Systems thinking

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Systems thinking is an approach to integration that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system will act differently when isolated from the system’s environment or other parts of the system. Standing in contrast to positivist and reductionist thinking, systems thinking sets out to view systems in a holistic manner. Consistent with systems philosophy, systems thinking concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole of the system. When you encounter situations which are complex and messy, then systems thinking can help you understand the situation systemically. This helps us to see the big picture – from which we may identify multiple leverage points that can be addressed to support constructive change. It also helps us see the connectivity between elements in the situation, so as to support joined-up actions. The first set of links below provide an introduction to systems thinking and how to manage and facilitate it, the second set link to specific tools and methodologies that support systems thinking.

A related page covers complex systems, and highlights how social systems are complex (like bringing up a child) rather than complicated (sending a rocket to the moon). Links to Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) can be found later in this page. SSM is an approach to organizational process modeling, and it can be used both for general problem solving and in the management of change.

Systems thinking

www_icon  Systems thinking and practice This Open University course outlines what is systems thinking and practice? The essence of systems thinking and practice is in “seeing” the world in a particular way, because how you “see” things affects the way you approach situations or undertake specific tasks. This unit will help you to learn about the problems of defining a system and meet some of the key concepts used in systems theory: boundary, environment, positive and negative feedback, etc.

www_iconSystems diagramming Pictures speak louder than words. Because of this diagrams are used extensively in systems thinking and practice. This Open University course (T552_1) looks at how diagrams can be used to represent information and ideas about complex situations. This unit aims to help you learn how to read, draw and present diagrams to help illustrate how ideas or processes are connected.

pdfLeverage points: Places to intervene in a system  This classic article by Donella Meadows looks at the nine key leverage points where systems can be changed.

pdfThe idea and practice of systems thinking and their relevance for capacity development  This 2005 article by Peter Morgan looks at subject of systems thinking and its relevance for capacity development. It gives an general overview of the main issues and explores the utility of systems thinking for improving our understanding of capacity issues. It posits four approaches to systems thinking: complex adaptive systems, system dynamics, soft system methodologies and chaos theory.

www_iconWhy things fell apart for joined-up thinking. This article by Simon Caulkin using the UK NHS as a case study highlights why systems thinking is relevant in the real world. The Observer, Sunday February 26, 2006

pdfOverview of sytems thinking. This short article by Daniel Aronson illustrates what systems thinking is using an integrated pest management example. Another short introduction can be found in Systems Thinking “in 25 Words or Less” by Debra Lyneis talking about primary and secondary schools.

www_iconManaging complexity: a systems approach – introduction If you want to generate a fresh perspective of complex issues; if you want to break out of traps and rigid ways of thinking … then this course is a good place to visit. It is designed to help build your capacity to manage complexity and to develop a deep understanding of contemporary systems thinking.

pdfGetting the Big Picture in Natural Resource Management – Systems Thinking as “Method” for Scientists, Policy Makers and Other Stakeholders  This research paper by Ockie Bosch and Colleagues outlines the benefits of applying Systems Thinking to solving natural resource management problems. It first explains the Systems Thinking concept and briefly outlines its history and emergence in agriculture and natural resourcemanagement. A series of case studies are then presented which illustrate practical examples of how Systems Thinking has been used to address real life natural resource management issues. Finally a framework for the application of Systems Thinking is presented to help improve sustainable land management.

pdfAn Introduction to Systems Thinking  This useful chapter from Barry Richmond illustrates how systems thinking can help us evolve our thinking, communicating and learning capacities. As we do, he points out we will be able to make progress in addressing the compelling slate of social issues that challenge our viability. It provides some good descriptions of the issues, and some useful approaches to help us improve our capabilities.

www_iconBucking the system – Systems concepts and development Over the last 50 years the systems field has expanded to encompass more than 1,000 methodologies. In this article, Bob Williams describes three core concepts of systems thinking: i) inter-relationships; ii) perspectives; and iii) boundaries. Also see the 2010 report – Beyond Logframe; Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation  featuring thinking by Bob Williams, Patricia Rogers and Richard Hummelbrunner.

Tools and methodologies for systems thinking

Systems methodologies and tools help us demonstrate systems thinking by helping us generate and organize information about our system – our situation of interest. Kim (1994) has identified at least ten different systems thinking tools and organized them into four general categories: 1. brainstorming tools (e.g. concept mapping, mindmaps), 2. dynamic thinking tools (e.g. graphs – relationships over time, CLDs), 3. structural thinking tools (e.g. graphical function, structure behaviour/stock & flow, policy-structure/decision-making processes), and computer-based tools (automation of the other tools, including the graphs, causal loops, and stock and flow diagrams).

www_iconSoft Systems Methodology (SSM) This article from Wikipedia shows how Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) is an approach to organizational process modeling and it can be used both for general problem solving and in the management of change. It was developed in England by academics at the University of Lancaster Systems Department through a ten year Action Research programme.

www_iconHow people use rich pictures Diagrams in general and Rich Pictures in particular can be great means to allow groups to explore their subconscious, their occult sentiments and conflicted understandings. This paper by Simon Bell and Stephen Morse explores and explains diverse use of Pictures and shows how they can be applied and understood in group processes of all kinds.

Rich pictures in evaluation. Rich pictures are a SSM-based tool that offers a quick and efficient way to work with key stakeholders to better understand their ‘problematical situation’. This e-book by Judy Oakden outlines why rich pictures are useful in evaluation, how to generate them, and some tips for using them.

An integration between Cognitive Map and Causal Loop Diagram for knowledge structuring in River Basin Management. This paper by Raffaele Giordano and colleagues show how Cognitive mapping (CM) and Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) methodologies can be usefully combined. CM development supports the facilitation of divergent thinking, while CLD can be subsequently utilized to foster constructive convergent thinking.

Systems Tools for Complex Health Systems: A Guide to Creating Causal Loop Diagrams. This 2015 participants guide by Helen de Pinho  was designed to help you through the steps of building a casual loop diagram (CLD). CLDs are developed to better understand the dynamics driving a particular issue in a given situation. They can be usefully used gain a deeper understanding of the system before intervening.

More information on related tools and methodologies can be found through the LfS pages  on supporting constructive practice change, and particularly the page on  strategic planning.