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MSc students learn the link between systems thinking and disruption

  • Dawn Milne
  • |
  • Sep 13, 2019
MSc students learn the link between systems thinking and disruption

MSc students participating in the Systems Thinking and Disruptions event

To solve big problems and deal with disruptions, you need to see the big picture.

That was the premise behind the inaugural MSc Systems Thinking and Disruptions event September 11-12 where Ivey’s MSc students were introduced to systems thinking, an analysis that focuses on the connections in any situation.

Professor Tima Bansal and Lecturer Karen MacMillan led the event and said it’s a different approach to the linear thinking that’s typically taught in business schools. With linear thinking, students are taught to break a problem down into its components to make it more manageable. Students then learn to solve the problems associated with the components. But MacMillan said the current pace of disruptions limits the effectiveness of linear thinking because students focus on the immediate issues, and miss the big picture.

A new era, a new way of thinking

“As we enter this new era, the speed and breadth of the disruptions are outpacing business leaders’ ability to gather the necessary information and resources to prepare,” she said. “Linear thinking can be helpful when a problem is simple, but our society and our world are complex systems.”

Enter systems thinking, where students learn to understand the bigger context and anticipate consequences.

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“Systems thinking forces you to see the whole, not just the parts,” said Bansal. “Too often we try to solve problems by looking at one component. When we start with a component, we end up with a solution that differs from when we start with the whole. Systems thinking forces students to see the forest and then the trees, rather than just seeing the trees.”

The students participated in various activities geared to help them to think about systems. These included a ball-throwing exercise, where they learned that responding to just one ball is doable, but responding to two or more balls is challenging. They also played Fishbanks, a multiplayer web-based simulation where they were challenged to find ways to maximize the net worth of their fishing operations without depleting the fish population.

Considering outcomes of disruptions

They also looked at disruptive businesses, such as Uber, from a systems thinking lens. They discussed some of the unintended consequences of Uber, such as increased emissions due to more vehicles on the road, and fewer people walking or taking public transportation.

For Heurjonie Lembi-Bonheur, an exchange student from Louvain School of Management in Belgium in the CEMS MIM stream, the event broadened her view of disruption.

“Thanks to this event, I learned that disruption is not only about technology, it’s also about social and environmental issues,” she said. “I also learned that you have to be open-minded.”

Hayden MacDonald, an MSc ’20 candidate who is in the Business Analytics stream, said he gained a new mindset.

“Normal business thinking is to think about two entities and how there is a cause-and-effect relationship between them, but my key takeaway is there can be many changes in a network of entities that affect that relationship,” he said. “That’s the kind of mindset that we need to take away into our future careers.”

Leading through disruptions

The event was inspired by Ivey’s Disruption Roundtables project. Bansal is part of a team of researchers looking at the effects of disruption on people, organizations, and society and what business schools can do to prepare students to deal with this pace of change.  

“We want the students to see the world in a very different way. If we exposed them to a different way of thinking, then we succeeded,” she said.