Tag Archives: big picture

Systems thinking in one cartoon

Systems thinking is daunting. There is a lot to learn, and there is always someone to cheerfully point out when you’ve missed a bit.

Bill Watterson

I first saw this cartoon in 1992, and I cut it out and stuck it to a picture frame that followed me about for the next 15 years. It reminded me to make sure that I understood why I was choosing to do things and to look for other perspectives.

It’s all about your purpose and seeing the big picture. Bill Watterson is a genius for making it simple and funny.


Breaking the problem down into manageable chunks is a boundary decision. Hobbs sees it as classic reductionism and sets up the punchline, with Calvin is asking “Is this problem within the boundary of what I care about or not”. So he’s not solving the problem, but dissolving the problem by thinking about the bigger picture, from the perspective of a 6-year-old.

Taking a problem that looks impossible and reimagining it from different perspectives, ideally so the impossible part goes away is a common systems thinking approach.

Unlike Calvin, I spend most of my spare time reading entire chapters of books.

My answer: Yes to both.

I think I was first asked the question if I liked ‘looking the big picture’ or if I liked ‘understanding the details’ when I was at school. The purpose of this question was to filter responders into scientific subjects, that were often pushed strongly, like Maths, Science and Engineering, or subjects that were ‘not science’. Not reductionist, but more big picture perhaps. Answering questions that didn’t have just one answer.

I answered yes to both options. Can I look at the big picture and understand the details please? Apparently not, from my experience at least. I had to choose.

For various reasons I had a strong push towards science. I grew up in a northern steel town for one.

So I was steered towards science, and ending up a BSc Physics with Maths, and into IT. I think this is one of the worst decisions I’ve made. I often didn’t find the subjects easy, but I can apply myself until I understand something, so I was successful up to a point. But I’m in a hole I’d like to get out of.

I’m naturally inquisitive, but I’ve found that I ask questions like, ‘This is is cool, how can I use it to do good things‘ at the front of my mind, and not ‘can I take this apart to see how it works‘.

I started learning Systems Thinking a few months ago. One of the greatest things about this is I now know how I think, I have names for my approaches, and a language to discuss thinking. It’s allowed me to show my mental working, and has massively expanded my ability to think clearly, and communicate my ideas, including how I arrived at them. It only took 20 years of reductionism, that saw my interest in problems diminish as I tackled the same thing with a different name.

Back to the original question. Should an answer of ‘both’ allowed? Should holistic thinking be recognised as a mental skill including some specialist understanding? Are thinking skills being wasted, because there is no category for both, and education is either / or?

I’m learning to understand strategic big picture tools as a hobby. I’d like to make it part of my career. I’m still working that one out.