How to analyze situations = systems


Key message: We understand a situation = a system when we can explain how all of its elements work together to form "the whole".


What are situations? What are systems?

A situation describes the relations between several elements (persons or things) at a point in time. (I cannot imagine a situation that consists of only one element.) So a situation is a system at a certain point in time. When I analyze a situation, it means that I am analyzing a system.


Definition: A situation is a system at a certain point in time.


Definition: A system is a set of interrelated elements. The viewer can decide where to place the system boundary, but the boundary should make sense.

How to analyze systems, how to analyze situations, Definition situation -

How to understand situation = systems

When we say: “I want to analyze this system (situation)” then we really mean: “I want to understand this system.” Why is it not possible to understand a system just by analyzing it? Because “A whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Not only the individual elements of a system must be examined, but also their relationships to one another. An analysis breaks a system down into its constituent elements (into its parts). A synthesis combines the relations between the elements to come to an understanding of the whole.


Watch this video: (15.02.20). In contrast to the video I believe that analysis and synthesis belong together and that it is impossible to understand a system without doing both.


"Analysis and synthesis, as scientific methods, always go hand in hand; they complement one another. Every synthesis is built upon the results of a preceding analysis, and every analysis requires a subsequent synthesis in order to verify and correct its results." ( , 26.02.20, page 1)


In another video the authors say that 3 cups on a table are not a system because they exist independently from each other. I also don't agree. I analyze: there are three cups on the table. Their function is to take up liquid. I synthesize: I can invite two friends to drink a coffee with me (or I can do somthing else with the cups). (, 15.02.20)


"In very general terms, a system is any (circumscribed) object which consists of a number of "parts" or "components" which, in some way or another, work together in order to produce an overall effect or behavior. ... We can only concede to the obvious: that just about everything in the world would seem to be some sort of "system". ( , 26.02.20, page 6)


Three cups on a table are a simple system. Complex systems have many elements and many relations exist between them (high interconnectivity). In addition complex systems may be intransparent (some information about the system is missing) and they may be dynamic (the system changes over time). Complex systems are much harder to understand than simple systems.


A complex system is "made up of a large number of parts that interact in a non-simple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts ... in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole." (Simon, H. A. (1962) The architecture of complexity. Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc. 106(6) 467–482)


Therefore it makes sense to arrange (to categorize) the elements in groups. The groups can be seen as subsystems of the whole system. The continuation of this approach results in a hierarchical representation showing the structure of the system. Only if all elements are equal, they cannot be categorized.


understand, develop, design systems, situations - analysis, synthesis, the whole -


The figure above shows the hierarchical structure of a complex system (the structure of a system is the arrangement of its elements). The figure gives us an overview of the system elements and also a first indication of their relationship to each other, because we can see which elements belong together. Non-fiction books are systems of statements and their table of contents shows the hierarchical arrangement of these statements. Therefore the table of contents of a book is an example for the figure above.


"Only the knowledge of the elements and their structural arrangement enables understanding of systems and explains the statement that the whole is more than the sum of the parts." (Daenzer, W. F. (1976) Systems Engineering: Leitfaden zur methodischen Durchführung umfangreicher Planungsvorhaben. Peter Hanstein Verlag, Köln, p. 12, my translation)


Some psychologists do situation research because they want to predict the behavior of a person in a special situation:


"... considering the situation the person is currently in can enhance behavioral prediction. ... [To assess situational information, we need to measure the physical cues of the situation and the perceiver’s interpretation of the situation’s characteristics.]

Elements that are physically present and constitute the situation are referred to as situation cues ... Cues give the answer to five simple W-questions. Who is with you? Which objects are around you? What is happening? Where are you? When is this happening? ... Listing and quantifying all cues ... in a situation would take a tremendous amount of time and effort, if it could even be achieved.

... assessing situations via their perceived characteristics requires that perceivers rate situations on these characteristics. ... For example, most people would agree that sitting in a café and enjoying a drink with friends is more pleasant than cleaning one’s house. Of course, some people may hold a different view on this, which needs to be explicitly considered when seeking to assess the situation in its completeness." (Horstmann, K. T., Rauthmann, J. F., & Sherman, R. A. (2017). The measurement of situational influences. In V. Zeigler-Hill and T. K. Shackelford (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Personality and Individual Differences, page 2-9)


This means: To understand a situation, we first need to identify the main elements the cues (see above the figure "Situation Analysis"). Between the main elements exist relations. These relations are governed by rules and have characteristics. Therefore in a second step we must examine these rules and characteristics.


We need imagination to understand the relations between the elements of a situation because we need to put ourselves in the position of the elements. In the position of an element we can ask ourselves:

What are my characteristics?  How do I influence the other elements of the situation? Which rules apply to me? How have I developed over time? How will I develop in the future? 


"To grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to." (Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston, D.C. Heath and Co., p. 137)


Often the information about a system is not complete, so we need imagination and creativity to predict unknown characteristics of the elements and to synthesize "the whole". The study of a system can start with an investigation of "the whole" as a functioning unit or with an investigation of its parts (its elements).


"We regard a system as a primary unit [a functioning unit] when we treat it as a black box and ask about its overall behavior - i.e. what it does or accomplishes. For example, we may submit our black box to various inputs and observe the resulting outputs.
As a set of parts or components (which somehow work together to produce the system's overall behavior) we can examine the system's construction - i.e. its internal structure and processes. ... and the specific relationships between its parts ...

... the choice of a suitable method for the study of a given system depends, to a large extent, on the type of knowledge that is empirically accessicble to us ..." ( , 26.02.20, page 6-7)


Sometimes it is useful to start an analysis and a synthesis at the same time. For example, when the police are looking for a serial killer, they investigate all the crime evidence (the elements) and hire a profiler to describe the killer's criminal profile ("the whole").


What is "the Whole" of a system?

"The whole is more than the sum of its parts." So what is "the whole"?

There are many different types of systems and you can look at each system from different angles. "The whole" of a system is the most useful for the viewer of the system. It is the answer to the main question the viewer poses to the system. Therefore "the whole" of a system depends on the observer.


If we put all the parts of a car in a box, then we have the sum of its parts. If we assemble all of these parts, we have a functional unit (the car) as "the whole".
The main question to the system is here: "Can I use it as means of transport?" As means of transport the parts in the box are useless.


Here are some examples for "the whole":

"The whole" as knowledge/conclusion: The "whole" is the conclusion which is drawn from the examination of a system. The police analyze a crime because they want to know the offender. Another police department analyses the same crime from a different angle because they want to know how such crimes can be prevented.

"The Whole" as a function: A customer says to a product developer: "Please develop me a product with these main functions."

"The whole" as a key message: Every text has a key message (Literature often has a moral.)

"The whole" as the main characteristic: Two people talk about a car. The first says, "This is a nice car." The other says, "This car uses a lot of gas." They look at the car from different angles.

"The wole" as the main rule: You organize a meeting. The last meeting was very controversial. For the coming meeting you set the rule: everyone respects the other's point of view. (In this text here I synthesize the main rules for solving problems.)

"The whole" as an idea: A scientist sees that many people have the same problem. He has an idea to solve this problem and starts a research project.



People who don't distinguish between analyzing and synthesizing don't understand the importance of synthesis. They draw conclusions, but they don't take into account that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts". They do not consider the multiple relationships between the elements of a complex system. Therefore they draw simple conclusions that are often wrong.


The first obstacle we may encounter on our way to solving a problem is a lack of information, which prevents us from fully understanding the initial situation.


Continue with the next step of the problem-solving process:

How to set goals and requirements