you can increase the outflow of water from the tub, thus decreasing the stock of water. If you had both the faucet on and the drain unplugged, you would have two flows of water, with one flowing into and the other out of the bathtub. Similarly, if you refill your refrigerator without using any of the food, you will have accumulated a stock of food. When you begin consuming the food, you increase the outflow from the stock, thus changing the size of the stock. In systems thinking terms, you have created a system of stock and flow.

Stock and flow systems are a fundamental systems thinking concept that are used when doing a system analysis. It is important to understand stock and flow systems because it helps us understand the various systems that affect our lives. A stock and flow system is usually illustrated with a following kind of image:

stock and flow

Usually flows are represented with an arrow similar to the one in the picture, with stocks depicted as squares. The small thingy on the arrow represents a mechanism which can influence the flow into the stock. In the bathtub example the mechanism would be the faucet, but it can also be something immaterial, e.g. laws or other restrictions. The small cloud at the other end of the arrow represents a source, which is ignored for the purposes of narrowing down the analysis.

The world is full of stock and flow systems that affect our lives. Airports, train stations, and busy intersections are good examples of physical stock and flow systems. Fisheries are important stock and flow systems found in nature, and are often mentioned when talking about sustainability issues. Many industrial companies can be modeled as relatively simple stock and flow systems, with a flow of supplies coming in for the manufacturing process and a flow of finished goods coming out. Similarly schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores, and even complex political and social systems can be modeled as stock and flow systems.

But why are stocks and flows so important? What does it matter if we know about them or not?

Well, think about the way we usually approach stock and flow systems in our daily lives.We tend to be somewhat ignorant about our behavior towards stocks and flows: how many times have you ended up depleting your stock of food before going to the grocery shop? And how many times have you been stuck in traffic because you did not leave early enough to avoid it? There must have also been times when you have run out of money before the end of the month, having to either use up savings or eat noodles to get by before next pay check. We all tend to have difficulties balancing the stocks and flows of our every day lives.

But since we have difficulties dealing with these very simple systems, what about more complex and more important systems? We often treat natural systems the same way we are treating our refrigerator. We deplete fisheries and acidify the oceans. The rainforests are being hacked away at an alarming rate and we have also been extremely efficient at killing off numerous species of animals. Furthermore, we don’t seem to fully understand the workings of our own man-made systems either! This was demonstrated in the 2008 financial crisis, whose aftermath we are still living today.

If we want to live in a sustainable way and make sure we have a place in this world, we need to develop our understanding of the systems we deal with every day. Understanding stock and flow is only one part of the equation, but it is a very important part. In order to better understand stock and flow, I will next time talk about balancing and reinforcing feedback!

Practice suggestion: Try to look for stock and flow systems in your surroundings. Try to identify the different flows and the stocks they are flowing into and out of. Notice: the flows and the stocks can be either tangible (e.g. water, people, food) or intangible (electronic currency, ideas, political opinions).

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is a way of viewing the world. According to the systems point of view, the world is built around varying kinds of systems. How can this perspective help us view our problems in a different way and help us solve some of the most difficult issues of our time?

Imagine you are living in the suburb of a large city. You go daily to work by taking the bus, which takes a lot of time and forces you to wake up very early in the morning. After some consideration you decide to buy a car in order to free up time and to make the commute more tolerable. At the beginning you feel great: now you can sleep a little longer and there’s no more waiting in the bus stop! You also have more energy because of longer hours of sleep and more flexible timetable.

After a while though, you start to see the costs of owning the car. Gasoline prices are rising and the car needs maintenance, which is why you have to reduce your spending on other things. Some mornings there are traffic jams and every now and then you end up late from work. The increased costs and the unpredictable traffic both increase your stress levels and you feel some regrets about buying the car. It appears that the solution to the original problem only caused other issues!

When we approach problems in our daily lives, we usually assume that a given problem is the end result of some simple cause-effect relationship. This is because we are taught early in our lives how to use analytical thinking to solve issues. However, this kind of thinking has its limits. It assumes that every problem can be taken apart and that the parts are in linear cause-effect relationship. The problem is that not all issues fit into these criteria.

In the above example the long commute was seen as the problem to be solved. The cause of the problem appeared to be the bad bus connections, which was solved by buying a car. However, the car itself ended up being the cause of the second problem, which was higher costs and stress due to traffic.

Fortunately there is another way to approach problems that can bring new light to the above issue.

Systems thinking

”Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’.”

Senge, P. (2007). In his book The Fifth Discipline.

Systems thinking is a conceptual framework that sees the world as a system of interconnected wholes. Whereas in analytical thinking in order to understand the whole you take it into parts, in systems thinking you would instead try to understand how the parts are connected to each other. The interaction between the parts of the whole are not assumed to be based on simple cause-effect relationships. Furthermore, a systems thinker would pay close attention to how the whole itself is connected to its environment.

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that it achieves something”

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems.

Using systems thinking in the above long commute example, you would not try to solve the problem by buying a car, but instead you would try to understand the issue from a broader perspective. You would actually try to see yourself as part of a system that is formed by you, your home, your workplace and the modes of transportation available to you. From this point of view, if the problem is long hours of commute, by buying a car you are only optimizing parts of the system. Thus, when the basic structure of the system remains unchanged the problem only changes location. By optimizing parts you do not necessarily solve the issue, but only end up shifting it to other parts of the system.

From a systems perspective it is equally important to understand the relationship between the parts as it is to understand the functioning of each individual part. This realization has very important implications to our every day lives. In the commute example you could find other solutions by considering the relationship between your home and your workplace. What is the fundamental role of commute? Is it to move from place A to place B, or could we perhaps frame it differently? In this case the fundamental issue is about organizing work: in order to work, you have agreed to be at your desk when your employer asks you to. But could this be arranged in a different way? Perhaps you can work at home some days, or maybe you could work at a nearby café? If this is impossible, maybe you could move closer to your workplace in order to minimize commute time.

Another incredibly powerful example of this kind of thinking is understanding how an architect would plan a house. When planning a house an architect would probably first decide what and how many rooms will go into the house, and decide about the general outline of the building. Most importantly, the architect would plan each room in a way that would not compromise the overall performance of the whole! The architect understands that even if an individual room would look great and perform well, the room can’t stay if it makes the whole house worse.

In my blog I will explore and share resources about systems thinking. I will also talk about other related issues, such as complexity, chaos and sustainability, with the intention of learning and sharing what I’ve learned. These topics might seem abstract at first, but they have incredibly important implications to the lives of individuals, organizations and societies. Please join me in my quest to explore the interesting world of systems!

If you wish to learn more, here is a video about systems thinking that I have found useful, hope you’ll enjoy it:


Senge, P. (2007). The Fifth Discipline. Random House, London. pp. 68.

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems. Chelsea Green publishing, Vermont. pp. 11.