Business of Well-being

The Big Picture View: Linear Thinking in a Nonlinear World

Every day consciously and unconsciously humans, organizations and governments are trying to make sense of the world. How and why events occur and how these events are influenced by the decisions we make. The way humans have learned to do this is by thinking in linear terms; we prefer a structured approach with predictability and consistency.

We like to see things in a sequential format such as A, followed by B, followed by C, and so on. If this was not hindering enough, we also get attached to the arbitrary boundaries our minds habitually become accustomed to. However, the reality is that the world operates in a non-linear format; there are an infinite number of variables that operate in an infinite number of random and non-linear ways.

Thus we are constantly challenged to uncouple our linear thinking and come up with solutions that will work in a non-linear world. Fortunately, we have tools to help us in our critical thinking processes. One such tool is the science of "Systems Thinking" which can guide our decision making to help us navigate a non-linear and an ever increasingly complex world.

Systems' thinking is a term that describes our world as a "web" of interdependence; we cannot solve problems by only having a microscopic view of something but rather we need to also look at the entire system.

The fundamental rationale of systems thinking is to understand how it is that the problems that we all deal with, which are the most vexing, difficult and stubborn, come about, and to give us some perspective on those problems in order to provide us some leverage and insight as to what we might do differently.

What is a System?

  • A system is composed of parts.
  • All the parts of a system must be related (directly or indirectly).
  • The boundary of a system is a decision made by an observer, or a group of observers.
  • A system can be nested inside another system.
  • A system can overlap with another system.
  • A system receives input from, and sends output into, the wider environment.
  • A system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs.
  • A system is autonomous in fulfilling its purpose. (A car is not a system. A car with a driver is a system.)
Diagram 1. A system is a web of interdependence.

A System Has Three Key Properties:

1) Elements - often easiest to identify (the city we live in, or the organization we work for, or the group of individuals we want to participate in a health and wellness program).

2) Inter-connections - deal with flow of info; info holds systems together and plays a big role in how a system operates.

3) Function/Purpose -- most difficult to identify and understand. To be successful in solving any challenge, we must align all three key properties and create leverage. Furthermore,     any and all interventions in a system will ultimately fail if:

  • We do not address root causes; if we only address the reduction of underage drinking and not the cause, the youth will move to other substances.
  • We do not create enough leverage for a "tipping point" effect; need to engage enough partners and create a collective impact.
  • The system's goals and measures badly defined; for example, the critical needs of our failing education system are mainly addressed by pouring more money into it, this is not addressing root causes as it continues to be sub-standard by world standards.
  • Fall in the trap of maximizing or only working on one part of the system; investing most of our resources in treatment and law enforcement and not enough on prevention is a prime example of this trap.

Why is "Systems Thinking" relevant in the areas of substance abuse prevention and health and wellness?

Simply put, we cannot work on just cleaning the fish in the aquarium without cleaning the water and the environment they live. It is not enough to have a health and wellness program at work without also addressing and engaging other partners that deal with the reduction of individual and environmental risk factors in your community.

We often tend to work and think in silos (linear thinking) and do not see the big picture. Furthermore, we do have all the tools and all the information we could possibly ever need to address risk and protective factors, the challenge is how to take the information and turn it into knowledge for the betterment of our communities.

Reading this you may be inclined to say "how can one person or one organization take on such a huge (system) task?" Clearly there would never be enough human and financial capacity by any one organization, including the government by itself, to create systemic change in our communities.

The solution is not rocket science but rather simplistic in nature. The solution comes from consistently and comprehensively engaging multiple partners and organizations, working together on the same goal, while creating collective impact.

Diagram 2. Information versus Knowledge

Putting it All Together:

It is important to note, that a system, any system, cannot ever be 100 percent controlled, it can only be influenced by creating leverage & looking for balance. For example, governments try to help people while they are trying to find work in a very bad economy. If the intervention is extreme, system balance is compromised, people become too dependent on government interventions, thus the system balance atrophies.

Systems theory postulates that we need to always look for balance and leverage, not control. Just as important when utilizing systems theory, we need to be aware and try to avoid system traps. The majority of the traps are the outcome of choosing too narrow system boundaries or too large. There are no separate systems, the universe is a continuum.

Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the inquiry; the questions we wish to ask in order to solve problems. Finally and most importantly remember that if we do not address root causes, create leverage, not looking and evaluating the right goal, and spending too many resources on only part of the system; we will not be successful in the long run.

About the Author

Frank G. Magourilos is a Sr. Certified Prevention Specialist with a Master's Degree in Prevention Science from Oklahoma University and Bachelor's Degrees in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology and Intercultural Communication from the University of New Mexico.

He is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Credentialing Board for Behavioral Health Professionals, and he is also the Founder of the New Mexico Prevention Network. Additionally, Mr. Magourilos is an Adjunct Professor in the Master of Prevention Program at the University of Oklahoma.


Russell L. Ackoff (2010) Systems Thinking for Curious Managers. (Triarchy Press). ISBN 978-0-9562631-5-5.

Jamshid Gharajedaghi (2005) Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity - A Platform for Designing Business Architecture. (Butterworth-Heinemann) ISBN 0-7506-7973-5.

Donella Meadows (2008) Thinking in Systems - A primer (Earthscan) ISBN 978-1-84407-726-7.

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