Research shows that systems thinking and metacognition (awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process) lie at the root of both IQ enhancing and EQ enhancing skills. Developing both emotional intelligence and IQ skills requires a distinction between cognition (thinking) and metacognition (the ability to reflect on and understand how you think about things). Systems thinking is metacognition that specifically attempts to reconcile this mismatch between our mental models of the real world and how things actually are in the real world.

The real world is often chaotic, and our thinking can be very simplistic. The real world is uncertain, yet we prefer organize our thoughts and schedule our time. The real world is highly complex and ambiguous and yet our human-centered lens is often centers around ourselves and our perspective.

If you live life in reaction mode, it can lead to misunderstandings, or ineffective solutions to problems. Systems thinking can help. At the most basic level, Systems Thinking asks us to look deeper at how the world works, and more importantly, challenge how we think it works. Most people react to surface level events, but what we see at the surface is not the entirety of the situation. This is true for things you encounter in  daily life. For example, you didn’t close a deal with a customer, your teenager got in trouble at school, you didn’t finish your to-do list today. When analyzing a situation, a Systems Thinker,

Asks themselves what patterns underlie the things I’m experiencing? This allows them to do more than just react to what is at the surface. It allows them to predict. When we look deeper, these seemingly isolated one-off events are often patterns.

  • You didn’t close a deal with a customer. A Systems Thinker looks deeper and asks, is this a single instance of a pattern? and sees that the product is declining in sales over time.
  • Your teenager got in trouble at school. A Systems Thinker asks is this an emerging pattern of behavior and realizes there’s an uptick of behavior issues.
  • You feel bad that you didn’t finish your to-do list. A Systems Thinker realizes this is not a one-off event, but that it’s the norm.

Seeing patterns allows us to make predictions. It gives us time to think about what is underneath the situation and choose a different action instead of an unconscious reaction. Systems Thinkers go deeper still, by identifying structures that cause the pattern.

  • Declining sales over time is the result of the changing relationship between your product and the marketplace.
  • An uptick in your teenager’s attention seeking behavior means his relationship to his environment and to himself is changing.
  • And if not finishing tasks is the norm, the underlying structure of that problem is the relationship between the number of hours in a day and the items on your to-do list.

Seeing underlying structures allows us to better understand systems and design them to bring about desired outcomes. Systems Thinkers acknowledge and challenge their mental models in order to see events in a different way. The system’s patterns and structures under events help us identify flaws in our mental models.

  • A failed sale is an opportunity to learn why sales are declining, ask why they didn’t buy.
  • Your teenager is signaling they need help with their identify and adjusting to changes. Talk to them.
  • You’re not incompetent because you didn’t finish your task, you need to work on capacity by finding an app or method to help track, prioritize, and manage work.

Seeing our mental models reframes how we think about design, predict, and react to any event and gives us the outcomes we seek. So next time you experience something first-hand, especially something frustrating,  take a step back and ask yourself, is this a one-off event or part of a pattern? Is there a structure to this pattern? And can I challenge my mental models of this structure? There are many ways to organize and relate ideas and your way is not the only way.

Learning to differentiate between your thoughts (or cognition) and your feelings, emotions and motivations can help you understand how your mental models shape your behaviors. The more you develop and understanding about the way that you think about things (your metacognition), the less susceptible you are to manipulation of your mental models and the more likely you are to realize your own human potential.


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