Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Systems Thinking usage survey 2013 results

Background 

In August 2010 Ilia Bider posted the following question on LinkedIn; “If System Thinking is such a good method (especially for solving poorly defined problems), why it is not that widespread?”

Similar questions have been raised several times in the Systems Thinking World group on LinkedIn.

In an attempt to move from talking in circles on this topic I developed a survey to get some data that could be used to analyse why Systems Thinking (ST) is not more widespread.

Summary of results

The table below shows the most common answers to the questions of why respondents were not learning more about ST and why they were not using ST more than they already were. These reasons can be seen as key obstacles to the wider adoption of ST. The sample size was 86.

GroupObstacles in learning about STObstacles to the use of ST
Non-experts
  • Don't have time.
  • Poor quality of learning material.
  • ST has no process or framework so it becomes too abstract and philosophical.
  • Difficult to understand.
  • Not convinced it is (more) effective.
  • The mainstream is overly focused on short term goals. 
  • Don’t know enough about ST. 
  • Difficult to apply on real world problems. 
  • ST does not match how things are being done in the organization.
  • Task focus in organizations. No incentives or rewards for using ST. 
  • People do not understand or see the value of ST presentations.
  • System thinkers do not want to impose their style of thinking on others.
  • ST is too vague. There are no fixed criteria you can use to tell if you are using it or not. 
  • Managers are not interested in what the ST analysis show. 
  • ST is abstract and ill-defined.
Experts
  • ST is not perceived by peers as professional. 
  • There is no ST diploma or skill level to brag about.
  • Theoretical disagreements and change.
  • The mainstream is overly focused on short term goals. 
  • Managers are not interested in what the ST analysis show.
  • System thinkers do not want to impose their style of thinking on others. 
  • Hard to introduce ST because of the dominant linear way of thinking. 
  • ST does not match how things are being done in the organization. 
  • Difficult to communicate.

The summary above is based on the most frequent answers (>10% of responders marked the same checkbox question) and issues that could be identified by grouping similar free text responses.

Survey method

The survey was carried out during February of 2013. We invited participants by using social media and by sending a broadcast e-mail to all members of the Systems Thinking World LinkedIn group. We encouraged only people who had been introduced to ST to participate.

At the time of writing 89 responses had been registered. The survey can still be viewed at the following locations:
Survey formhttp://bit.ly/XPdc6f
Automated visual summary http://bit.ly/YljT27
Raw data spread sheet of all responses http://bit.ly/Zk4XBE

In the survey we asked questions such as why they did not use ST more often and why they did not learn more about it. The survey did not cover the opposite aspects of why people were using it and why they wanted to learn about it. Our focus was on the obstacles and barriers to the wider adoption of ST.

There are also topics that could be included but I did not think about during the design. One such topic is the fear of carreer suicide and the undermining of power-holders.

There were both multiple choice answers and free text fields for respondents to fill out. Google forms were used as the survey engine.

Issues with the survey design 

The survey did not define ST or what was meant with using ST. This may have led to different interpretations of questions such as “Why do you not use it more often?”

The definitions of what ST is and what it means to use ST are still heavily debated. It seems that some think of “using ST” as simply having a certain mind-set. Others see it more as using a diverse set of modes of thought and different systems related disciplines for analysis and synthesis, while others tend to see ST more along the lines of a methodology to be used in inquiry and problem solving. These different interpretations of ST have surely influenced what respondents answered on the question “How often do you use Systems Thinking?”

The use of a Google form as a survey does not exactly meet the highest scientific standards but it was an easy way to get relatively good data.

Grouping of results

We have divided all respondents (n=86) into two groups. We call these the “experts” and the “non-experts”. The reason for this separation is that the results from these two groups are quite different and it makes sense to divide into these two groups for later analysis. If we are to answer the question of why ST is not more widely adopted it is more interesting to look at answers from non-experts. The non-experts are those who adopt ST. The experts are instrumental in the adoption.

GroupRespondentsDescription
Experts 46 Respondents who say they contribute to the field…provide training etc
   AND
Respondents who say they have been following Systems Thinking and related topics for years...
Non-experts40 All respondents – Experts.
People who have no prior knowledge of ST have not been invited and included in the survey results.
Deleted 3 Empty or invalid response data
Total 89
¨


Survey results details 

Age profile of respondents



Stated frequency of the use of Systems Thinking














Experts in response to “Why do you not use it more often?”

The mainstream is overly focused on short term goals, bottom line and quick wins. 9 18.4%
Managers don’t care what my ST shows anyway. They only hear what they want to hear 5 10.9%
I do not want to impose my style of thinking on others. 5 10.9%
ST does not match how things are being done in my organization 4 8.7%
ST is not comprehensive/complete. I can only use it for parts of the inquiry 3 6.5%
People do not understand or see the value of my ST presentations 3 6.5%
I feel I don’t know enough about ST 2 4.3%
You can’t measure its effect. 2 4.3%
I am rewarded for doing specialized tasks. Not for predicting the future and pointing out how things may be connected. 2 4.3%
I am afraid that people will think I am crazy when I show them my lengthy ST analysis. 2 4.3%
ST is too vague. There are no fixed criteria you can use to tell if you are using it or not. 2 4.3%
I do not want to be looked on as the besserwisser. 2 4.3%
I don’t want to think all day long. ST requires too much thinking. 1 2.2%
I am not convinced it provides added value for the problems I am working on. 1 2.2%
ST requires a suspension of self-interest. I am not able to push my interests. 1 2.2%
I don’t want to think all day long. ST requires too much thinking. 1 2.2%
I am just too impatient 0 0%
I find it difficult to apply on real world problems 0 0%

32 (70%) of experts say they are using ST as much as they can when they come across situations that warrants its use.

Free text answers from experts on “Why do you not use it more often?” 

Hard to introduce ST because of the dominant linear way of thinking 

“…the evaluation community is a tightly knit community that is immersed in the reductive, linear paragdigm – even if you were once part of that community – just talking about ST pushes you out into the periphery to a position of less power and legitimacy, even if you previously had more legitimacy with less professional experience.” 
“I use it often. But I can say why people surrounding me don’t use it often. They think it’s abstract. It’s not solving problems the way they would like, because they are stuck with the linear model and can’t see the big picture. Not only they can’t see it, they don’t want to see it. Their daily life is based on linear assumptions, and the status quo is what they look for. They are wealthy Swiss people, and are not interested in changing anything around them. It’s understandable. Short term future is all what our brain seems to be programmed for. It needs effort to look further away. ST needs some effort before really grasping its concepts. People are too busy maintaining their achievements – both material and spiritual – to decide to look further away.” 
“Audience thinks context is irrelevant and are confident in their assumptions, if they even know what they are.” 
“Until the ‘T’ in ST is expanded to mean modes of thought other than the use Aristotelian logic and Cartesian assumption about the nature of the mind we will make no progress...”

Difficult to communicate 

“Other people don’t understand it easily and it can be hard to collaborate.”
“I use it regularly for my own work and personal life. However, I have trouble explaining it to others.”
“If others understood ST better, it would be easier to use more frequently.”
“Also, I find that the language of ST is often exclusionary. For our workshops, we've had to make the language of ST more relate-able to our audiences who come from all walks of life and have varying levels of education.” 

Not seen as important or significant

“Currently it is not a priority at my place of work.” 
“Others discount its value, saying everything is connected to everything else, so what?“ 

Time consuming 

“It is time consuming to use well. Others are impatient with process analysis.“
“Boundary issues are difficult to define.”

Experts in response to “Why are you not learning more about Systems Thinking?”

ST is not perceived by my peers as professional 7 15.2%
It is difficult to learn about ST. Poor quality or ambiguous learning material/courses. 4 8.7%
There is no ST diploma or skill level I can brag about. 4 8.7%
I don't have time. 3 6.5%
I am not convinced it is more effective than other ways of doing inquiry. 1 2.2%
I don't feel welcome in the ST community. 1 2.2%
ST has no process or framework so it becomes too abstract and philosophical for my taste. 1 2.2%
I don't care about systems. I already have enough things to think about. 1 2.2%
I am not convinced it is more effective 1 2.2%
I find ST difficult to understand. 0 0%
I don't like the ST community. 0 0%
ST is not sexy, cool or trendy. (Appealing) 0 0%
ST is boring. 0 0%
I have little or no use for it. 0 0%

23 (50%) of experts say they are in the process of learning more about ST.

Free text answers from experts on “Why are you not learning more about Systems Thinking?” 

Theoretical disagreements and change 

“Gets a bit atomistic with people proselytising their favourite words and models and flogging old horses with new names, loosing its pluralistic origins. On the other hand I am learning and advancing the thinking everyday, but it's not the be all and end all.”
“I had to create my own interdisciplinary PhD program (2001 to 2005) to learn about ST as part of a health policy and evaluation PhD. Luckily, I had access to some stars in the field - but even they argued with each other a lot, especially about how to use ST and complex systems theory in evaluation. That is continuing to be a big debate!” 

No community 

“Before STW, there wasn't enough group support to motivate continued learned, even from my worldwide network of ST colleagues (who tend to be mere critics and non-joiners)” 

No best practices for teaching ST 

“As a teacher, I find that really good introductory books for non-technical graduate students are rare and many consultants' books tend to be too expensive for use in only 1-2 class sessions within a course. Guidance how to teach ST to others has been difficult to locate. The ST community seems to be insular and focused on talking to each other and the ST past.”

Not seen as important or significant by managers

“...no perceived value by the public. This leads mgmt to put roadblocks in the way and substitute bureaucracy like cmmi, agile, and just plan erroneous but popular approaches.“ 

Too academic 

“I would like to say that I think ST has been marketed as a tool for academia, business management and maybe management of governmental agencies. I have done a lot of searching online and there are very few people (online at least) who are trying to give ST tools to non-academic, non-managerial people. I think this is a huge loss and keeps ST stuck in an ivory tower when it should be down on the ground helping with the daily chores. Linda Booth Sweeney is doing an incredible job, teaching children systems thinking...“

Experts in response to “How often do you use Systems Thinking?”

Daily 38 82.6%
Once a week 6 13.0%
Once a month 0 0%
Rarely or never 0 0%
No answer 1 2.2%


Non-experts in response to “Why do you not use it more often?”

The mainstream is overly focused on short term goals, bottom line and quick wins. 16 40.0%
I feel I don't know enough about ST 15 37.5%
I find it difficult to apply on real world problems. 11 27.5%
I am rewarded for doing specialized tasks. Not for predicting the future and pointing out how things may be connected. 9 22.5%
ST does not match how things are being done in my organization. 8 20.0%
People do not understand or see the value of my ST presentations. 6 15.0%
I do not want to impose my style of thinking on others. 5 12.5%
ST is too vague. There are no fixed criteria you can use to tell if you are using it or not. 5 12.5%
Managers don't care what my ST shows anyway. They only hear what they want to hear. 4 10.0%
I am not convinced it provides added value for the problems I am working on. 2 5.0%
I do not want to be looked on as the besserwisser. 2 5.0%
ST is not comprehensive/complete. I can only use it for parts of the inquiry. 2 5.0%
I don't want to think all day long. ST requires too much thinking. 2 5.0%
I am just too impatient. 2 5.0%
I am afraid that people will think I am crazy when I show them my lengthy ST analysis. 2 5.0%
I am just too impatient 1 2.5%
You can't measure its effect. 1 2.5%
ST requires a suspension of self-interest. I am not able to push my interests. 1 2.5%

30.0% (12/40) of non-experts say they are using ST as much as they can when they come across situations that warrants its use.

Free text answers from non-experts on “Why do you not use it more often?” 

Abstract, vague and ill-defined 

“I find my peers surprisingly uninterested, i also find that, similar to sustainability, people have different interpretations and understandings of systems thinking…”
“The main reason is that few people are able to grasp it and fewer willing to apply their minds to it.” 
“I remain to be convinced of the value and credibility of the approach” 
“Seen as too complex.” 

Requires buy-in 

“Requires a lot of trust that other people/parts of the Organization will buy-in to the approach over the medium to long term.”
“Lack of local movement that would give more reason for business to use ST.” 

Non-experts in response to “Why are you not learning more about Systems Thinking?”

I don't have time 9 22.5%
It is difficult to learn about ST. Poor quality 8 20.0%
I find ST difficult to understand 8 20.0%
ST has no process or framework so it becomes too abstract… 6 15.0%
I am not convinced it is more effective than other ways of doing inquiry. 5 12.5%
There is no ST diploma or skill level I can brag about 2 5.0%
I have little or no use for it. 1 2.5%
ST is not perceived by my peers as professional 1 2.5%
ST is not sexy, cool or trendy. (Appealing) 1 2.5%
I don't like the ST community. 0 0%
ST is boring. 0 0%
I don't feel welcome in the ST community. 0 0%
I don't care about systems. I already have enough things to think about. 0 0%

57.5% (23/40) of non-experts say they are in the process of learning more about ST.

Free text answers from non-experts on “Why are you not learning more about Systems Thinking?”

Difficult to use 

“It is difficult to start modeling and applying ST to own problem domain even I have read books and articles with clear and good examples.”
“Being reminded, or told, how ST could help with particular things I am working on. The provision of a resource that promised to be intellectually exciting and practically helpful might be a prompt. That would be something that explained the principles (and pointed to other sources where they already exist) but then had lots of examples of how you could use it practically in your day to day role as a manager, consultant or whatever.”
“I haven't seen practical examples of it being used successfully in everyday business affairs and am not sure what techniques to use when.” 

Not seen as important or significant 

“…It is not that there are reasons not to (boring, not sexy etc.). It is more a question of if and when it rises high up enough the priority, or 'to do', list to actually get done. That's not quite the same as 'don't have time' - there is time, but there are many competing pressures for it.“ 

No authority on the common place to start learning 

“I don't know how to start, what path to follow. How to pick materials to learn from.” 
“I haven't found a way to actually learn ST. What I started to read wasn't appealing enough to dig into it all”.

No community 

“I think doing ST together with others (best: interdisciplinary) is a bigger learning experience than trying to figure things out alone. Finding others who are nearby, open and interested to do this together needs some time and luck :)” 

Non-experts in response to “How often do you use Systems Thinking?”

Rarely or never 12 30.0%
Once a month 11 27.5%
Once a week 10 25.0%
Daily 6 15.0%


Afterword

With this I hope the survey has given the ST community valuable data for further analysis.

I hereby encourage you to use the data to come up with solutions to how we can make ST more widespread, as I strongly believe that an appreciation for Systems Thinking among the population would make the world a better place.