The Nine Postulates of Systems Thinking

In two weeks I get to teach a morning lesson in systems thinking to sophomores at All Saints’ Episcopal School. It’s time to brush up on my own writing, Step 3 in The Falconer.  The simple steps of systems thinking are so similar to what many of us are now incorporating as design thinking in our curriculum.  I wrote the nine postulates using the language of Sun Tzu and The Art of War. What’s great? In about 45 minutes those sophomores will be confidently applying these skills to real-world problems!

The Nine Postulates of Understanding the System:

  1. First count the arrows in the quivers and the spears in their racks.  Identify and quantify the physically tangible parts of the system.
  2. Next measure the courage of your soldiers, the faith of your people, and the stealth of your spies. Recognize and identify the intangibles in the system.
  3. The enemy is not known by his portrait at one sitting but by watching and studying him over time, by assessing the ebb and flow of his essence. Identify and quantify what is gained and what is lost from the system over time; what crosses the boundaries of the system.
  4. The good warrior knows the borders of his enemy and does not chase diversions beyond the frontier of his own choosing. Decide the effective boundaries of the system you are studying.  Most systems are bounded in some respects and unbounded in others, and to effectively understand a system you have to define where those boundaries lie.
  5. To know the whole, the warrior must know its parts; to know the parts, the warrior must organize them; to organize them, the warrior must know his goal, or he is merely shuffling pieces on a board. Organize the elements of the system in ways that make sense relative to your goal; this is what we do when we put lots of sticky-notes up on the wall.
  6. To fully understand the forest of trees and the braiding of streams, the warrior must understand the forces that bind the one to the other. Identify key relationships, their direction and strength, that tie elements together, create functions, or define processes.
  7. The wise general knows that the impossible is probably just improbable. Make sure you have not overlooked something because it is small or seemingly insignificant; understand the difference between absolute impossibility and mere improbability.
  8. Absolute honesty requires the warrior to be more honest and less absolute. Identify your assumptions as part of the system.
  9. The general who shares his vision may find himself at the head of a large army; the general who keeps his vision to himself will likely fight alone. Communicate clearly, honestly, and effectively, or no one else will share your understanding.

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