Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Systems Thinking versus Design Thinking

Problem or solution?

Problem or solution?

When I was in graduate school, I got a heavy dose of systems thinking. The basic idea is to take a problem, break it apart, and build it up. Let’s say I’m building a house. The house clearly is a system unto itself but we can also break it into subsystems — like plumbing. Plumbing is a logically coherent system with specified inputs and outputs. We can further deconstruct plumbing into more specific subsystems, like sewage versus potable water. As we deconstruct systems into subsystems, we look for linkages. How does one subsystem contribute to another? How do they build on each other?

We can also build upward into larger systems. The house, for instance, is part of a neighborhood which, in turn, is part of a city. The neighborhood also has wastewater systems and electrical systems that the house needs to connect to. If I want to get my mail delivered, it also needs an address — part of a much larger system of geographic designators.

It turns out that systems thinking is a pretty good way to build computer programs. A subroutine that calculates your sales tax, for instance, has specified inputs and outputs. It’s not logically different from a plumbing system. In either case, we start with a problem, break it down, build it up, and find a solution that fits with other systems. Note that we start with a problem and end with a solution.

When Elliot went to architecture school, he got a heavy dose of design thinking. He’s now light years ahead of me. (Isn’t it great when your kid can teach you stuff?) I still find design thinking challenging. I think that’s because I was so heavily invested in systems thinking. Frankly, I didn’t realize how much systems thinking influenced my perspective. It’s like culture. You don’t recognize the deep influence of your own culture until you visit another culture and make comparisons. As I learned design thinking, I realized that there is a whole different way of seeing the world.

The trick with design thinking is that you begin with the solution and work your way backward to the problem. What a concept! Here’s what Wikipedia says:

“…the design way of problem solving starts with the solution in order to start to define enough of the parameters to optimize the path to the goal. The solution, then, is actually the starting point.”

And here’s what John Christopher Jones says in his classic book, Designing Designing:

“The main point of difference is that of timing. Both artists and scientists operate on the physical world as it exists in the present …Designers, on the other hand, are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist.”

Why would a business person be interested in design thinking? After all, most B-schools (and computer science programs) teach systems thinking. Unless you’re an architect, isn’t that enough? Well…. I’ve noticed that a lot of leading business thinkers now include designers on their teams. In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that A.G. Lafley of Procter & Gamble had designers (from IDEO) in his coterie of advisors. Similarly, was Steve Jobs more of a business genius or a design genius? Design thinkers give us a different way of looking at the world. Maybe we should take them more seriously in business.


2 Responses to Systems Thinking versus Design Thinking

  • Superb insights, Travis, but I’m afraid “taking them more seriously” won’t cut it. In my experience, when the leadership is made up of systems thinkers, a designer cannot thrive, or even make meaningful contributions, because design thinking has a component of initial fragility. The newborn idea is subtle, nuanced, fragile, and needs room and time to gain strength and definition. God is in the details, and the details are unfamiliar.

    Systems thinkers will usually be too results-oriented, too eager to move on to implementation, and will crush design innovations underfoot in their rush to build them. The rule of thumb is: If you think you understand what’s being designed in terms of what you already know (familiar systems), you’re probably missing the crucial point, and missing your chance to ever get the point.

    Taking designers more seriously makes no difference if you judge their work with a systems-thinking mentality. Unless and until you completely trust the design process, with its weird quirks and its frustrating resemblance to goofing around, it will not yield you any benefit.

    Trust your designers completely, or fire them. It will be kinder than steamrolling over their contributions with a system-thinker’s mentality.

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