Systems Thinking vs Linear Thinking
The Non Obvious nature of Complex Systems
Over years of managing large portfolios of multifamly assets, I have noticed how management staff have responded to a range of problems in their portfolios with decisions that can best be described as short-term interventions. While they did have short term results, over time these decisions in turn led to counter productive results.
What caused these best of intentions to spiral into such disappointing results? The reason lies in part in our tendency to apply linear thinking to complex, nonlinear problems. Systems and linear thinking differ in several important respects, as shown in “Distinguishing Linear Thinking from Systems Thinking” graphic below.
Lewis Thomas, the award-winning medical essayist, observed, “When you are confronted by any complex social system… with things about it that you’re dissatisfied with and anxious to fix, you cannot just step in and set about fixing with much hope of helping. This is one of the sore discouragements of our time”
Systems vs. Linear Thinking
Because the problems addressed by many apartment communities and portfolios are exceedingly complex, one step that managers should take to improve decision making is to think systemically (vs. linearly). Implementing a systems approach involves the following process:
- Building a strong foundation for change by engaging multiple stakeholders to identify an initial vision and picture of current reality
- Engaging stakeholders to explain their often competing views of why a chronic, complex problem persists despite people’s best efforts to solve it
- Integrating the diverse perspectives into a map that provides a more complete picture of the system and root causes of the problem
- Supporting people to see how their well-intended efforts to solve the problem often make the problem worse
- Committing to a compelling vision of the future and supportive strategies that can lead to sustainable, system-wide change