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Systemic (Pattern) Thinking


Systemic Thinking (known in non-practitioner circles as Pattern Thinking) is a simple technique for making sense of and transforming challenging situations, by identifying the single repeating interaction-pattern that’s hidden in plain sight within the situation and intervening at the pattern- level, situation-wide.

It’s a derivative of the TOC 3-Cloud Method in combination with key elements of other system science and cognitive science techniques like TRIZ, Systems Thinking, NLP and Lateral Thinking.

Where it all started

I stumbled on Critical Chain in 1997. It blew my mind! I read everything I could on TOC. Did a Jonah Programme. Applied TOC to everything. Perhaps you can relate?

I thought that TOC was the solution to everything, but felt that it was too technical for and

inaccessible to the average corporate exec. And it didn’t have many ready-made solutions for white-collar workers.

So I set about enhancing and simplifying it in order to make it more suitable and accessible to executives and organisations in white-collar industries. In the process, I came across other way-cool methodologies, like Systems Dynamics and Systems Thinking; TRIZ and ASIT; NLP and Tony Robbins; Lateral Thinking and Creative Thinking and integrated the key elements of all of them into a single, way more powerful method.

Going backwards to go forwards

However, in spite of having made each methodology more accessible and compelling and increasing overall intervention power, the integrated method was at least as complex, technical and inaccessible as each of the individual technologies was on its own. This was not what I was after! I was getting exceptional results, though, and so was invited to present at the International Conference on Thinking with the likes of Edward De Bono and Peter Senge.

My wife, Lynne, and I struggled for weeks to work out how to convey the method in an easily accessible and memorable way within a 40-minute presentation. I wanted to do the genius of each of the methodologies justice, but was going round in circles. It didn’t help that advocates and practitioners of each methodology were adversarial to, competitive with and dismissive of the other


A flash of insight

actually versions of the same deeper insight? After all, they are all addressing the same things:

the interactions that drive and constrain performance. This was a shock because, until then, I’d viewed them as compatible at some level, but uniquely and distinctly brilliant. I still think that. They are uniquely and distinctly brilliant. But perhaps this is because they are mapping slightly different perspectives on an even deeper, simpler and more amazing reality?

The more we thought about it, the more obvious it became and the more evidence emerged to

support the idea. They were all versions of a deeper, simpler, even more powerful and accessible insight. How could it have taken me so long to realise that they had more in common than in


Was there perhaps similarity and commonality elsewhere in the chaos of our complex world that our civilisation is blind to, for some reason?

It was so obvious, in hindsight and yet so elusive in foresight.


Well, it turns out that there was is. A lot of it! More importantly from a scientific method point of view we were unable to find a single case in which there wasn’t a single underlying interaction-pattern. (This remains true today – although, as you’d expect, some of the interaction patterns are difficult to describe without inventing new terms.)

Even better, these interaction patterns were easier to find than we had thought they would be once you got the hang of it.

Not only was there commonality that had been invisible to us before (and presumably to others and, possibly, to the whole of our society), but this commonality repeated throughout and across domains that had previously been siloed in our thinking.

Why don’t we see patterns automatically?

I think it’s because our society’s primary thinking tool is analysis breaking challenging things apart until we can make sense of them.

We’re taught to analyse everything from an early age. From kindergarten days we’re focused on difference, not similarity: We’re often asked “What’s the difference between 2 and 3? – but never, “What’s the same about 2 and 3?”

This makes the interaction patterns even more invisible to us.

(I think that there are deeper, physiological reasons, but I won’t speculate on that in this article!)

Was is – our society so obsessed with difference that it’s blind to similarity and commonality?

difference that it’s blind to similarity and commonality? The Fractal Phenomenon We call the discovery, “The

The Fractal Phenomenon

We call the discovery, “The Fractal Phenomenon” and define it as:

Challenging situations are driven by a single interaction-pattern that repeats at different levels throughout the entire situation.

(Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat at different levels of magnification think of a fern or honeycomb.)

By the way, the popular name for the Fractal Phenomenon is “The Repeating-Pattern Phenomenon”.

It seems, unsurprisingly, that “repeating pattern” resonates far more strongly within our brains than “Fractal Phenomenon” – and so makes the concept far more accessible, appealing and memorable.

Systemic Thinking

The next step in our journey was to create a simple, step-by-step method for finding the single interaction-pattern driving a particular situation. We called the method Systemic Thinking (meaning situation-wide repeating pattern thinking). It’s quite simple, really:

1. List the elements problems, solutions, options or any other interaction type or element you’re looking for.

2. Surface the common themes across the elements and

3. Find the repeating pattern across the themes.

This method is applied both to diagnosis (determining what interaction-pattern is driving the situation) and intervention (working out how to change the interaction-pattern to change the situation as required). The general case is problem-pattern then solution-pattern, as depicted below:

is problem-pattern then solution-pattern, as depicted below: The popular free Smartphone App, 4 Pics 1 Word,
is problem-pattern then solution-pattern, as depicted below: The popular free Smartphone App, 4 Pics 1 Word,

The popular free Smartphone App, 4 Pics 1 Word, illustrates the concept beautifully. Check it out!

It may be a simple technique, but don’t expect it to be easy at first! Sometimes it takes hours – and even days or weeks to find the single repeating pattern. In most situations, however, it takes under an hour to come up with your first satisfactory version of the single repeating interaction- and intervention-patterns, once you’ve got the hang of it.

The trick is to suspend your disbelief that there is a single pattern. Until you do that, you won’t be able to bring yourself to really look for one. Looking for patterns is different from looking for other things because, with patterns, you only know what you’re looking for, once you’ve found it.

The human brain is really a pattern recognition and application engine Systemic Thinking merely provides a simple framework and process for turbo-charging our natural capability to see patterns and use them to intervene effectively, at the pattern level.

By the way, we gave Systemic thinking a popular name as well: “Pattern Thinking” – for the same reasons as with the Fractal Phenomenon: to make the concept more accessible, appealing and memorable. I suggest you do the same! I’ll use these terms for the rest of the article to make it easier for you to remember them, too.

The GPS (Goal|Problem|Solution) Interaction Pattern

Goal|Problem|Solution (GPS) is a universal strategy framework (fractal). It's a simple but very powerful way of creating strategic focus and alignment in challenging situations and in achieving challenging objectives.

situations and in achieving challenging objectives. The GPS Model Goal Pattern : The Goal element of

The GPS Model

Goal Pattern: The Goal element of the GPS articulates the ultimate state sought for all parties in the challenging situation we're seeking to address.

The Goal Pattern is the repeating pattern across all of the outcomes sought for all of the parties concerned, immediately and into the future.

Problem Pattern: The Problem element of the GPS articulates the fundamental problem that all parties face in achieving the ultimate state sought. The Problem Pattern is the repeating pattern across all of the challenges and issues each party faces in achieving the Goal Pattern immediately and into the future.

Solution Pattern: The Solution element of the GPS defines the universal breakthrough solution that will solve the fundamental problem we're facing and secure the ultimate state we're seeking. The Solution Pattern is the repeating pattern across all of the solution ideas for overcoming the Problem Pattern (and local instances of it) and achieving the Goal Pattern.

GPS Origins

GPS is a simplified version of the repeating pattern across the primary intervention patterns in dynamically-complex adaptive systems. (See http://systemicthinking.com/strategy-fractals.html for enhanced versions of the GPS Strategy Pattern.)

Flow Optimisation
Flow Optimisation
Conflict Resolution
Conflict Resolution
Root Cause Transformation
Root Cause
Cycle Reversal
Cycle Reversal


types.html for the pattern-finding methods for each of these intervention- pattern fractals.

Functional Area GPS Examples

One of the best ways to grow pattern-finding capability is to get familiar with existing patterns:


General GPS Examples


Using Pattern Thinking with other models

Pattern Thinking can be used with nearly every model you can think of, like SWOT, 4P, 5S and 7S you name it.

It sometimes takes a little thought to work out what the elements need to be and some of the more complex analytical models aren’t easy to find patterns across, but it often turns out to be easier than you thought it would be.

often turns out to be easier than you thought it would be. Limitations of Pattern Thinking

Limitations of Pattern Thinking

Please understand that Pattern Thinking merely generates significantly deeper insights into situations. It doesn’t guarantee ultimate insight.

Insight is fundamentally physiological and we all start at different places, so it’s unreasonable to expect a novice to arrive at the same level of insight as an expert or seasoned professional. There is, in any event, probably no limit to the mastery one can gain over truly challenging situations, so expecting an ultimate insight is perhaps naïve!

Expect to be surprised, though – whether you’re a novice or an expert – at how Systemic thinking deepens your insight.

Implications of the Repeating-Pattern Phenomenon & Pattern Thinking

1. The ability to develop simple, counter-intuitive breakthrough solutions on-demand

Because interaction-patterns repeat at all levels within the situation and solutions are merely instances of a deeper, simpler and more profound solution any solution idea, no matter how inadequate, is really an instance of the deeper solution.

This means that the deeper solution can be surfaced by repeatedly finding the pattern

across solution ideas. (Think 12-Cloud applied repeatedly to the solution domain). Every solution idea no matter how inadequate contains an essence of merit, or it wouldn’t

have even been thought of in the first place.

three or more inadequate solutions, and you’re triangulating on a deeper solution that is currently invisible to you.

Do this a few times in succession and you’re in breakthrough territory relative to your starting intuition, at least!

Combine and find the repeating pattern across

2. The potential for Pattern-level (Systemic) Intervention

Pattern-Level Intervention is intervening in the challenging situation at the pattern-level (throughout the entire situation at once), rather than at only a single point. It enables one to effect change massively throughout the entire situation by making small changes to the interaction-pattern that’s driving the situation, wherever that interaction-pattern occurs within the situation.

Think of it as changing the DNA of the situation.


Quicker, easier and more reliable validation of the Intervention Solution

Checking an intervention solution for sufficiency is far easier than with non-systemic intervention, because any interactions or patterns that don’t follow the interaction-pattern you’ve identified are indicators that you haven’t found the universal pattern for the situation, yet. Once every interaction and interaction-pattern fits the universal interaction- pattern, you can be confident that the intervention will be effective.

But there is an even more telling test of solution-power and effectiveness: The Serendipity Test. The Serendipity Test is merely looking for evidence that the intervention-pattern you’ve designed addresses additional issues and challenges that you hadn’t previously identified or targeted. The level of serendipity you encounter is an indicator of solution- power: the more serendipity, the deeper the pattern-insight and the more powerful the intervention solution because it is obviously at a deep enough level to address an even broader range of elements than it was designed against.

4. Quicker and easier enhancement of insights

Pattern Thinking allows insights whether diagnostic insights into the current interaction- pattern or intervention-insights into what is needed to change the interaction-pattern to be upgraded and enhanced very quickly and easily. Merely add the new elements to the elements list and follow the same steps as before, in order to refine the universal interaction-pattern and intervention-pattern to reflect the newly identified elements that either hadn’t exhibited before or were missed for some reason.

Intervention insights are really a continuum (in that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s diagnostics), so it’s an ongoing process – but, as you can see, is hardly laborious at all, in comparison with most other techniques.

5. The potential for Pattern-Level Collaboration

It is way easier to orchestrate the collaboration people, independently and collectively, once they understand the instance of the single interaction-pattern driving their part of the situation.

This enables diverse and dispersed groups of people to bring about quick and massive situational change because it enables them to work in concert to change the asymmetry/bias of the system/situation, without a high level of direct coordination or even a high level of precision. This happens almost automatically.

6. A widening of the Intervention Window

The intervention window for systemic intervention is way larger than for non-systemic intervention, because pattern-level intervention doesn’t require the level of precision, timing, coordination and synchronisation that non-systemic interventions require.

Better precision, timing, coordination and synchronisation do translate to faster and truer situation transformation, but pattern-level intervention is far more fault-tolerant and self- healing than single-point, non-systemic intervention, because the intervention-pattern is effective pre-emptively, responsively and reparatively.

Tribute to TOC

Neither the Repeating-Pattern Phenomenon nor the Pattern Thinking technique would have been discovered if it wasn’t for the Theory of Constraints: both the fundamental TOC concept, which I’m

sure is evident to you throughout this article and the 3-Cloud Method, which I’m sure you can see is

fundamental to the Pattern Thinking Process.

patterns and they all follow the fundamental TOC concept and the 5 Step Method.

In a real sense, none of the many dozens of solutions we’ve developed over the last 12 years using Systemic Thinking and the tools and techniques we’ve developed using it, would exist without the starting platform TOC gave us.

Standing on the shoulders of the giants who are standing on the shoulders of giants…

The standard solutions, are, of course intervention