The fact that there are different ways of thinking comes as a surprise to some people. That is because our previous training and experience often locks us into a particular way of thinking about a situation. Sir Geoffrey Vickers wrote with great insight and simplicity about the whole business of how we think about ourselves and our institutions:
Lobster pots are designed to catch lobsters. A man entering a lobster pot would become suspicious of the narrowing tunnel, he would shrink from the drop at the end: and if he fell in, he would recognize the entrance as a possible exit and climb out again - even if he were the shape of a lobster. A trap is a trap only for the creatures which cannot solve the problems it sets. Man traps are dangerous only in relation to the limitations of what men can see and value and do …
(Vickers, 1972, p. 15)
So a lobster pot is a trap for lobsters only because they behave the way they do. They are trapped by their own limitations at least as much by the external obstacle. It may be that, like the lobster, you always think, speak or act in response to certain stimuli in the same way. The clearest evidence of being stuck in your thinking is when you find yourself in a situation that you have faced before, and all you can think of doing is what you did before; and you know that didn't work.
As Sir Geoffrey Vickers also wrote:
We the trapped, tend to take our own state of mind for granted - which is partly why we are trapped.
On such occasions, it is often useful to have different ‘tools for thought’ in order to set about thinking about the situation, exploring new ‘angles’, trying out different boundaries and generating a more rounded appreciation of a situation, however complicated, familiar or unusual.
An important part of this is the ability to explore and value others’ points of view, trying out their perspectives and incorporating their insights. All these features characterize ‘systems thinking’, although they are not exclusive to it.
Two points about these ‘ways of thinking’ are worth mentioning. First, they are the basis for genuine intellectual skills and that is why this course is both academic and practical.
Secondly, some of them may initially appear strange and feel decidedly awkward. Others you will find come more naturally. Which ones prove easy or difficult will depend on your existing patterns of thought. This means that you will not be able to decide how useful a particular ‘tool’ will be until you have acquired a reasonable measure of proficiency and tried it on some actual problems. But to some extent too it will also be a case of ‘horses for courses’. Which tools work for you will also depend on the sorts of problem you encounter.
At one level, we each have a way of thinking which is unique. Most of the time I can barely glimpse how even my closest family think. But at another level our Western society and education has trained us all in certain ways of thinking. The two main kinds are logical thinking and causal thinking.
The classic example of logical thinking is a form of reasoning which goes like this: ‘If all cows are animals, and this is a cow, then it is an animal’. It starts with a generalization, a premise which is assumed to be true and then deduces a conclusion about a particular case.
There are three things worth noticing about this form of thinking. The first is that it attempts to be objective. The conclusion shouldn't depend at all on your particular point of view, your opinions and values about the world. The truth of the conclusion should be apparent to right-wing and left-wing politicians, free-traders and interventionists. The second is that it is necessary: that is, the conclusion always follows from the premise. You can't say ‘Well it all depends, sometimes the cow will be an animal and sometimes it won't.
Finally, the structure of this thinking is sequential: it has the form ‘if a, then b’ - often called a chain of reasoning, and the chains are usually much longer than this one. As the word ‘chain’ suggests, logical thinking is a way of linking ideas or statements together.
This is a powerful and useful way of thinking, responsible for a good deal of the clarity we need to make sensible decisions. But we can't expect it to be good for everything. For example, logic isn't always a good way of sorting out emotional problems, such as who to marry or whether or not to have a child.
Causal thinking is a way of linking activities or events together. A car mechanic explaining why your car won't start might tell you that a crack in the distributor head has caused the damp to get in which then caused a leakage of the current, which stopped the spark igniting the petrol.
The same sort of reasoning lay behind the design of the engine in the first place: the petrol is mixed with air, then ignited, which causes an explosion, which pushes the crankshaft, which moves the wheels.
As you can see from this example, the three points I made about logical thinking apply to causal thinking too. To start with, it is objective; the political opinions of the car mechanic do not affect his explanation.
As far as the reasoning being necessary is concerned, admittedly there is more scope for saying ‘it all depends’ - for example how damp the morning is, or how wide the crack is in the distributor head. But once you accept the premise of what damp does to ignition, then the conclusion will follow. Finally, there is the same sequencing ‘if a, then b, then c’ and so on to the conclusion.
Before moving on from the concept of causality, I want to raise the issue of thinking about chains of causes and consequences or multiple causes, as this an important feature of systems thinking.
When we say that A causes B (e.g. rising damp causes peeling wallpaper), or B is the consequence of A (e.g. peeling wallpaper is the consequence of rising-damp) we are also saying that if you alter rising-damp, then peeling-wallpaper will also alter. In other words, we are suggesting a way of altering B via A.
This is why analyzing patterns of causes and consequences can be useful when deciding upon actions. If you understand the network of direct and indirect causes that lead to B then, in principle, you have a large number of potential intervention points for changing B. Conversely, if you know all the direct and indirect consequences of your chosen intervention (e.g. change A), you can judge whether it will actually have the effect you want (e.g. change-in-B), and whether it is also likely to have other effects that you may or may not want.
Since systems is about developing understandings of situations that support practical change, causality is obviously a key area. Causality is not usually a simple matter of an isolated statement such as A-causes-B, however. You can trace causes back almost indefinitely if you want to.
The car crash didn't just happen spontaneously. Why did the car crash? Perhaps the driver lost control.
But why did the driver lose control? Perhaps:
We can also go forward. What will be the further consequences? Perhaps
Why did the tyre burst in the first place?
Perhaps it was some combination of a manufacturing defect, damage to the tyre wall caused by clumsy parking, and stress due to a particularly sharp turn:
So the event, tyre-burst, is the result of a set of causes that converge on it. Similarly, any event is likely to have a set of immediate consequences resulting from it; for example;
The tendency of many people faced with a situation is to only think about single causes, or several causes in isolation, rather than consider the network of multiple causes.