VISIONARY LEADERS MAIN
Twelve Simple Rules of Systems Thinking for Complex Global Issues
by Louise Diamond, Ph.D.
The study of living systems – through biology, physics,
mathematics, cybernetics, ecology, complexity theory, chaos theory, systems
theory, and other sciences – helps us understand the world we live in and how
we can better navigate its rich, if sometimes daunting, complexity.
Our human systems at various levels of organization – the
individual, families, communities, affinity groups, organizations, nations,
international entities, etc. – all exhibit the common dynamics of living
We are increasingly aware that all our living systems –
human and natural – are at risk today, as we face incredibly complex and
interconnected challenges related to global security, environmental
degradation, and inter-woven economies. Understanding the nature and
dynamics of living systems, therefore, can shed light on how we think about
our problems and our resources, and about the assumptions and the choices we
Here are 12 basic concepts about living systems and their
implications for policy considerations:
- In complex systems, all
the elements or agents are interconnected, as in a giant web. They are
also interdependent – what happens to one affects all others.
Therefore: Connect the disconnected.
- Complexity is the nature
and condition of living systems and the world we live in. What we know
about complex systems is that there are multiple agents or elements,
combining and interacting in unpredictable and non-linear ways. This
means decisions often lead to unintended consequences. Therefore:
Ground yourself in unpredictability.
- In that giant web of
interconnectedness, the points or nodes where the agents meet are the
relationships, or opportunities for interaction. These interactions
determine what will happen to the system. The nature and quality of
these relationships, therefore, are critically important. Therefore:
Create conditions for quality engagements.
- We know that all living
systems exchange energy, matter, and information across their boundaries.
At any time there can be imbalances in these flows, stuck places, over- or
under-accumulation, etc. Therefore: Re-balance the flows across
- All living systems
develop patterns. Often these patterns are self-reinforcing and become
deeply embedded and difficult to change. Many of these patterns in
human systems are common and recognizable. Patterns also show up in
similar forms at different scales or levels of the system. Therefore:
Re-pattern for sustainability and well-being of the whole.
- We know from living
systems that everything is a whole in itself and at the same time part of a
larger whole. Therefore: Attend to ever smaller parts and ever
- Living systems organize
themselves through the interactions of their agents or parts. The
basic format of that organization is networks – that is, groups of parts
joined together in a de-centralized way for some period of time.
Therefore: Pay attention to emerging networks.
- Systems move between
various degrees of stability and instability, order and disorder. When
the disorder, or chaos, becomes too great, things fall apart. When the
order is too rigid, things cannot grow or develop. Yet a certain
degree of instability, or the edge of chaos, can also be a powerful moment
of creative change. Therefore: Seek coherence within chaos.
- All living systems exist
within a single field of potential, where the observer is a player, our
thoughts have consequences, and creative solutions emerge. Therefore:
Play the Field.
- Living systems exist
within their own unique context. For human systems, that context is
the narrative that gives meaning to our choices and actions.
Therefore: Articulate, communicate, and validate the stories you tell
- The parts of living
systems cohere around a common shared purpose. Therefore: Define
and revisit goals and purpose.
- Living systems are
learning systems. That is, they adapt from the feedback they receive
from their internal and external environments. Therefore: Learn
and change from inner and outer messages.
Louise Diamond, Ph.D., is
president of Global Systems Initiatives, which brings whole systems thinking
to complex global issues. www.globalsystemsinitiatives.net
hip was founded by
Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson in 1996 as a non-denominational
educational center to help people develop t