MOOC on Thinking Complexity by Cameron Guthrie, associate professor at TBS

We live in a complex world, where people, objects, feelings, resources, ideas and nature itself are entwined in complex webs of interaction. When you act on one thing, it affects another, and another, and another. In complex situations outcomes of many of our decisions are difficult to predict.

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MOOC Thinking complexity: presentation

We live in a complex world, where people, objects, feelings, resources, ideas and nature itself are entwined in complex webs of interaction. When you act on one thing, it affects another, and another, and another. In complex situations outcomes of many of our decisions are difficult to predict.

To understand complexity, we need to see the world as it is; as a system of interconnected and interdependent parts. We need to become system’s thinkers. When we take a systems perspective we realize that there is no such thing as side-effects. There are only effects. There are no unintended consequences, there are only consequences. When we think systems, we think complexity.

Organizations, experts and scholars list systems thinking to be a critical skill to be able to work in today’s globalized business environment, understand world affairs and to address some of the world’s most complex problems such as sustainability, poverty and climate change.

In the words of Paul Polman, CEO Unilever: “We need people that can understand complexities, boil them down into simplicities and drive them into concrete actions: systemic thinking”.

And yet today, less than one person in ten is a systems thinker. The objective of this online class is to help you become one. You will learn new concepts to make your representations of complex situations more accurate and new tools so that you can share them with others.

The class is made up of four chapters. Each chapter is broken down into several units. Each unit is based around a video, a self-assessment quiz, worked exercises, additional resources and sometimes a class discussion. At the end of every chapter we work through a case study of a complex problem from the real world.

In the first chapter we look at what we mean by complexity, why we sometimes have so much trouble dealing with it and how a systems perspective can help us better comprehend complex situations. We will also list the ten skills you need to master to become systems thinkers. At the end of chapter one, we look at the complex problem of homelessness.

In chapter two we explore a key concept in systems and complexity theory: feedback. We will see that many natural, social and business phenomena are driven by feedback mechanisms. Reinforcing feedback drives both growth and decay, whereas balancing feedback seeks goals, restores balance and creates resistance and resilience. We will learn to identify and draw the feedback mechanisms at work behind complex situations. At the end of chapter two, we look at the complex problem of obesity.

In chapter three we look at the role of accumulations and non-linear relationships in complex systems. We explore how they contribute to both the speed of change over time and the unexpected and often frustrating behaviors we observe in complex situations such as thresholds and tipping points. We will discover how feedback, accumulations and non-linear relationships create chaotic behavior and give rise to the “butterfly effect”. At the end of the chapter we look at the wicked problem of climate change.

In the fourth and final chapter of our class will see that there are a small number of systemic stories that can be found in a variety of different situations in the real world. For example, the structure that underlies and school yard fight is similar to that behind a commercial price war or armed conflict between two neighboring nations. Using our systems approach, we will learn to see the common elements in diverse settings rather than focusing on differences. We also use our new understanding of systems and complexity to question the practices of management, social entrepreneurship and public policy. At the end of the chapter we use a systems approach to improve our understanding of the 2008 financial crisis.

All throughout class we will be using examples from the real world and in particular from the online news. It is by looking at the complexity in the world around us that we train ourselves to become systems thinkers and to think complexity. Becoming a systems thinker is a journey, but the journey is sometimes not an easy one. The tools are not difficult to use, but we must force ourselves to question and sometimes let go of our personal mental models or maps of how we think things work. Old habits do die hard, but the result is worth it. People who use systems thinking keep one eye on the big picture and one eye on the detail. They recognize how structures in one part of a situation can impact other parts, and they understand how the interaction of multiple variables over time lead to events, crises and complex behaviors. When we use systems thinking, we are better equipped to think complexity.

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