Methods and tools

A range of diagrams and mapping techniques underpin systems thinking in practice. [Photo: CanStock Photo / tombaky]
A number of methodologies and tools can be used to implement systems thinking  and systemic design approaches. Collectively, these help us generate and organize information about our system – our situation of interest.

There are many different systems thinking tools, and these can be seen to help in a range of functional ways: For example we can use tools for: brainstorming (e.g. concept mapping, mindmaps);  dynamic and temporal thinking  (e.g. graphs – relationships over time, CLDs); and structural thinking (e.g. graphical function, structure behaviour/stock & flow, policy-structure/decision-making processes). In addition, many of these tools can contribute to the development of conceptual models, and can also be computer-based (including the graphs, causal loops, and stock and flow diagrams). Of course, tools can be used to build on one another, and are best used in combination to achieve deeper insights into complex situations.   The following links will take you direct to a number of online systems thinking toolkits and methodologies, and then to links where more detail is provided on some specific tools.

Toolkits and methodologies

An introduction to systems thinking and tools for systems thinking
A good place to start is with this presentation by Will Allen and Margaret Kilvington  that provides a framework for thinking about the range of tools that can be used, and where they can most usefully contribute to decision-making.

Tools for systems thinkers: The 6 fundamental concepts of systems thinking
This post by Leyla Acaroglu is the first in a great series covering aspects of systems thinking in theory and practice. In it she shares key insights and tools needed to develop and advance a systems mindset for dealing with complex problem solving (in the context of transitioning to a Circular Economy). A second post is Tools for Systems Thinkers: Systems Mapping which reminds us that while there are great digital tools out there (like Kumu), every budding and experienced systems thinker will need to employ analog systems mapping — pen-and-paper style — tools as well.

Systems thinking tools and principles for collaboration and problem-solving
This 2016 guide by Jane Branscomb reminds us that systems thinking and tools can be used effectively in engaging diverse stakeholders around a shared concern. This brief describes a continuum of tools in the systems thinking toolbox: mindset, principles, diagrams, and models.

All methods are wrong. Some methods are useful
This post by Bob Williams notes the challenges that newcomers face in using systems thinking approaches constructively. It highlights the tensions between methods and principles at these early stages. Bob then usefully outlines some practical ways around this.

Systems thinking tools
A good list of  more than 20 tools, and descriptions of their use, from UK-based firm Burge Hughes Walsh (BHW).  Moreover, these are put forward as a useful set that have been found to be particularly effective – primarily because the tools themselves are straightforward.

Systems thinking toolkit
This toolkit from FSG identifies several key tools that support systems thinking. Their toolkit includes their Systems Tools Matrix to help determine which tool would be of most use, and also includes a complete compilation of their guides to system mapping. They also have a Guide to system mapping blog series.

Problem structuring methods

Are project managers ready for the 21th challenges? A review of problem structuring methods for decision support
This 2017 paper by José Ramón San Cristóbal Mateo and colleagues presents a family of problem structured methods for decision support, aimed at assisting project managers in tackling complex problems. Problem structured methods are a family of soft operations research methods for decision support that assist groups of diverse composition to agree on a problem focus and make commitments to consequential action. Project management programs are challenged to implement these methodologies in such a way that provides a good fit with the key competencies of  project managers.

Special issue on problem structuring research and practice
This 2014 paper by Fran Ackerman and colleagues introduces a special journal issue – EURO Journal on Decision Processes – bringing together a collection of papers concerned with problem structuring research and practice. It explores a range of challenges facing the field of problem structuring, and then introduces each of the specific papers in the special issue.

Problem structuring methods in action
This 2004 paper by John Mingers and Jonathan Rosenhead provides a review and evaluation of the use of problem structuring methods (PSMs) in practice. It outlines the origins of PSMs, the type of problem situation for which they are suitable, and the characteristics of some leading methods. A number of issues in the application of PSMs are discussed, in particular an account of the debate about evaluation of the success of PSMs; the selection of an appropriate method; multimethodology; and a variety of aspects of the maintenance of relationships with the client organisation(s).

Rich pictures and causal loop diagrams

There are a number of ways in which we can begin to outline the relationships between the elements of a system, or between systems. These tools may be as simple as a mindmap or rich picture, they may begin to include influences and feedback loops such as causal loop diagrams (CLDs), or they may begin to move into more quantitative approaches that seek to quantify the influences and relationships.

How systems mapping can help you build a better theory of change
In this post, Chris Alford explores potential ways systems maps can be used as an alternative to conventional theory of change diagrams in order to enable theory of change diagrams to be more in tune with the complexity of the contexts they purport to change. The aim of this post is not to propose a new methodology for developing a theory of change from start to finish. Rather, the aim is to generate ideas about how systems mapping — particularly with the aid of Kumu — can be integrated with existing approaches to theories of change, particularly in the area of developing visual ToC diagrams.

Rich pictures
This page from BetterEvaluation highlights how a rich picture is a way to explore, acknowledge and define a situation and express it through diagrams to create a preliminary mental model. A rich picture helps to open discussion and come to a broad, shared understanding of a situation. As this Open University page  points out, rich pictures were a key part of Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology for gathering information about a complex situation. The idea of using drawings or pictures to think about issues is common to several problem solving or creative thinking methods (including therapy) because our intuitive consciousness communicates more easily in impressions and symbols than in words. Guidelines are provided in this page on diagramming for development , and another useful guide is provided in Judy Oakden’s “If a picture paints a thousand words – The use of rich pictures in evaluation“. Rich pictures are often drawn at the pre-analysis stage, before you know clearly which parts of the situation should best be regarded as process and which as structure.

How people use rich pictures to help them think and act
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. Another paper from these authors continues this theme – Rich Pictures: a means to explore the ‘Sustainable Group Mind’?

Causal Loop Diagrams: Little Known Analytical Tool
This short post by William Rushing highlights the causal loop diagram’s unique ability to identify and visually display intricate processes and root causes. Every system behaves in a particular manner due to the influences on it. Some of these influences can be changed, some cannot, and some can minimized. Causal loop diagrams bring out the systematic feedback in processes by showing how variable X affects variable Y and, in turn, how variable Y affects variable Z through a chain of causes and effects. With a CLD, a practitioner no longer needs to focus only on one interaction between two variables, but can focus on the entire system, along with its many variables and its many causes and effects. This 2-page summary from Daniel Kim provides some simple guidelines  for drawing causal loop diagrams.

An Interpretive Approach to Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams
This 2008 paper by Mostafa Jafari and colleagues reminds us that the complex interpretive nature of management problems makes it difficult to recognize all the existing causal loop relations. In this paper, they develop an interpretive approach to drawing causal loop diagrams assuming that there are different perceptions about same concepts and the analyst is closely engaged with finding most agreed causal relationships.

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.

Soft 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.

More information on collaborative and systems-based approaches, tools and methodologies can be found through the linked LfS pages  on conceptual modellingsystems thinking and systemic design. Other related pages point to resources on  related topics around collaboration such as guides to help initiate and manage multi-stakeholder processes and facilitation tools  and reflective practice. Readers may also be interested in related pages such as  supporting constructive practice change, and particularly the page on  strategic planning.