Systems Thinking Research Rediscovered: Ludwig von Bertalanffy and the Society for General System's Research's Relevance in the 21st Century

Stephen Haines


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This paper ties the roots of Systems Thinking to its crucial relevance for the future by reviewing the influence and work of the Society for General Systems Research (GSR). It is important to understand the history of Systems Thinking and its original definition that is the Foundation of ISSS.  This definition is often lost to the detriment of many current practitioners who lack foundational theory. An understanding of the Systems Thinking Approach as the Core Technology of the Haines Centre addresses the recent failure of the economy and rejuvenates many professional, management with practical applications.

The father of Living Systems Thinking and founder of the Society for General Systems Research (later the ISSS) was Austrian Ludwig von Bertalanffy. When Bertalanffy helped formed the GSR in 1954, his goal was to find a unity of science for all complex living things on earth.

The result is Systems Thinking, both an old and new orientation to life. It is the “natural way the world works,” giving a simpler, yet holistic view of individuals, teams and organizations as they survive and thrive in today’s complex and dynamic global environment. The holistic outcome-oriented approach to Systems Thinking distinguishes it from other narrow and fragmented analytical approaches to life and work.  While critical thinking is an important practice, Systems Thinking extends and revolutionizes it in a more extensive and practical way.

Four interrelated main concepts help clarify and simplify how we view our complex world. These concepts— or strands of DNA that compose Systems Thinking— provide a broader mental map to see, think, understand, diagnose and act more effectively.

1. The first DNA strand is the Seven Levels of Living Systems: cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society and supranational system. The paper will focus on the three levels that affect organizations— individuals, teams and organization— and their three levels of collision: one-on-one, team-to-team, and organization-to-environment.

2. The second concept is the Twelve Natural Laws of Living Systems on Earth. These laws, organized into internal and external strands of life— help to point out natural similarities in humans at all Seven Levels. They also aid in comparing Best Practices with traditional human and organization dynamics.

3. The third strand is the ABCs of the Systems Thinking framework. These five Phases provide a simple yet comprehensive approach to integrative and holistic Systems Thinking. The application of these concepts is Strategic Thinking, a “backward thinking” approach that starts with the desired future, then works backwards to develop plans, strategies and actions to “close the gap” and reach desired outcomes.

4. The fourth DNA strand is The Rollercoaster of Change™, the natural and historical reaction to any desired change. This individual and physiological reaction to change is normal and highly predictable. By anticipating natural reactions, a Systems Thinking approach prepares practitioners for every hurdle they might face in implementation.

With the recent failure of the economy, there has never been a better time to return to the basics. This paper focuses on returning to fundamentals that are often forgotten, in order to replace the cycle of failure with a cycle of success. By returning to the roots of Systems Thinking, practitioners can examine and build on past successes, launching their own cycles of success in whatever ISSS sub-group they join.

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