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Book Summary – Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems

We are surrounded by systems—from the human body to organizational processes, and the global economy. This book by Derek Cabrera & Laura Cabrera presents 4 rules (DSRP) that anyone can apply to start thinking in terms of systems. In this Systems Thinking Made Simple summary, you’ll learn this new way to grasp and practice systems thinking—so you can understand your world, improve your effectiveness, and solve everyday challenges and wicked problems.

Why Systems Thinking?

Addressing Wicked Problems

Wicked problems (e.g. climate change or wealth distribution) are problems that are extremely hard to solve due to their sheer complexity. According to historian Gerald Midgley, wicked problems are so complex because they involve:

  • Many interconnected issues that cut across multiple domains (e.g. economy, environment, culture);
  • Multiple agencies (e.g. public, private, voluntary organizations) with varying scales of influence (e.g. local, regional, global);
  • Many different views on the problem, solutions, and even the desired outcomes; and
  • Uncertainty about the potential impact of each action.

Wicked problems exist not only at national/global levels, but also in our personal lives. For example, how can you equip your children with essential life skills and experiences without exposing them to unnecessary dangers? How can you maintain your integrity in a world where people get ahead by manipulating others?

The authors argue that the best way to solve wicked problems is to elevate our thinking to a level that closely mirrors reality. To do so, we must shift from linear/categorical/binary thinking to systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Made Simple summary - Linear vs Systems

Systems Thinking Made Simple

To apply systems thinking, you must first understand what it is. In the past, systems thinkers focused primarily on how systems worked, which can be very hard to grasp. After years of research, the Cabreras realized that systems thinking is best understood in 2 parts: systems and thinking.

Systems Thinking Made Simple summary - Systems Thinking in a nutshell

THINKING

Systems thinking is about thinking, and how we think is shaped by our mental models. Our mental models summarize how we think the world works, which in turn shape how we interpret and respond to events. They are are an approximation of reality based on our beliefs, knowledge and past experiences. We’re constantly updating our models as we gain real-world experiences/insights, in a feedback loop.

SYSTEMS

A complex adaptive system (CAS) is a system of autonomous agents (e.g. people, organisms, organizations) acting together to form collective, emergent behaviors. Examples of CAS include: a school of fish, a flock of migratory birds, or a human organization. Scientists have discovered that the collective behaviors in CASs follow a series of simple rules. Look for simple rules beneath complex systems. For example:
• The 4 colors CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and key/black—jointly account for all the color combinations that exist.
• The 4 DNA molecules ATCG—Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, Thymine—jointly account for all evolutionary species from a seahorse to a human being.

Likewise, systems thinking can be summarized into 4 foundational rules (DSRP). These jointly sum up how we think: We make Distinctions, organize ideas into parts and wholes of Systems, identify Relationships, and take Perspectives.

These rules operate in parallel, like lego blocks that can be mixed and matched in any combination. By following these 4 rules, you’ll naturally start to think systemically and uncover new insights/solutions.

Understanding the DSRP Framework

DSRP started out as a very complex mathematical formulation. Over time, it was distilled into 4 simple rules that can be understood and applied by virtually anyone.

Systems Thinking Made Simple summary - The 4 DSRP RulesHere’s a brief overview of the 4 rules.  Do check out our full 16-page version of the Systems Thinking Made Simple summary for more examples, details and visuals for each rule.

Distinctions (Thing-Other)

The Distinctions Rule says that “any idea or thing can be distinguished from the other ideas or things it is with.” In other words, we can draw boundaries to differentiate between any idea/thing, e.g. coffee mugs vs wine glasses.

Boundaries help us to compare and contrast things, but they can also lead to biases, e.g. what we see as “us vs them”, “inside vs outside”, “thing vs no-thing”. You can change how you see something just by re-defining the boundaries.

Systems (Part-Whole)

The Systems Rule says that “any idea or thing can be split into parts or lumped into a whole.” In other words, Every idea/thing can be split into sub-parts, or be part of a larger whole/system.

At the 2 extremes, (i) the atom is the smallest-possible thing that can’t be split further, and (ii) the universe is the largest-possible thing that encompasses all others. Anything in between will have sub-parts and is also a part of something larger. To be a systems thinker, you must see things as a whole, then consider their parts, and what they could be a part of.

Relationship (Action-Reaction)

The Relationship Rule says that “any idea or thing can relate to other things or ideas.” In other words, you can find/create relationships between and among any idea/thing.

All relationships involve an action and a reaction. Systems involve inter-relationships woven into a network of interactions. To understand something, you must first understand how it relates to other things/ideas. And, such relationships can come in many forms, such as correlation, causal, feedback, influence, direct or indirect. You should consider both the nature of the relationship and the direction of the impact.

Perspectives (Point-View)

The Perspectives Rule says that “any thing or idea can be the point or the view of a perspective.” In other words, you can always see a thing/idea from the perspectives of other things/ideas. The same thing can look vastly different from 2 different perspectives.

Systems Thinking Made Simple summary - Different PerspectivesAt a basic level, you can always see something from the point of the viewer or the thing/idea being viewed. You can also switch between divergent and convergent thinking. Use divergent thinking to look at an issue from different viewpoints to broaden your understanding/options. Use to zoom in on details from just 1 perspective.

Putting It Together: The DSRP Rules Combined

The 4 rules operate in concurrently. Each of the 4 rules also involves co-implication, i.e. the existence of 1 element implies the existence of a 2nd element. For example, under the Systems Rule, so long as there’s a part, there must also be a whole (and vice versa). Under the Relationships Rule, where there’s an action, there must also be a reaction.

Becoming a Systems Thinker

Systems thinking requires practice. The more you apply the 4 DSRP rules above, the more you will train yourself to think like a systems thinker.

The book elaborates on various ways you can use the DSRP principles to think about the world and problems around you. It also introduces the free Plectica software and how you can use it to (i) process bit of informations using a part of the DSRP rules, and (ii) connect the bits of information visually through DSRP Maps.

In our complete Systems Thinking Made Simple summary, we’ll elaborate more on the 4 DSRP rules, as well as:

• How to organize, structure, and visualize your content in a way that improves your understanding of an issue, including the use of “cognitive jigs”;

• How to make structural predictions and solve problems using systems thinking;

• How to apply DSRP in a variety of daily and advanced settings; and

• How to develop personal systems thinking skills, as well as develop systems thinking organizations.

If you’d like to learn more about the technical and structural aspects of systems thinking (e.g. stocks, flows and feedback loops), do check out our free Thinking in Systems summary!

Getting More from “Systems Thinking Made Simple”

By making systems thinking accessible to people and organizations of all levels, the authors hope to democratize systems thinking to help improve our collective ability to solve humankind’s most complex problems. If you’d like to start developing your systems thinking skills, do check out our full book summary bundle that includes an infographic, a 16-page text summary, and a 28-minute audio summary.
Systems Thinking Made Simple summary - book summary bundle

The book is packed with systems thinking illustrations and tips, including numerous examples of how you can map out complex systems using the Plectica software, or start making sense of real-world problems. You can purchase the book here or visit cabreraresearch.org for more details and resources.

About the Authors of Systems Thinking Made Simple

Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek Cabrera & Laura Cabrera. Derek Cabrera (PhD) is a cognitive and systems scientist best known for developing the DSRP theory and method of thinking. He is currently teaching at Cornell University while serving as a senior scientist at the Cabrera Research Lab. His wife Laura Cabrera (PhD) is also a teacher at Cornell and a senior scientist at the Cabrera Research Lab.

Systems Thinking Made Simple Quotes

“Our goal in writing this book…is to democratize systems thinking.”

“Wicked problems result from the mismatch between how real-world systems work and how we think they work. Systems thinking attempts to resolve this mismatch.”

“Problems are not divorced from the way we think about them.”

“Shift perspective and we transform the distinctions, relationships, and systems that we do and don’t see.”

“A change in the way the ideas are organized leads to a change in meaning itself.”

“The simple rules of your mission, done repeatedly by many, will bring about your vision.”

“Individual and collective learning drives the evolution of culture, organizations, and society.”

“You’re better off creating an adaptive culture with a solid mission→vision than trying to predict the future.”

Click here to download the Systems Thinking Made Simple summary & infographic

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