#261 from R&D
Innovator Volume 6, Number 2
the Power of Systems Thinking to Innovation
Mr. Aronson works as a systems thinking consultant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also hosts the Thinking Page at http://world.std.com/~thinking, and can be reached by phone at 617-433-7138 or by email at Dacce@aol.com.
competition is more intense, with companies and departments having
to do more with less. As
competition increases, the value added by each R&D dollar must
go up. One way to
increase value is to target efforts so they result in innovations
that have major benefits for the organization.
A key to
achieving giant leaps forward is understanding where innovation
fits into the bigger picture of the company and its needs.
A field of study known as "systems thinking" can
play a key role in appreciating the overall system, and this
appreciation is needed to target innovation efforts more
thinking provides a set of tools for constructing maps of systems
and determining the points at which change can have the greatest
impact on a company's performance.
I'll give you an introduction to some of the foundations
and concepts of systems thinking, and will demonstrate how to use
it with your innovation efforts.
The approach of
systems thinking is fundamentally different from that of
traditional forms of analysis.
Instead of focusing on the individual pieces of what is
being studied, systems thinking focuses on the feedback
relationships between the thing being studied and the other parts
of system. Therefore,
instead of isolating smaller and smaller parts of a system,
systems thinking involves a broader view, looking at larger and
larger numbers of interactions.
As an example of
how this better understanding of the big picture can increase the
benefits of innovation, consider a department of an agricultural
firm charged with finding a way to reduce crop damage created by
insects that have become resistant to common pesticides.
One way to approach the problem would be to create an
especially strong pesticide that is sufficiently potent to kill
even these unusually resistant insects.
The company might then instruct their R&D department to
develop such a strong pesticide. The reasoning behind this course
of action can be shown as follows:
In this diagram,
the arrow represents the direction of causality, one element
causing the other to change.
The o next to the arrow means that Pesticide
application causes Number
of target insects to change in the opposite
way. Thus, if the
application of pesticides increases, the Number
of target insects goes down, a change in the opposite
if two things cause each other to change in the same
direction, the diagram would indicate this by placing an s
next to the arrow.
The problem, in
this case, is that the R&D department has been asked to do
something based on a faulty understanding of the system, and so
the department's success at producing a stronger pesticide may not
translate into a successful program for reducing crop damage; in
fact, the strategy may backfire. The strategy, while not wrong per
se, is incomplete: it leaves out the feedback relationships
The diagram below
shows a picture of the system that captures the set of
interactions that are likely, in fact, to make the company's
application of the stronger pesticide indeed reduces the numbers
of the crop-destructive insect--and thus the total crop damage--in
the short run (as shown in the inner loop from Application
of pesticide to Number
of target insects), it kills even more of the other insects in
the area than it does of the destructive insect because, as
mentioned earlier, the target insect is more resistant to
pesticides than other insects. (This effect is shown in the outer
loop from Application of
pesticide to Insects
that naturally control the population of the target insect).
Some of the insects killed by the pesticide helped control the
population of the destructive insect by preying on them or
competing with them (as shown by the connection between Insects that naturally control the population of the target insect).
When these insects are killed, the degree of control they exerted
on the population of the destructive insect is lessened.
the target insects recover from the effect of the pesticide, the
reduction in the control provided by other insects leads to an
explosion in the population of the target insect.
As the population of the destructive insect goes up, so
does total crop damage, as the link between Number
of target insects and Total
crop damage shows (the s
indicates that the two change in the same
direction--as the numbers of the destructive insects go up, so
does the total crop damage).
This leads to
even greater crop damage than before, encouraging the company to
apply the pesticide again--in the language of the diagram, as Total
crop damage goes up, Application
of pesticide goes up (with the s
again indicating that they change in the same direction). However,
even the temporary gains originally made by applying the new
pesticide begin to lessen as the insect becomes more resistant to
it and, as a result, crop damage continues to get worse.
What worked well at the beginning does not work nearly as
well any more.
In this case, the
very effectiveness with which the R&D department did what it
was asked to do--create a stronger pesticide--served to make the
original problem worse because the side effects of using a more
powerful pesticide were not considered.
An understanding of the interactions that produced these
side effects would have enabled the company to see that their plan
to use a
pesticide was likely to backfire.
They would also have been able to consider other options
that would not backfire, such as introducing more of the
insectís predators into the area and developing strains of the
crops that were more resistant to the target insect. Giving the R&D department either of these tasks would
have led to an innovation that would fit better into the big
picture and, as a result, would have created greater long-term
As this example
shows, systems thinking can provide some of its greatest benefits
by directing innovation efforts so as not to be compromised by the
lack of appreciating the big picture.
Because of the
potential to maximize the big-picture benefits of innovation, it
has much to offer all innovators.
I hope you take advantage of it.
Of course, this
short article can only provide the flavor of systems thinking.
If I have whetted your appetite, you may want to pursue
this subject by reading Peter Sengeís The Fifth Discipline: The
Art and Practice of the Learning Organization and his The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Currency Doubleday, New York, 1990,
1994). You may also
wish to visit the Thinking Page, above, for additional references
and links to organizations in the systems thinking field.