4 Systems Thinking Questions: The Answer To Smarter Life Choices


Why systems thinking questions?

I bet that, like me, you’ve made some reactive decisions which turned out to be—shall we say—less than useful?

Okay then, what about ‘pretty disastrous?’ (Glad to know it isn’t just me!)

Decision-making mistakes knock our confidence, leaving us feeling tentative about future choices.

What if there was a way to consider all the choices and their repercussions, and that left you feeling confident about your decision?

Ta da!

Introducing Systems Thinking Questions

Systems thinking questions could well be the alternative to choosing based solely on some lightweight answer to a question such as “What feels best?” That question is fine if you’re figuring out what flavour ice cream you want. But buying an ice cream isn’t usually one of our major decisions in life—unless you’re three!

Most of us have not learned how to make decisions that use systems thinking and so we’re more likely to make decisions that affect us adversely further down the track.

The choices we make can have diverse impacts on others, the environment, and the systems we are a part of

Systems themselves can be complex

If you’re not familiar with systems and systems thinking, I recommend reading these two blog posts before moving forward.

Systems Decoded: Unravelling The Surprising Forces That Bind Us

Systems Thinking: Your GPS to Conquer Complex Issues

To navigate the systems that make up your life isn’t always easy. But with a few questions tucked up your sleeve, you can decide with the best of intentions for everyone and everything they might affect.

The four key systems thinking questions

These questions are based on mathematical Cartesian Cordinates logic and adapted for use as a language coaching model using NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming).

  1. What would happen if you did? (insert decision)
  2. What would happen if you didn’t? (insert decision)
  3. What wouldn’t happen if you did? (insert decision)
  4. What wouldn’t happen if you didn’t? (insert decision)

The first question is simple and strait forward, and is the question most of us have at the back of our minds when we’re considering any choice.

The second question is pretty simple too.

The last 2 questions will do your head in!

But I know you’re the open-minded type who loves to learn. So having shared the questions I’m going to show you with a couple of examples how they help you think through issues and gain a wider perspective.

Let’s use a simple decision to illustrate the model. The decision is whether to buy and eat a piece of chocolate cake. (If you don’t like chocolate cake, just replace it with something you enjoy!)

A delicious slice of chocolate cake with creamy chocolate filling

So question #1:

What would happen if you did have the chocolate cake? (You’re examining the positives of eating the cake.)

Answers might include:

  • It’ll taste great.
  • It’ll satisfy my peckish-ness.
  • It’s a treat—I deserve a treat—I’ve been working hard.
  • It’ll go perfectly with my latte.
  • It’ll give me some time out.

For many, this is as far as decision making goes. It follows a linear pathway, where one thing leads to another—or we simply justify what we want!

“Reality is made up of circles but we see straight lines.” ~ Peter Senge

So let’s consider question # 2.

What would happen if you didn’t have the chocolate cake?

(Here, you’re examining the positives of not eating the cake)

You may get answers such as

  • I’d avoid the sugar rush afterwards.
  • I’ll save money.
  • It’s better for my health if I don’t eat it.
  • It might not taste as good as it looks.

These last 2 systems thinking questions will take you places you’ve never been before! 😜 Initially, you’ll feel confused—because it isn’t easy to process negatives—especially double negatives! Confusion is desirable! Because confusion is the precursor to clarity. (Honestly—it is!)

Please fully consider each question.

Sit with any confusion and keep asking yourself the question until you get some useful answers. Be patient with yourself and know that, like most things, they become easier to answer the more you practice.

Okay, let’s move on to question #3

What wouldn’t happen if you ate the chocolate cake?

(You’re examining the negatives of eating the cake)

  • I wouldn’t be able to eat all my dinner this evening.
  • I wouldn’t do justice to my partner’s cooking (dinner).
  • I wouldn’t save the money (cost of cake).

And finally question #4

What wouldn’t happen if you didn’t eat the chocolate cake?

(You’re examining the negatives of not eating the cake)

  • I wouldn’t have a treat/reward.
  • I wouldn’t get heartburn after.
  • I wouldn’t know how the chocolate cake tasted.

Yes, I said they’d do your head in!

Keep in mind that whether to eat a piece of chocolate cake isn’t the biggest choice you’ll have to make in your life. But it’s a perfect way to begin exploring decision making using systems thinking questions.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” ~ H. L. Mencken

It’s easier to see the questions in a quadrant

systems thinking questions in a quadrant

Using these questions is a way to get an expansive viewpoint on whatever problem you’re solving or decision you want to make. You get all the answers out of your head and listed under the appropriate question, so you can decide objectively, with as much relevant information as possible.

Often we decide with either an emotional or a gut feel response. There’s nothing wrong with going with your gut or your emotions. However, sometimes decisions affect more than just you, and that’s where these questions (and your answers) are invaluable.

Case Study: The Move to Russell

Now let’s examine another, bigger choice. Let’s say you have another job offer that you’re excited about, but it’s in another town that’s a 5-hour drive away. Let’s call that place Russell. (Obviously, it could also be in another country—or off planet—but let’s keep it simple for now!)

You have a partner and kids to consider. Let’s fill in the chart and see what it looks like. The decision, which we’ll put in the middle, is ‘move to Russell?’ So now it looks like this:

system thinking questions in a quadrant using a case study

You can use this chart to explore any decision. I suggest you use a large sheet of paper or a whiteboard.

Because we now know what decision needs to be made, we can rewrite the systems thinking questions like this:

  1. What would happen if I moved to Russell?
  2. What would happen if I stay where I am?
  3. What wouldn’t happen if I moved to Russell?
  4. What wouldn’t happen if I stay where I am?

system thinking questions in a quadrant with typical answers

I’ve made some assumptions and filled in the chart by repeatedly asking each question, until I ran out of reasons (or, in this case, room!). I’m sure there’s enough here to give you an idea of how this works.

The key is to make sure that you stick to the questions. When you involve others, it turns into a constructive brainstorming session.

While answers to the first 2 questions are typically easy to come by, answers to questions 3 and 4 are more of a struggle. Persevere, because it’s definitely worth it. They will give you deeper insights and expansive resolutions.

If you’re using the questions with others (such as in this case, your partner and family), make sure you put their answers in the correct box. Although you might focus on one question, the answers they give you might fit better in another box (answering a different question).

You also might notice that some answers repeat in different boxes. Don’t worry—it’s better to have the answer twice than not have it at all.

Then what?

When you have everything out on paper or whiteboard, it’s much easier to be impartial and to see connections. Systems thinking questions—or rather your answers—will show you many more aspects that you may not have considered before. Here, it’s clearly not just about the job.

The answers to these systems thinking questions will lead you to discover:

  • The various elements of the system of which you’re a part (In the ‘Move to Russell’ example, it comprises you, your partner, friends, work, schooling, housing etc.)
  • The relationships and dependencies which reveal how one area can affect others.
  • Who and what is directly and indirectly affected.
  • Patterns that might emerge.
  • What’s inside, and what’s outside the system—what the boundaries are.

A beach scene with white sand, blue water and 2 boys running

  • Possible temporal changes, for instance, the move to Russell may be more appropriate when the kids are older and not so reliant on family and babysitters.
  • Indirect effects or unintended consequences.
  • The resources you’ll need (time, money, and effort) which will help you decide what decision is workable.
  • How to weigh the benefits against the risks and costs.
  • A way to come up with a backup plan that can ease the pressure of the decision and open up avenues for adjustment if the situation changes.
  • How the decision fits with your values and ethics.
  • If, and how reversible the decision is if it doesn’t work out as expected.
  • Ways to challenge assumptions (in the example, I have ‘may not make new friends’ in the last box. But of course, this isn’t necessarily true.)

Systems thinking questions are a solid approach

They help you explore and evaluate the various outcomes and potential impacts of a decision.

They also deepen your exploration of the options and ensure a holistic approach. It’s a journey of introspection, a quest for clarity where every question has been a stepping stone to greater understanding.

Stand back and take a breath

Systems thinking questions aren’t just a tool; they’re a gateway to a world where decisions are not gambles, but informed choices.

Have confidence in your decisions by understanding their ripple effect and the possibilities they bring.

Get some practice with asking systems thinking questions and let me know how you get on.

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Tags: Problem solving, Systems, Thinking and mindset, work and career


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