Story Thought and System Thought

Story thought and system thought

Story thought emphasizes subjective human experience, the primacy of individual actors, narrative and social ordering, messiness, edge cases, content, and above all meaning.

System thought emphasizes 3rd-person descriptions of phenomena from a neutral perspective, the interchangeability of actors and details, categorical or logical ordering, measurements, flow, form, and above all coherence.


We’re all systems thinkers about physics; but we’re almost all story thinkers about love, at least at the level of action. We may blend modes, but when we marry, we don’t look at our spouse and think: “Well, you or probably one hundred million others would work.”

On mistakes.

Obviously, good organizations mix these two approaches — the former a story approach, the latter a system approach — but observers of the media industry would likely agree that over-indexing on the latter is at least partly why media is distrusted and disliked by consumers. Yes, those same consumers — or a majority of them — “engage” more with clickbait, sensationalism, and news-as-entertainment, but in the longer-term, people think that the desperate pursuit of attention at the expense of principle is disgusting, and they lose trust in media as such. There was probably no measurement that made that outcome clear as it happened. No one could have articulated a position against the stakeholders pushing CNN to become more sensationalistic which those stakeholders would have accepted; they would have had to appeal to “story thought,” including speculative assertions about long-term phenomena that we cannot measure well: values, culture, individual judgments apart from mob movements.

On the role of a designer.

This is not because engineers, as people, or PMs, as people, are “prone to system thought”; they may or may not be, but their disciplines and the configuration of their organizations almost always are. This means that over time, best practices accumulate that favor system thought, and many of design’s partners will favor the measurable, the reducible, the general over the ineffable, the holistic, or the narrative in how they make decisions. (Bad designers will only favor the latter, giving their thinking a precious, privileged, arbitrary quality which can be costly).