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| On 21, Oct 2018

Darrell Mann

A good friend told me I had to take a look at Derek & Laura Cabrera’s book, ‘Systems Thinking Made Simple’ (Reference 1) a few weeks ago. My intrigue was brought to a critical level when I saw that the Distinctions-Systems-Relationships-Perspectives (DSRP) core of the book didn’t appear to tally with the TRIZ Law of System Completeness. It was a classic Niels Bohr, ‘How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress’ moment. At least in theory it was.

Apparently, the Cabrera’s are causing some big waves in the Systems Thinking world. What was not to like? Well, quite a lot as it turns out. Especially since the book was ‘not cheap’. I started to get a tad resentful about my investment within the first forty pages. I understand it’s important to set the context for what’s coming and to explain the problem that needs to be solved, but when that part ends up taking up over half the book, I start to get suspicious. This gets compounded when I then start to read critiques of other tools and methods (Mind-Maps, Network Analysis) where neither Derek nor Laura appears to understand what any of them were actually designed to do. DSRP, Mr and Mrs Cabrera, is only ‘better’ than other tools, methods or strategies when we understand what we’re trying to achieve. When I know that the main job of Mindmapping is to help me organize structure on a specific topic, I know I definitely don’t gain any benefit at all by re-drawing it in the Cabrera’s alternative form. What they’re asking me to do looks rather like crackpot rigour to me. As does an awful lot of the book. In the end, I get the impression that the Cabrera’s fall into the same category as much of the Big Data Analytics world: they’re passionate people that want to save the planet, but have never had to solve a real problem in their life before and hence have no idea beyond abstract theory about what is useful and what isn’t. It is very noticeable that the Systems Thinking Made Simple book doesn’t contain a single case study example of anything.

I get that the Cabrera’s want to ‘help the world’ by creating a population that is better at systems thinking, but I suspect too, that if they’d deemed to follow their own medicine and looked beyond their own navel-gazing perspective, they might have seen that TRIZ does everything they’re trying to do and more.

I could go on, but there’s no real point in attacking bad thinking. The only useful bit comes when we look for the things that might have some value. Which then brings us back to the overall question of how the DSRP model apparently conflicts with the Law of System Completeness.

First up, a few context-setting quotes from Systems Thinking Made Simple:

“System Thinking is not a process but an outcome.”

“System Thinking is an emergent property of a [complex adaptive] system.”

“Distinction Rule: Any idea or thing can be distinguished from the other ideas or things it is with.”

“Any boundary we make is a distinction between two fundamentally important elements: the thing (what is inside), and the other (what is outside).”
“Systems Rule: Any idea or thing can be split into parts or lumped into a whole.”
“Systems thinking is a particular type of metacognition that focuses on and attempts to reconcile the mismatch between one’s mental models and how the real world works.”

“Relationships Rule: Any idea or thing can relate to other things or ideas.”

“Action-reaction relationships are not merely important to understanding physical systems, but are an essential meta-cognitive trait for understanding human social dynamics and the essential interplay between our thoughts (cognition), feelings (emotion), and motivations (conation).”

“Perspectives Rule: Any thing or idea can be the point or the view of a perspective.”

“…perspectives are synonymous with a ‘point-of-view.’ Being aware of the perspective we take (and equally important, do not take) is paramount to deeply understanding ourselves and the world around us.”

So, what to take from this?

Well, the first thing, I think, is that if ‘systems thinking’ is the outcome it therefore must require a system in order to achieve that outcome. And, if it’s a system, it must therefore satisfy the Law Of System Completeness.

At first it isn’t obvious that any of the four DSRP elements bear much of a resemblance to any of the six essential elements contained in the Law. There’s perhaps a case to say that all four are merely heuristics that might be seen to form part of the ‘Engine’ of a Systems-Thinking system? But then, if we zoomed in and looked at this Engine as its own system that in turn must also satisfy the Law of System Completeness, we’re no better off in our attempt to make a connection between DSRP and the Law than we were before we started.

It was time to dig deeper:

What might the ‘Engine’ of the Systems-Thinking system be? Out of the four DSRP options, it is the Perspectives element that seems to offer up the closest match since it is the one that’s about ‘understanding’ and, in effect, the ability to overcome psychological inertia.

‘Systems’ then, because when you read the book, gets closely associated with ‘meta-cognition’, thus seems to be the Cabreras’ way of saying that this is supposed to be the higher level ‘Coordination’ part of the overall system.

Next up is Distinctions. Based on the Cabreras’ descriptions, this seems to relate to the Tool (‘thing’ in the Cabreras’ terminology) part of the TRIZ Law. Except not quite, because the way it is described is all about distinguishing between ‘the thing’ and ‘not the thing’. I think this means we have to interpret it as part Tool and part Interface. I can’t see it as being the whole of the Interface story because if we’re trying to map the ‘system’ for ‘system-thinking’, the Interface necessarily needs to incorporate the idea of context and the ‘thing’ the system is supposed to ‘work on’. The Interface is the tooth acted upon by the toothbrush bristles (tool); it is the market demand on which the new product innovation has to serve. In the Systems Thinking context, the analogy for ‘Interface’ must therefore relate to the problems or situational context on which the thinking is focused. The ‘D’ in DSRP doesn’t really cover all of this part of the story, and nothing I can see in the Cabreras’ book seems to give me any further clues that they see ‘context’ as an essential part of the Systems-Thinking story.

Finally, comes the Relationships part of the story, and all the ‘between’ aspects of the systems-thinking story. One way of looking at this is that the ‘R’ in DSRP is therefore all about the lines between the six elements in the Law of System Completeness? But then, ‘Transmission’ is also about connections and specifically the relationship between the Engine and the Tool, so it feels logical to connect the two ideas.

Overall, then, the DSRP/LoSC overlap story seems to come down to this:

Figure 1: Aligning DSRP and LoSC 

So What?

Overall, I would have to say that DSRP has a lot more to learn from TRIZ than the other way around. DSRP might be essential elements of the Systems-Thinking story, but because they don’t satisfy the Law Of System Completeness, while they might be necessary, they are not sufficient. You can’t have a system to achieve Systems-Thinking if you don’t have a meaningful Interface to the external context on which you’re looking to achieve the desired systems-thinking outcome. Similarly, you can’t achieve systems-thinking if you don’t have Sensors – i.e. ways and means to measure what is happening during the Systems-Thinking process.

Taken the other way around, we might ask, what does DSRP contribute to the TRIZ story. The answer to this question is somewhat less clear I think. The Cabreras’ insight about defining ‘systems-thinking’ as a (meta-)system is useful to some degree. It always being useful to keep in mind where you are process-wise during any activity working on wicked problems. Beyond that, I’ve also had some new insights arrive to me when trying to work on a long-standing wicked problem we occasionally find ourselves dabbling with. This insight came from the recognition from the ‘D’ part of the DSRP story that its sometimes necessary to look at what the focus is not as much as focusing on what it is.

Finding a synergy is always good, taking us as it does, a tiny step closer to a possible eventual ‘Theory Of Everything’. It would be lovely to think that Derek and Laura Cabrera – who also appear to be embarked on their own ‘ToE’ journey – might one day take a look at what TRIZ has already revealed rather than re-inventing more unnecessary, and rather noisy, wheels.


  1. Cabrera, D., Cabrera, L., ‘Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope For Solving Wicked Problems,’ Odyssean Press, 2015.