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Through the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st century we have begun to see that this “dualistic, hierarchical framework of thinking is no longer adequate for interpreting our experience.
“No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.”
— Albert Einstein
System dynamics is a field of study that Jay Forrester founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s. The field has a long history, and has drawn from other fields as diverse as mechanical engineering, biology, and the social sciences.
In its simplest sense, system dynamics focuses on the flow of feedback (information that is transmitted and returned) that occurs throughout the parts of a system—and the system behaviors that result from those flows. For example, system dynamicists study reinforcing processes—feedback flows that generate exponential growth or collapse—and balancing processes—feedback flows that help a system maintain stability.
These reinforcing and balancing processes really aren’t mysterious—they’re all around us and within us. The world population explosion, the U.S. stock market crash of the 1930s, and the sudden onset of disease when foreign microbes proliferate in our bodies are all examples of reinforcing cycles. Our bodies’ ability to maintain a basic temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the stability that occurs in predator/prey systems, and the difficulty we often face when we try to change the way our organization does things are all examples of balancing cycles.
In addition, system dynamicists study the impact of delay on systemic behavior. Specifically, what are the implications when a cause takes a long time to exert its effect, and when cause and effect are physically far apart? For example, if your organization raises prices on its products beyond the comfort level of your customers, it may take a while for customers to get fed up and stop buying. If it takes a really long time for you to notice this feedback, you may not realize that customer buying habits are connected to the price hike you instituted “way back when.” (In fact, you might even panic about declining revenues and hike prices up even higher to try to save the business!)
Perhaps the most exciting thing about system dynamics is that it focuses on computer simulation modeling—using special software programs to figure out how a system’s behavior might play out over time if you implement certain changes. Simulation models are often embedded in what are known as “management flight simulators” or “microworlds,” computer programs with accessible user interfaces that let you “test flight” your ideas—without crashing your business!
The field of system dynamics gave rise to and serves as the bedrock for the field of systems thinking. What’s the difference between the two? With its emphasis on simulation modeling, system dynamics is generally seen as the more rigorous, academic field—though many management consultants use computer models in their work with clients. Systems thinking takes the principles of systemic behavior that system dynamics discovered—and applies them in practical ways to common problems in organizational life. In fact, simulation modeling, management flight simulators, and microworlds are merely some of the tools used by systems thinkers to understand the world around them and address problems.
Together, these two fields can become a potent ally as you navigate your way through the sometimes rocky terrain of organizational life!
Do you keep grappling with the same stubborn problems in your organization? If so, perhaps there’s a systems archetype lurking in the background. Systems archetypes are a class of systems thinking tools that capture common challenges that occur in all kinds of industries and organizations.
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