An Introduction to Holistic Thinking for Innovators

Thinking. We all do it. We may even be pretty good at it. We build models like OODA, create formal systems of logic, and blind people with our science. Most of these methods of thinking fall into the category of reductionist thinking. The Scientific Method, easily the most well known reductionist method, has thrust us from believing rats spontaneously generate from grain to believing the universe spontaneously generates from something in a hot dense state. On the whole reductionist thinking and science have pioneered incredible advances in medicine, technology, economics, agriculture, and quality of life.

It would be easy to write an article praising science and reductionist thinking. Instead, I would like to share some of the weaknesses of purely reductionist thought and hopefully draw you a little further along a journey to discover alternative methods of thinking. Specifically, holistic thinking.

Before we can explore holistic thinking, we have to define reductionist thinking. Reductionist thinking is the removal of outside stimuli to isolate behavior, while holistic thinking is the addition of external stimuli to observe behavior in context. The beauty of this is where reductionist thinking is weakest holistic thinking is strongest, and vice versa.

Reductionist thinking has a hard time explaining how things relate to another. Systems of interconnected parts rarely behave the same way when together or broken apart. Something that makes sound economic sense may wind up hurting a country’s foreign relations. A business strategy which benefits the bottom line may impact public opinion. If you try to optimize each part in isolation, you often wind up with a broken whole or destructive conflict.

This is where systems thinking comes in. Holistic thinking is about understanding the relationships between parts within the context of the system. How do proteins come together to form cells? How do neurons inside a spherical bone bucket give rise to intelligence? How does a business really create value for itself, its customers, and society as a whole?

These questions are not easy to address, especially when we are taught to isolate something in order to understand it. Yet we are discovering that the arrangement and interactions of proteins are just as important as the molecular components. We are learning not just quantity of neurons make us smart; but the way they interact with each other, the hormones they rest in, and the amount of sleep we get.

If a brain is so complex, what about a business?Even a small company impacts, and is impacted by thousands of people; they range from employees to competitors to customers to governments to interest groups. These people have different goals, needs, personalities, and strengths. They have different families, grew up with different cultural norms, have different values, and hold different beliefs.

How on earth can we make a business that can succeed given all this uncertainty! There are so many interactions and people and things in a system it is impossible to take them all into account!

The good news is we do not have to. Instead, we may build “good enough” soft models to allow us to understand complexity at a level of abstraction useful at the time. Then we test these models (as best we can) in real world situations, adjusting them as we discover more information.

Obviously this has flaws. It lacks precision and accuracy. It is difficult to reproduce experiments and their results. What worked in one situation may not work in a subtly different situation. Even more confounding, once time has progressed the system has changed.

Which is why we have to balance both holistic and reductionist thinking. Reductionist thinking works exceptionally well when reproducible experimentation is cheap. Holistic thinking works best when we have a system that exhibits a high degree of emergent behaviour, is difficult to experiment on, and does not demand a high level of accuracy.

Thankfully, many systems do not require a high degree of accuracy. When a system is primarily composed of people, for instance, it works better when goals are abstract, culture is cohesive, and constraints are well-balanced.

While this is hopefully a useful start on your path to using holistic thinking, it is only a start! Over the next few weeks, I hope to connect the dots between systems theory and practical applications! Stay tuned!



*This post was contributed by featured guest blogger Zee Spencer. With a fascination for neuroscience, sociology, and business Spencer works at Leandog, a small business and technology consultancy. 

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