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 LfS post –  An introduction to 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.

Systems thinking for today’s organizations

Systems Thinking and Practice: A Guide to Concepts, Principles and Tools
This 2023 guide by Jim Woodhill and Juliet Millican offers an insight into the theoretical foundations, conceptual frameworks and facilitation tools for adopting a systems mindset and putting it into practice. It reminds us that our decision-making, governance and organisational cultures need to shift from the false security of linear, disciplinary and reductionist ways of thinking and working. Without systems thinking we risk constant cycles of reacting to immediate crises in fragmented ways, while failing to understand and deal with the root causes of the issues at hand. The guide explores what this implies for working practices, business processes and leadership. It also offers links to additional resources and tools on systems thinking.

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.

Tackling 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.

Some introductory system concepts and tools

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.

Overview 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.

Leverage 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.

Courses in systems thinking

Open University – Systems thinking (free courses)
This Open University page provides a guide to all their free course offerings that explore systems as a subject in its own right, and subjects which can be understood through the application of systems thinking. You could start by checking out course introductions for Systems thinking and practice,    Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice, or Systems diagramming. Other courses look more specifically at systems modelling, IT systems and learning. Another set of courses look more specifically at the use of systems concepts in helping manage the environment,  sustainability, complexity.

Managing 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.