systems thinking background

The covid-19 case as an example of Systems Thinking usage

Since the very beginning of human history, we are used to specialisation and putting ourselves into small boxes of knowledge, expertise and different roles. We were used to the world, where anyone may become master – because specialities were very narrow and the “only thing”, which was needed, was the time (yeah – and because of that only a few of us will become masters in the end!).

We lived in silos of specialisations. And till not it was good enough. In the past, biologists fixed problems from the area of biology, engineers fixed issues from the field of engineering. We were able to fix most of our problems – extensive knowledge was not needed, i.e. the same person who created a tool was able to understand its concept and utilise it.

Specialisation and globalisation

In the last century, it changed dramatically. We live in a complex world. Globalisation, climate change, technological advances and rising inequality – these are only examples of modern problems which we have to face right now. The specialisation is not an answer anymore. We have to think on a much larger scale than we are used to.

Right now, it is pretty hard to find a problem that can be fixed by focusing only on one, separate dimension. Most of our challenges require the joint effort of many people and specialisations:

  • technology,
  • environment,
  • economics,
  • business,
  • politics,
  • culture,
  • psychology.

The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking at which they were created.

Albert Einstein

To be able to face these problems, we need to be able to, not only work together but to find a way, how to speak with each other. To improve our understanding of this complex world, we have to observe not only the individuals but the system as a whole.

What is a system?

A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective.

Donella Meadows

Donella worked with systems for the majority of her life. She focused mainly on human interactions and behaviours. Still, the systems theory’s concept was used successfully in a wide range of different branches of science – in geography, biology, engineering, software development, etc.

We distinguish three types of systems:

  • physical – exists in reality; i.e. bicycle, house or climate
  • abstract – lives in the human perception; i.e. organisation, company or country
  • human – a sum of feelings and behaviours of person or group

A system doesn’t have to be something big and global. It may be something small without much impact on the surroundings. Most of the systems do not live alone – they are interconnected and affect each other. Thanks to its interconnection we can get better results than just a sum of its parts (do you know it from somewhere?). Thanks to that ability, systems are a great way to present reality and dependencies between its parts.

Comparing systems functions and abilities

Let’s take a look at the example – a bike. A bicycle consists of many parts that have to work together to create a movement of the vehicle. Without a saddle, it would be hard to overcome longer distances. Without a brake calliper, it would be hard to stop a bike. Without a chain, it would be hard to pass more significant force to the rear wheel and gain speed. All parts of the bike are important and have their purpose. Each piece is also specialised. Each type of bike is different and has different advantages and disadvantages.

By comparing one bike to another, we can find these functions and select these, which are essential for us. It does not mean that a different bike is worse. It just means our bike is a better fit for us.

Let’s take a quick look at the video below. For me, it is just a perfect way to describe the interconnectedness of systems:

So how can we describe systems in a more accessible way?

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems.

“The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge

Systems Thinking let us present very complex systems and their dependencies in an easy way to understand. It is tough to classify Systems Thinking to a single branch of science. The area of its interest is much broader. Systems Thinking does not use analysis of its parts, but synthesis – the interdependence of its parts and how these parts work together.

Systems Thinking uses system maps to model systems and results of its work. For now, I would like to focus on one type of systems maps – causal loops maps.

Causal Loops Diagrams

Causal Loops Diagram (CLD) is a causal diagram that aids in visualising how different variables in a system are interrelated. The diagram consists of a set of nodes and edges. Nodes represent the variables and edges are the links that represent a connection or a relation between the two variables.

If we want to think in systems, we need to change our way of thinking – we have to forget about the linear way of thinking – the cause and response without any feedback. Since everything is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows between elements of a system.

When drawing system maps, we can create two types of feedback loops:

  • balancing feedback loops
  • reinforcing feedback loops

Balancing feedback loop is something which often balances the whole system. Thanks to this behaviour, the system becomes stable. The most straightforward example of balancing feedback loop is nature itself. Let’s take into account the population of rabbits and foxes – predator-prey pattern.

When taking into account this feedback loop, the system becomes stable – if we have more rabbits, that means that the population of foxes also may grow (because there is more food available). When we have more foxes, then rabbits population will shrink, which again – will cause less food for foxes and will lower the number of foxes in population.

But let’s remove a predator from the equation. Without predator, rabbits will be able to reproduce without any balancing mechanism – and having more rabbits means you will have even more rabbits (an excellent real-life example of this are rabbits living between walls of the Berlin Wall). I hope you see a reinforcing feedback loop here. In the natural environment, it is something unwanted because it will lead us to the extensive exploitation of the environment – and in the end, even rabbits population may collapse (because of lack of food – but this will be an example of a different balancing loop).

Covid-19 analysis by using CLD

The current situation around the globe is an excellent example of Causal Loop Diagram usage – the pandemic of SARS-CoV-2. This problem requires attention from everyone:

  • From medics to take care of all sick people,
  • through logistics (to keep the order chain in place),
  • media (to warn people), – politics (to create prevention policies or even quarantines)
  • and the regular people (to stay calm, be aware of the danger, keeping the right hygiene level).

Focusing only on one part of the system may lead us to wrong assumptions, i.e.:

  • the problem is not ours, and we can not do anything with its spread,
  • medics will take care of everything,
  • it is not an economic crisis,
  • it is something like flu – nothing to worry about,
  • etc.

Causal Loop Diagram

To present my way of thinking, I created this system map. I focused on the media and my role, as an individual, in the CoVid-19 crisis. I based it on the information found in the Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now article (note: You can open this systems map in full scale).

covid-19 causal loop diagram

I didn’t mark all reinforcing and balancing loops, because it would become hard to read. I marked only a few of them to describe, how it can be used in discussion around this topic and to explain my way of thinking.

Reinforcing loops

  • More infected people means the chance of getting infected is higher – if we do not do anything with it, it will lead us to the uncontrolled spread of the disease. Let’s name it the epidemic reinforcing loop.
  • Higher media interest in the covid-19 may cause a higher rate of attention growth (a larger population quicker recognised the topic). The rate of attention growth increase will lead us to higher demand for media coverage on the covid-19 – the number of death reported around the globe initiated this loop. This feedback loop also caused some drawbacks – more fake-news in the media, which will be harder to undermine and eliminate. However, for now, it is great to have such a feedback loop because it has an impact on situational awareness of people. Let’s name it the media interest reinforcing loop.

Balancing loops

  • More infected people will lead us to an increased number of dead. It will mean the susceptible population will decrease over time. It will lead us to the lower chance of getting infected – it is the natural selection balancing loop. If we do nothing with this disease, it will stay with us for a lifetime. It will mean that everyone can be infected. Modern medicine’s purpose is to fight back such balancing loops and to extend our life. It leads us to the next balancing loop. Let’s check the diagram below for a much clearer view of this relationship.
  • More death will raise our situational awareness. One of the reported ways to avoid being infected is to take care of your hygiene – wash your hands, do not touch your face, etc. – pretty standard stuff. But it will lead us to a lower chance of being infected. Let’s call this balancing loop the hygiene balancing loop.
  • Greater media’s attention to this topic will lead us to lower the will to spend time in public: in restaurants, bars, at concerts and theatres. The disease will have fewer opportunities to spread. Some countries are closing museums, schools and other public buildings – for sure it will lower our contact rate and in the end the chance of getting sick. Let’s call this the contact options balancing loop.
  • Last balancing loop that I would like to highlight is the quarantine feedback loop. It is quite similar to the previous one. However, its main reason is to separate known sick people from healthy ones. For now, we do not have a better solution – we have to cure sick people and limit the possibility of outbreaks.

Conclusion

Based on the above system, it is better to be cautious than reckless. I will sum up this article with the old saying:

Prevention is better than cure

Take into consideration these few tips:

  • try to avoid big groups of people
  • work remotely from home if possible
  • stay calm but aware
  • keep a high level of hygiene
  • follow the instructions from the authorities as they have better information than media

References

A natural born Scrum Master. Always mentally attached to Agile - initially a member of Development Team, eventually Scrum Master in the Scrum Team and Agile Coach in the organisation. The most important for me is to deliver value to end-users thanks to engagement of motivated team. For the past few years I have been gaining experience in project, product and team management. I prefer people-oriented managing style. I constantly repeat to everyone that good work environment can give huge benefit in to the project, its product quality and working environment. Because of that I became Scrum Master to fully support my teams as servant leader by using transparency, inspection and adaptation. I help other teams to be better specialists in their field of action. I see their success as my own even if I am working from shadows. I love to share my experience and knowledge on conferences and meetups - as a speaker and participant. Still trying to discover new ways of work and to improve my workshop.

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