By Connor Wiegel for SUST 350
When I was younger, my Mom had a nickname for me, which was “Speedy.” She called me that because growing up I would always rush to do certain things without thinking about them. Someone would ask me to run upstairs to get something and I’d be halfway up the stairs without even knowing what I was supposed to be looking for. I was just an impatient child and consequently I was known to make plenty of mistakes. I would never think about what I was doing and I would take the easy way out to finish a task.
I still remember that before I was allowed to play with my toys, I would always have to clean up my dinner first. One time, instead of walking to the trash can, I decided to toss my happy meal box and half-filled chocolate milk carton fifteen feet away from the trash can like I was a baseball player. I threw it without a hesitation and I still remember the look of disappointment on my mother’s face as my dogs rushed to lick up the chocolate milk dripping on the floor from the ceiling. I never thought about what I was doing or what was going to happen.
If I had taken the time to consider what my actions with a half empty milk carton was going to cause, though, I would have changed my decision. The process of thinking and analyzing a decision or action, the outside factors related to it, and the impact it will cause is called systems thinking. Daniel Lerch writes in The Community Resilience Reader (2017), “Systems thinking helps us understand the complex E4 crises [ecology, energy, economy, and equity] as well as how our complex societies and communities work” (p. 21).
Systems thinking is a way to problem solve while considering the complex system around that problem. For example, when a student cheats on a test, all they think about is if they cheat, they might get a good grade. They don’t think about the other factors that affect their decision, or the other potential consequences of that decision. The student doesn’t think about how they are cheating themselves out of learning the information and how by not learning the material now, they are putting themselves at a disadvantage later in life. Another way to picture systems thinking is to think about the inside of a clock. All of those mechanical parts work together to complete a job. If you take away even just one of those gears or leveers, the clock will not function the same, if at all. Systems thinking is evaluating situations while considering the outside factors that affect and are affected by the outcome of your decision. A single link in a chain would change the pattern. Every decision influences an outcome and to come to the decision you need to consider all of the elements surrounding the problem or job.
Systems thinking broadens your perspective on a situation. Open your mind to considering more than just what’s in front of you. A model to help understand this perspective is the Iceberg model. In the model you can see what you react to, but hidden underneath are all of the underlying factors surrounding the event.
If you use mental models and systems thinking together in your day-to-day life, you are giving yourself a better opportunity for success. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any negatives to system thinking. Discussions in my SUST 350 Service and Sustainability class have pointed out that if you need to make a quick decision, systems thinking can take too long and may not be an option in an emergency. To be able to evaluate all of the underlying factors in a decision, it won’t be possible if you need to make a quick decision on your toes. That is why in a business or medical field you have teams who go through situations to set protocols so the best decision has been thought of in advance.
I believe systems thinking is a valuable tool that people should practice and learn. With the ability to dissect a situation in either your work or personal life, you will have the confidence that your decisions will have the best outcomes. If everyone just made their decisions in a split second and didn’t take the time for systems thinking, they might get away with the correct decision but most likely will create new problems to be solved. Systems thinking is an extremely useful tool that can be used to enhance your work and personal life.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). The Value of Systems Thinking. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fo3ndxVOZEo.
Ecochallenge. (n.d.). Iceberg Model Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://ecochallenge.org/iceberg-model/.
Lerch, D. (2017). The Community Resilience Reader Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. Island Press/Center for Resource Economics.
Connor Wiegel is a senior accounting major at Roosevelt University where he plays on the men’s hockey team and serves as an alternate captain. This semester, Connor is volunteering at the PAWS animal shelter in Tinley Park IL for his SUST 350 service project.
Throughout the Fall 2021 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 350 Service & Sustainability class are blogging about their academic reflections in SUST 350 and/or their community service experiences in the Chicago region and beyond.