Systems Thinking for Problem Solving


Have you ever found yourself driving a nail with a toothpick? Or tying down a tent on a windy day with masking tape? Or removing weeds from a vegetable garden with a backhoe? Those are each pretty ridiculous solutions to problems. In each case, the proper strategy has not been applied to real and meaningful problems. However, that’s what we often do when trying to solve problems in life and work.

Russell Ackoff, known for his work on systems thinking and management science, provided a very helpful, simple way to look at people, organizations, and problems. This approach is rooted in systems thinking, which is the discipline of looking at people, organizations, problems, other creatures, things…virtually anything in a holistic and integrative manner. The core principles in systems thinking are that all parts work together for a purpose, nothing exists in a vacuum, and that anything and everything interacts with its environment. (See my note at the bottom of the article for Ackoff’s definition of “system.”)

Ackoff said that there are essentially three types of systems: mechanical, organismic, and social.

  • Mechanical systems operate, normally, in a predictable fashion with regularity and according to laws of nature and physics. Examples include both simple and complex machines (a child’s wooden pull toy, or an automobile). Mechanical systems exercise no independent choice and have not purpose their own, nor do the parts on their own.
  • Organismic systems have at least one goal or purpose but their parts do not. The subparts do serve a function in supporting the purpose of the whole organismic system. A person is an example of an organismic system, as well as other plants and animals.
  • Social systems, which include organizations, communities, and societies, have their own purposes and at least some of the parts have their own purposes, and may also be parts of a larger social system with its own purpose.

When there is a problem with a machine, a mechanical system, the approach to fixing it is rather straightforward. The solution is simple or complex depending on the complexity of the machine. A broken, simple machine requires diagnosis and usually a simple solution. A broken, complex machine requires diagnosis and usually a relatively complex solution. (Compare fixing a bicycle to fixing a car.)

What about organismic systems? The level of complexity in problem solving is immensely greater, especially in the case of humans. I’m no doctor, so I can’t get technical here, but we all know that the same diagnosis and solution process we applied to mechanical systems applies here, too. However, the process can be significantly more complex depending on the problem: abrasion, laceration, cold, flu, broken bone, arthritis, angina, cancer, … You get the idea.

There are two major differences in problem solving for mechanical systems versus organismic systems. First, there are potentially significant differences in the complexity of problem solving. Second, the solution approach for mechanical systems is relatively plug-and-play, compared to organismic systems. Broken part in a machine? Remove and replace. Yes, that process may be complex for some machines, but it is an essentially straightforward concept. In an organismic system, that doesn’t usually work. Even a total knee replacement (simple in concept) is a rather complex process that impacts the whole organism for several days and weeks until full recovery is achieved. Imagine the complexity and difficulty of an organ transplant!

What about social systems? Problem solving at this level moves far beyond machines, and somewhat beyond the art/science of medicine. (I’m not suggesting that what medical professionals do is simple. However, what they do often has more control and predictability than what happens in social systems. The medical context is far more serious, though!) Because the elements of social systems (e.g. the employees of your company) have goals and purposes of their own, problem solving is usually more of an experiment. We cannot simply identify broken parts (remove Jenny in operations) and replace them (replace with Melissa, sent by HR). You may have tried to do that, but I’ll bet you learned it wasn’t as easy as you had hoped and the results weren’t nearly what you expected.

The problem most leaders have in problem solving in their social systems is that they try to find mechanical systems-level solutions for social systems-level problems. They forget that each of the individual parts of their social system has independent will, personal values and goals, a psyche, hangups and problems,…an endless list of characteristics that come into play for each and every situation.

Let’s slow down for a moment and recognize that some problems are indeed relatively simple. I’m not suggesting that you should necessarily over-complicate the matter. A clear and documented violation of rules that requires termination of employment should indeed be followed by termination. Unfortunately, most problems are not that simple.

The next time a problem comes across your desk, conduct the following two-step assessment:

  1. Just how complex is this problem? What are the facts? What is the scope and impact of the issue? What has been attempted already and what resources are available to you?
  2. Consider the perspective and purposes of each of the subparts of this part of the system. Who are the players and what are their purposes and goals? Why did they do what they did? Why are you going to do what you are going to do?

The insight you gain from that process will help you align your solution approach to the true nature of the problem.

Apply machine-oriented solutions to mechanical-systems problems.
Apply organism-oriented solutions to organismic-systems problems.
Apply society-oriented solutions to social-systems problems.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo “Abandoned Railroad Car” by Nathan Colishaw. Available at

Ackoff defined a system as, “a whole consisting of two or more parts (1) each of which can effect the performance or properties of the whole, (2) none of which can have an independent effect on the whole, and (3) no subgroup of which can have an independent effect on the whole.” He continued: “In brief, then, a system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts or subgroup of parts.” (Russell L. Ackoff, “Systems Thinking and Thinking Systems.” System Dynamics Review, Summer-Fall 1994, 175-188.)

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