Systems thinking

Graphic: 123RF Stock Photo

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.  Systems thinking in practice encourages us to explore inter-relationships (context and connections), perspectives (each actor has their own unique perception of the situation) and boundaries (agreeing on scope, scale and what might constitute an improvement). Systems thinking is particularly useful in addressing complex or wicked problem situations. These problems cannot be solved by any one actor, any more than a complex system can be fully understood from only one perspective. Moreover, because complex adaptive systems are continually evolving, systems thinking is oriented towards organizational and social learning – and adaptive management.

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. You can start with this presentation –   Intro-systems-thinking-and-systemic-design-concepts-and-tools   – that provides a framework for thinking about systems thinking in the context of a decision making cycle. The links below point to other sources introducing systems thinking and how to manage and facilitate it to support a collective understanding of a problem situation. More information on how this can be used to support collaborative and constructive social change can be found through the linked LfS pages  on  systemic design and systems thinking tools.


Some introductory pieces

Introduction to systems thinking. This page introduces Daniel Kim’s useful introduction to systems thinking.  You can download the full introduction  which aims to give you the language and tools you need to start applying systems thinking principles and practices in your own organization.

Learn about systems thinking. These pages from the  Australian Partnership Prevention Centre provides a selection of resources for those wanting to learn more about systems thinking, from the beginner to those who are already using systems thinking in their research and work.

pdfOverview of systems 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.

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.

Systems archetypes. This Daniel Kim guide reprint reviews nine systems archetypes (patterns of behaviour of a system). Each archetype tends to highlight a “classic problem story” which occurs frequently and is present in many everyday situations, from the individual to the international level. As diagnostic tools they provide insight into the underlying structures from which behavior over time and discreet events emerge. (See also the ISEE guide – Applying Systems Thinking and Common Archetypes to Organizational Issues). A more recent 2017 post from Leyla Acaroglu reminds us that there are also some positive social archetypes in systems dynamics.

Systems thinking: a means to understand our complex world. This paper by Linda Booth Sweeney introduces systems, system behavior and systems concepts. She then introduces some key concepts around levels, feedback loops and temporal delays.

Systems thinking for today’s organizations

Systems Thinking: An introduction. This 2015 brief by Kimberly Bowman and colleagues introduces the concept of ‘systems thinking’ in the context of international development. Systems thinking encourages practitioners to understand and analyse the contexts within which they operate, and to design programmes that can adapt as conditions on the ground change. It helps practitioners to bring together many different stakeholders – especially those with radically different backgrounds and perspectives – to identify problems and solutions to challenges, increasing the possibility of transformational change. Start with the Making systems thinking real post by John Chettleborough which also points to a related – and useful – systems thinking  animation.

Working with Change: Systems approaches to public sector challenges. This 2017 report by  OECD’s Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate explores the theory and practice behind the use of systems approaches in tackling public challenges. Part 1 addresses the need for systems thinking in the public sector, its theoretical underpinnings and why it has not been widely used in the public sector. Part 2 identifies a set of tactics – people & place, dwelling, connecting, framing, designing, prototyping, stewarding and evaluating – that can be deployed by government agencies either unilaterally or with partners to work toward systems change. The third part provides an in-depth examination of systemic change case studies.

Systems thinking: Unlocking the Sustainable Development Goals. This 2016 post by Stephanie Draper reminds us that successfully delivering the SDGs will require a really strong systems approach. She suggests that for organisations that means operating on three levels – joining up with others’ efforts to achieve individual goals; looking at the inter-relationships between all the goals; and finally delivering the goals in a way that models the characteristics we need for a sustainable society.

www_iconTackling wicked problems: A public policy perspective This 2012 discussion paper put out by the Australian Public Service Commission explores the characteristics of wicked problems and the challenges they pose for the traditional approaches and skills sets of policy makers. Although developing effective ways to tackle wicked problems is an evolving art, this paper identifies some of the main ingredients that seem to be required.

Related materials

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

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. In this 2008 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.

Courses in 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.

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.

More information on tools and methodologies to implement systems thinking can be found through the linked LfS pages on  systemic design,  systems thinking tools and conceptual modelling. You may also be interested in related pages such as  supporting constructive practice change, and particularly the page on  strategic planning.