Systems Approach to Problem Solving


Today’s problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that once created them.

-Albert Einstein

With that statement, one of the greatest thinkers of our century had made the strongest case for an approach that needed us to do more than trying to address the whole by merely stimulating its parts.

A problem is decided by its purpose. If let’s say I am hungry and desperately want to eat. I scan my refrigerator and find nothing. I have a problem. But if someone does not want to eat, having nothing in the refrigerator is not a problem.

The corollary is true within the corporate world. If the purpose is different between managers, they see the identical situation in very different ways. One may see a problem but the others may not see the problem.

In an organisation that makes and retails cars for example, the sales function wants to offer a wide range of choice of colors, features and specifications to its customers. Sales classifies this as flexibility and power in the hands of the consumer.  The manufacturing however, classifies this as poor demand and inventory planning.

Equifinality and Multifinality

It seems right place to introduce two more tenets of Systems Thinking at this point in the discussion.  By definition,

  • Equifinality is – alternative ways of attaining the same objectives (convergence)
  • Multifinality is – attaining alternative objectives from the same inputs (divergence)

As an example, consider your town’s local supermarket. Ssing the tenet of ‘Multifinality’, the same supermarket serves a variety of objectives for different individuals. Depending on the purpose of the user, the supermarket store can be considered :

  • a ‘profit making system’ from the perspective of management and owners
  • a ‘distribution system’ from the perspective of the suppliers
  • an ‘employment system’ from the perspective of employees
  • a ‘materials supply system’ from the perspective of customers
  • a ‘social system’ from the perspective of local residents

What this really points to is the significance of understanding different ‘perspectives’ of all stakeholders of the problem. Some of whom may only be indirectly related.

Perspectives often represent the deep rooted belief systems of the individuals. Sometimes, a perspective may stem only from ignorance. Systems thinking maintains that the problem solver’s perceptions and attitudes are an integral part of the problem situation.

Traditional problem solving techniques and processes are, by and large linear and reductionist.  They often focus on problem symptoms rather than the cause.  This may result in short lived solutions with adverse unintended consequences on a longer run. 

In contrast, Systems approach to problem solving is a scientific approach that starts by recognizing and defining the problem as a whole.

For example while attempting to resolve a public policy or social issue, it takes into account the complex relationships as well as the ‘softer’ variables like human behaviour and emotions like morale, fear, frustration, motivation, recognition, resistance etc. It seeks to understand how they interact with one another and how they can be brought into proper relationship for the optimum solution of the problem.

The approach insists on developing and evaluating all possible alternative solutions and slecting the one, that most holistically addresses the cause. 

The world is a paradox of technological progressiveness and social primitivism. For several decades we have had the technological capability to destroy civilization in a few minutes, so great and quick is the nuclear energy we can release. But during this time we have been unable to build a sociopolitical system to preclude this from being a serious threat.

While System thinking may not solve the problems overnight, it can definately help achieve orderly, timely and rational decisions. The approach will not however give something for nothing. Neither will it change the basic human nature. But it will account for it while searching for a solution. It will lead us to designs and operations that will at least not be chaotic.

The systems approach, if it is used wisely, is, at the least a cure for chaos.


a. Image reproduced from

b. Thinking in Complexity, by Klaus Mainzer

One Response to Systems Approach to Problem Solving

  1. Anukool says:

    As we see that different people have different perspectives of the system, unless or until we observe a system from outside, i.e without being a part of the system there is a good chance that we might end up observing some or a large number of components, variables, or relationships

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