Develop causal and dynamic thinking

CLD (Causal Loop Diagram) consists of causal links and loops. Without solid links, there will be no solid loops. While we practice system modeling using CLD, the first gap is usually at stating a causal chain of links clearly. Therefore, we often spend the majority of time in practicing causal thinking on links, and little time in practicing dynamic thinking on loops. How can we develop both thinking skills in a balanced way?

Causal thinking

Causal thinking is the basic reasoning. When we can't explain our reasoning well, it is often because we don't have clear thinking.

When facilitating a group modeling session, the first challenge is to get the people to advocate their reasoning clearly. While one is explaining verbally, it is hard to extract the variables and links. We have to ask to repeat in slow motion so that the causality in the thinking can be exposed and clarified. Facilitating in this case is more about coaching to think clearly. It can be effective, but takes much time, and meanwhile other participants often wander off.

In fact, writing is an effective way to improve thinking. When putting your thoughts on paper, you turn something elusive into something that is more tangible, so that you can evaluate it by yourself and refine it iteratively. As you improve the writing, you improve the thinking.

In High Output Management, Andy Grove writes: "So why are written reports necessary at all? ... As they are formulated and written, the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally. Hence their value stems from the discipline and the thinking the writer is forced to impose upon himself as he identifies and deals with trouble spots in his presentation."

While I work with a client intensively, I am used to writing coaching journals every week, capturing the progress and main issues this week, and planning the focused areas next week. I write it mainly for myself, as it forces me to think more clearly about what I do and why I do it. That improves my thinking.

In Writing to Learn, William Zinsser writes on many occasions that clear writing is clear thinking, and the process of writing has often clarified much half-formed ideas. That resonates well with my own experience. I have been writing blogs for many years. When I have some insight, I decide to write about it. I always find that there is unclarity in my initial thought, and I make it clear through writing. This is why I think that the writing is mainly for myself, and it is a plus if some other people can benefit from reading it.

So, when we have an issue or a theme at hand, we first write about it individually. That would provide a much stronger base for the further modeling.

Dynamic thinking

While causal thinking is the foundation, dynamic thinking gets into the core of systems thinking. Dynamic thinking enables us to see interconnections. To develop our dynamic thinking, we extend time and expand space.

When we see an event, we extend time to learn patterns of behavior, and from there we model the structures underlying the event. Extending time is a critical step. If we analyze an event and jump directly into the possible causes, we are likely only seeing linear causations, without seeing interconnected structures. There is a systems thinking tool to help us extend time, which is called BoT (Behavior over Time). We start from the event and identify key variables, then, we look back to draw out patterns of behavior. We may also look forward and project future behavior, acknowledging that it contains assumptions to be tested.

When we see an event, we expand space to include more perspectives. Who is directly involved in the event? Who influences the event or is influenced by the event? We are used to only looking at the event from our own perspective, be it an individual, a team or a department, but we can see the structures in a new light by looking at it from others' perspective. I am not aware of any systems thinking tool that specifically supports this expansion; something similar to the context diagram can be useful.

I do a simple exercise in my CLP (Certified LeSS Practitioner) course to demonstrate that everybody has the potential to think in the longer and more global term. I use an event commonly seen at work - a SM (Scrum Master) chases an individual or a team, on which his team depends, to get a quick response. The SM tries to help the team by removing the impediment, and it seems all good. I ask the participants to slow down, then:

  • extend time, with guided questions such as: has the chasing happened more or less often over time; what are the effects in both the short term and the long term; are there any related things happening and how have they changed over time.
  • expand space, with guided questions such as: what happens to the team, the dependent parties, the other teams who also depend on the same parties, the rest of the organization, etc.

By thinking through those questions, even without modeling, we are able to see some longer-term but often unintended effects (e.g. negative impacts to other teams), vicious cycles, and more interconnections. Indeed, we can practice dynamic thinking not dependent on modeling.

In group modeling sessions, we can design a structure to alternate the focus on causal thinking and dynamic thinking. We zoom in to strengthen variables and links, and we zoom out to expose loops. That forms a cycle, and one session comprises many such cycles.

develop causal & dynamic thinking.jpg

Conclusion

System modeling with CLD is an effective approach to develop systems thinking capability. However, as it involves both causal thinking and dynamic thinking, we can get imbalanced during the practice. It is possible to develop them without modeling. We can write our reasoning to improve our causal thinking; we can extend time and expand space to improve our dynamic thinking. While we practice both with modeling, we alternate them deliberately.

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