How systems thinking saves money

26 April 2017
26 April 2017, Comments: 0


A non-profit decides that their staff is overloaded with member questions and it needs a website to communicate with its members and the community at large.

They hire a company to develop the website. The website is expensive and complicated. Causing members to have difficulty finding information and so they call the staff to get their questions answered after all. The website developers add additional functions to the website so that the members could create reports, donors could learn how their donations are being used, and the public could learn about the charity & how they could join. However, members and donors don’t find the new functions as quick as calling staff, so the new functions go relatively unused.

The staff have difficult updating information on the website so they have to pay the website developers to make changes. Of course, this non-profit doesn’t have much money so they don’t hire the developers often and the website information becomes out of date and no one wants to use it.

So members, donors and the public call the staff to get information.

Sound familiar?

At the Haines Centre we use “Systems Thinking” to understand systems of all kinds, especially living systems like organizations, departments, teams and families.

Systems are made up of a group of inter-related components that work together in support of the objectives of the wholeIf there is no relationship between the components, there is no system.

So how can systems thinking help you save money, time and resources? First, let’s review the twelve laws of natural systems, which is the basis for systems thinking.

The Laws of Natural Systems:

  1. Wholism – The whole system is primary, the parts are secondary. The system is more than the sum of its parts. Step back and view the entire system from a broader perspective in order to understand it better.
  2. Open Systems – You will be impacted by forces outside of your system. You can accept inputs from outside your system and also release outputs to people outside the system. Remember that you are open to the external environment and be ready. Closed systems are those which do not interact with their environment through inputs, outputs or impact.
  3. Boundaries – System boundaries separate the system from its environment. An open system has permeable boundaries between itself and a broader external setting so that it can integrate, collaborate and fit with this environment.
  4. Input/Output – A system can be viewed as a transformation process where it receives input, transforms them in some way and exports the outputs. All open systems collect inputs and give outputs.
  5. Feedback – Feedback is important to understand how a system maintains a steady state. Feedback can be either negative or positive. It gives you information on progress towards your goals.
  6. Multiple Outcomes – Systems have multiple goals or purposes because the members and sub-units may have different values and objectives. Be aware of everyone’s WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) during planning.
  7. Equifinality – Systems require flexibility to reach desired results. There are many roads to the same destination based on input from employees and customers.
  8. Entropy – All physical systems are subject to the force of entropy or disorder, which increases until eventually the entire system runs down and fails. Regular follow-up and injection of additional energy are required to keep your system moving forward.
  9. Hierarchy – A system consist of subsystems and is part of a higher-order system. Hierarchy is natural. However, levels can cause bureaucracy and issues. Try to reduce hierarchies, but since they are inherent in systems do not try to eliminate them.
  10. Interrelated Parts – By definition, a system is composed of interrelated parts or elements in relationship to one another. We maximize the system by optimizing the fit of the elements. If we simply maximize the elements, we end up sub-optimizing the whole.
  11. Dynamic Equilibrium – A steady state feeds resistance to change – creating habits that are difficult to change. Remember that resistance to change often leads to short-term thinking and actions. Keep your eye on the long-term goals.
  12. Internal Elaboration – Open systems tend to move toward great elaboration and sophistication. This can cause complexity, chaos, and confusion. Search for simplicity once you have done your due diligence around the details.


If the non-profit would have taken a look at three of the twelve laws of natural systems before the website was designed they could have saved time, money and headaches.

Wholism – The non-profit needed to be clear on why they wanted a website. Was it to give up-to-date information to members, attract donors or advertise to the external community on what the non-profit did? Without this clarity, the development company tried to do everything and a complicated and expensive system was born.

Open System – The non-profit is impacted by external forces like regulations, the economy and what other non-profits are doing. They, therefore, had to respond to these factors and communicate with members. They should have requested a website that was easy for the staff to update.

Multiple Outcomes – The staff and members had different desires for the system. The website did not seem to deliver on less inquires or updated information. By getting clarity on what are the important outcomes that each group wanted, the website might have been able to deliver.

If they discussed these three systems thinking laws in relation to the website, the system could have been designed to give the members the updated information they required and cut down the amount of time that staff spent answering queries.

Do you have a system that is not performing up to your expectations? It could be a computer system, a team, or an entire organization. Discussing the laws of systems thinking can help you design a new system or update an existing one so that you reduce issues, increase productivity, and save money.

I’d love to talk with you about systems thinking.


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