Holistic thinking or systems thinking, refers to a way of thinking in which a person can see the big picture. They can see patterns and concepts that umbrella the details, which may be missed by people who think more analytically.
The interconnectedness of all things is apparent to the holistic thinker. Rather than thinking analytically or in specifics, the holistic approach involves noticing and taking into account patterns and hints representing a more extensive system of occurrence in a given situation.
According to Oxford Languages, the philosophical definition of holism is: ‘the theory that parts of a whole are in intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently of the whole, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole, which is thus regarded as greater than the sum of its parts. Holism is often applied to mental states, language, and ecology.’
Oxford Languages also offer a medical definition of holism: ‘the treating of the whole person, taking mental and social factors into account, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease.’
Holistic thinking requires that you give attention to contexts and relationships in any given situation. It considers the interplay of various elements within a situation that can influence that situation’s outcome.
For example, the holistic thinker would notice that a group meeting that’s not going well might have something to do with the relationship between coworker X and coworker Y, rather than the group’s capabilities as a whole.
Holistic thinking looks at the background elements of a situation, understanding events regarding the context in which they’re taking place. The opposite of holistic thinking is analytic thinking, in which a larger system of occurrence is broken down into details and investigated as separate or distinct from the whole.
Analytic thinking credits individuals and specifics for the outcomes of events, while holistic thinking gives credit to the interconnectedness of all elements or aspects of the event. Analytic thinkers look at the foreground of the events taking place but tend to disregard or overlook the frame or context.
Examples of holistic thinking
Holistic thinkers see the whole picture or the big picture. In business, the term ‘holistic thinking’ may sometimes be used interchangeably with ‘systems thinking.’
TechTarget defines systems thinking as ‘a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on how a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work overtime and within the context of larger systems.’
Holistic medicine and systems thinking
To better understand how holistic thinking works, consider holistic medicine. Holistic-minded medical practitioners consider the relationship between a patient’s mind, body, and spirit when addressing illness. They look for ways to improve on overall life balance.
Instead of solely providing medicine for a patient’s ailments or condition (specific thinking), holistic doctors or practitioners would investigate several other aspects of the patient’s life and lifestyle to eradicate health problems that are arising. They consider both internal and external forces that may be causing health issues.
Rather than relying on pharmaceuticals alone to treat an issue, holistic doctors would advise, spend time explaining as well as encourage the patient to consciously look after all aspects of their health through a life balance, which includes, exercise, diet, sleep, and sufficient rest and relaxation, especially in cases where the patient’s issues stem from prolonged stress, poor nutrition, or lack of regular physical movement.
Why is holistic thinking important?
The blind men and the elephant
There’s an old Indian parable, popularized in the modern-day by American poet John Godfrey Saxe, about six blind men introduced to an elephant. Without the use of sight, they must rely on their sense of touch to understand what is standing in front of them. We’ve included the poem below to help you better understand the importance of holistic thinking.
The Blind Men and the Elephant – John Godfrey Saxe
It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.
The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall,
against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the elephant, is nothing but a wall!”
The second feeling of the tusk, cried: “Ho! what have we here,
so very round and smooth and sharp? To me tis mighty clear,
this wonder of an elephant, is very like a spear!”
The third approached the animal, and, happening to take,
the squirming trunk within his hands, “I see,” quoth he,
the elephant is very like a snake!”
The fourth reached out his eager hand, and felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like, is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree.”
The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said; “E’en the blindest man
can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an elephant, is very like a fan!”
The sixth no sooner had begun, about the beast to grope,
than, seizing on the swinging tail, that fell within his scope,
“I see,” quothe he, “the elephant is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long,
each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,
tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean,
and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!
A lesson on perspective
Saxe’s poetic rendering of this ancient parable on perspective offers valuable insight into the importance of holistic thinking. The holistic approach recognizes and emphasizes that an individual standpoint cannot see the whole picture, and therefore can not attain an objective view of an event. Events must be viewed in their larger context to be fully understood and make effective decisions.
The importance of holistic thinking in business organizations
Holistic thinking, or ‘systems thinking,’ offers a range of benefits to businesses. Taking a holistic culture within your operations and strategies benefits your business by:
In a holistic business approach, all employees get a chance to express themselves. Each employee is encouraged to share their views and insights, which broadens each team member’s perspective and encourages a big picture mentality. Further, when employees feel heard and acknowledged, workplace morale increases, which in turn elicits business growth.
Gaining fresh insight and perspective
Businesses grow when each employee is clear about their individual and group goals. Taking a holistic thinkers approach means that fresh perspectives and potential risks are brought to the surface, perspectives and risks which may have flown under the radar had the business not considered such a broad range of opinions and viewpoints.
For example, your marketing team has a great idea about a social media campaign based on current events. The sales team agrees with the idea, envisioning greater traffic and lead generation, thus greater conversions.
However, the PR manager might have the insight to understand that the current event that the previous two departments want to profit from may be controversial, too soon, or will give the company a bad reputation.
Therefore, it would be better for the company’s reputation to take a different approach. By incorporating varying perspectives, the business as a whole can revisit the idea and figure out a more public-friendly approach.
An example of such a situation would be riding on the current wave of social injustice. While it’s great that companies stand up to support issues within society, many consumers are beginning to understand that showing support for these initiatives increases profit. Therefore, a company may only be showing support in ads or on social media for the sole purpose of improving its reputation and boosting its profits.
Instead, a holistic-minded team would understand that it would be far more appropriate to show real support, such as changing internal processes and procedures to create real cultural change within the company to address the injustice. Rather than simply adding a banner or visual scenes to their Facebook profile picture and hoping for the best.
How to think holistically
If you’re running a business and you’re just starting out, or you’ve been in operation for years but want to improve your success rate, then holistic thinking may be just what you need. If you want to utilize systems thinking in your business decisions, strategies, and campaigns, consider the following tips:
Keep your overall goals and objectives in mind
Thinking holistically involves delegating authority among team members to take care of specific needs and issues, but at the same time make sure that everyone keeps the big picture in mind. With a degree of focus on the big picture at all times, you’re likely to notice subtle patterns and systems that can inform your decision-making process and increase your chances of yielding positive results.
Accurately identify the problem
Instead of following the first solution that comes to mind when your business is facing an issue, thinking holistically involves taking a moment to step back and understanding what the actual problem is.
It’s tempting to take action as soon as you get a spark of inspiration, but if the problem you’re so eager to begin solving isn’t the actual problem, your efforts will have been in vain.
Notice patterns and connections
The ability to observe patterns and interconnections means you have the big picture mentality or you have the ability to implement systems thinking. In business, it helps to bring your attention and awareness to patterns across all departments and strategies.
For example, instead of seeing a failure and considering it to be exclusive to one strategy, consider the big picture – how similar failures have occurred in the past, what else may have contributed to that failure, and what the difference is between your failures and your success regarding all aspects of your approach.
This takes into account so many different aspects of the business that linear thinking or a narrow focus may completely miss. Thinking holistically allows you to implement strategy formation to solve the problem once and for all across multiple departments.
Big picture or holistic thinking doesn’t ignore the specifics; it incorporates them. It doesn’t allocate blame or responsibility on an individual idea, person, or concept but rather considers how everything is connected and seeks to identify that connection.