The A to Z of Systems Thinking: A for AND

The A to Z of Systems Thinking: A for AND

I loved Algebra at school. In particular, I loved arithmetic sequences, and practiced them so much that it became easy for me to see a group of numbers and extract a pattern that connected them. It became a game that I played constantly in my head.

One day, in Physics class, the teacher gave us a problem to solve. As she read out the problem, I could immediately see the pattern emerging from the numbers and, using an arithmetic sequence, figured out the solution within a minute. It took the rest of the class a good 40 minutes to get there.

Since I was THAT nerd in the class, I bragged to my teacher that I had the correct answer so much faster than anybody else. I still remember her answer to this day. She said:

‘You are not in Math class right now; you are in Physics class. You need to show me that you can break the problem down into smaller parts in order to come up with the solution’.

I wanted top grades so I diligently followed her process from then on, but I never understood why I could not apply ‘mathematical reasoning’ in physics, and ‘physics reasoning’ in maths.

A couple of years later, I had completely forgotten the physics formula, I never needed to use it. In contrast, I never stopped seeking patterns and relationships between numbers, things, people, etc, and that has been most useful in many different contexts and situations.

I think we are all pretty good at creating categories, disciplines and silos. We break things apart in order to understand their components. In doing so, we tend to forget that the connections between the components, the patterns and relationships that bring them together are equally, if not more important than the parts.

The Sufi poet Rumi articulated this beautifully:

You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’. (Rumi)

Systems thinking reminds us about the ‘AND’.

Instead of focusing on the components and the categories, we pay attention to how they relate to each other.

Once you start to pay attention to the ‘AND’ part, you start to see connections everywhere. You realise that the challenges the world faces right now are interconnected and impact one another.

Here’s a little mental game you can play when you’re stuck in a queue in the supermarket:

Think of two topics: fashion and health; cooking and politics; climate change and architecture.

Now think of how these can influence each other. Think of as many ways they can influence each other as possible. In other words, look for the ‘AND’.

Image created with Midjourney

For example:

  • The trend for fast, disposable fashion means that businesses turned to cheap synthetic materials, which shed microplastics when washed. These microplastics can pollute drinking water and enter the food chain, posing potential health risks to humans and animals.
  • The fashion industry is not tightly regulated in terms of the chemicals it uses for the production of clothing. As a result, chemicals such as dyes and flame retardants have been used without proper investigation into their potential health risks. We are discovering that, in some cases, they can cause respiratory problems and increase the risk of developing some cancers.
  • Fast fashion encourages overconsumption. Constantly buying and discarding clothing can lead to debt, and financial stress, negatively impacting health.
  • The pressure to conform to idealised images of fashion influencers can create a culture of comparison and mental health issues, especially in younger people.
  • Poor conditions of labour to meet the fast cycle of production can contribute to physical and mental health issues for the workers, and increase health inequities in poorer countries.
  • The environmental consequences of fast fashion, such as pollution from textile production and the disposal of large amounts of clothing in landfills, can indirectly affect human health. Pollutants released into the air and water can negatively impact the health of nearby communities.
  • The fashion industry has a considerable carbon footprint, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon each year. This contributes to global warming, and ultimately impacts human health through natural disasters and new pandemics.

If you pick more than two topics, you will start to form a bigger picture with even more connections. Because things are so interconnected, any action you take in one part will most likely have a domino effect on other parts.

In other words one action does not equal one effect. One action equals multiple (direct-, and indirect-) effects.

This leads me to another way to use AND: The AND Method.

I learned about the AND Method from Gene Bellinger, who has clearly and beautifully explained it here. I highly recommend you read his article. The below is a quick summary of the principle:

Let’s take the example of PFAs: horrible chemicals that are used in so many products and that are impossible to get rid of. Initially, one type of PFA was banned, but was swiftly replaced by a whole group of PFAs, making the problem worse. Now there is so much of them around that they pose a real global health risk.

Say you decided to ban all types of PFAs with one policy.

You draw a picture that depicts where the chemicals are used, who produces them, you learn about their management cycles and the policies that surround them.

Then you ask two questions:

  • And what else is the ban of PFAs going to influence?
  • And what other interventions might influence the amount of PFAs that people are exposed to?

By asking these questions you might find that PFAs are essential for some medical applications that cannot be readily changed. You might also find that banning PFAs will lead to the dumping of tonnes of raw materials in landfills, or that producers will start exporting their products to other neighbouring countries that have not banned PFAs, polluting other resources that your country might be reliant on.

I have oversimplified the method for the purposes of this article, but the takeaway messages remain the same:

  • One action does not equal one effect in the highly interconnected world we live in
  • Before you take an action to change, consider what other consequences might arise from that action

AND…what else would you add?

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This article is part of a series called the A to Z of systems thinking. Through short stories, case studies and articles, the aim is to introduce some of the concepts of systems thinking, to make them easy enough that anyone can take them and apply them in their everyday life: personally or professionally.

Houda Boulahbel is the founder of the Institute For Systems Intelligence – IFSI to friends. She designs creative training programmes and resources that are rooted in the principles of systems thinking, and that empower individuals and organisations to elevate their ability to create, collaborate and lead

originally published at Systems Thinking Made Simple

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