this is archive.php

Month: November 2019

The essentials of systems thinking and why leaders and managers should take note

picture: Anthony Scanlon

Systems thinking is something of an ugly duckling, it’s one of those ideas that you feel you know but can’t quite put your finger on. You might have come across it in management literature, mentioned on a course or from an informed colleague after all it unpins some of the key management concepts of our time such as lean and six-sigma. However comparatively few management resources look at the concepts and techniques of systems thinking directly. Which is a shame because when the ugly duckling sheds its feathers, systems thinking reveals itself as a completely different way of seeing problems and finding solutions.

It’s true that appreciating systems thinking feels rather like mountain walking. When you set off, the summit is there in front of you, but as you climb you of course realise that the summit isn’t in fact the summit but just one summit in the foothills, and now the real summit lies just beyond. Except it isn’t, because once again that summit also turns out to be just one of the foothills. I’m not suggesting the foothills of systems thinking are a bad place to be, but rather that systems thinking is more demanding and has a greater depth (but is of infinitely more use) than a typical “Fix Your Organisation in 10 Days” business book.

Here then is our introductory guide to systems thinking: just some of the essentials to whet your appetite for one of the greatest but least well understood ideas to emerge from organisational science over the last 5o years. We’re on the approach to the mountain!

What is systems thinking?

How then can we describe systems thinking? Well for most of us we reach for the ideas we already know – we know about using a ‘healthcare system’, being moved by a ‘transport system’, or paying money because of a “tax system”. Extracting meaning from these contexts we can guess that the word ‘system’ indicates:

  • a collection of elements
  • that the elements are joined together in some way
  • they exist in a relationship for a specific purpose
  • and are collected inside a boundary that separates them from elements in other systems

How can this apparently simple recipe help solve complex organisational problems?

These are pretty much the basic characteristics of a system as would be defined by a systems thinkers. A pertinent question now then is how can this apparently simple recipe help solve complex organisational problems and under pin advanced concepts such as Lean?

The answer is that systems thinking is a simple idea – it is simply seeing in terms of systems. Once you build the capability to see systems, potential systems become visible everywhere.

See those wheels, chain, pedals, handlebars and saddle? That’s a system, one that’s more usually called a bicycle. See those seats, windows, doors, engine, brakes, lights, cup holders, gearbox… that’s another system, more usually called a car. Our bodies are systems as well and the elements are heart, lungs, limbs, brain but also consist of sub-systems such as the digestive, blood and nervous systems.

Neither a car nor a bicycle have a physical boundary around them in real life but we know conceptually that there is a boundary. We don’t confuse road signs and bicycles. A bicycle is a bicycle and a road sign is a road sign. They are separate in our minds; there is a mental boundary separating our understanding of the system of ‘road sign’ and the system of ‘bicycle’. But our bodies do have a physical boundary of sorts in the form of skin that wraps our organs and skeleton. You can discover just how important that boundary is if you puncture it!


“Boundary” is a systems concept that can throw up some interesting ideas and challenges. Our ‘skin boundary’ makes much practical sense in terms of our physical bodies but what about our mental processes that in a sense inhabit our bodies? Where is our body boundary in terms of our thought and emotion? In that context few of us would feel our boundary is our skin, rather we have a sense of a ‘personal space’ beyond our skin and we could say that that is the boundary of our system.

In respect of organisations boundary is also an important concept. We could have a debate about where we would put the boundary around a school (e.g. are parents and carers inside the conceptual school boundary or outside?) or around an organisation (is the local community inside the boundary or outside?).

What I’m trying to illustrate is that once you see the world in terms of systems, systems concepts can be used to understand situations in a very different way to our usual approach. The concept of a boundary is not going to be useful in all systemic investigations but in areas such as to do with organisational design, the scope of management, lean culture, social justice in organisations and many others, it almost certainly will.

We return to our simple bicycle example to explore another systems concept.


We are so familiar with the system of a bicycle that if we saw just the components laid out we’d likely think “Ah-ha there are the bits of a bicycle”. But if you were visiting earth from Mars and there were no bicycles on Mars you’d look at the bits and see things shaped like a saddle, wheels, chain, brake levers etc. but the idea of a bicycle wouldn’t occur to you. If you didn’t know what a bicycle was you wouldn’t see in those components the use for a bicycle as a means of transport. This brings us to another key idea of systems thinking the idea of emergent properties. Emergent properties are:

  • qualities or outcomes of a system that are not elements of that system and only exist if the system’s components are present and are connected as intended

Return to the car system mentioned earlier, the emergent property of a fully assembled (connected) range of car components is something like: ‘a personal means of road transport for driver and passengers’. Compare that emergent property of the entire car system with what we’d have if we abstracted one element, say the gearbox. If our system only consisted of a gearbox we’d be unlikely to look at it and think “wow what a great means of transport – I can go on holiday now”. Similarly a car that’s complete except for a gearbox also isn’t going to take us very far. In either case the emergent property of the car is lost when the system is changed.

There is a connection between car, bicycle and body systems and organisations

So we’ve talked about pretty obvious stuff – literal systems of cars, bicycles and bodies and interesting though it is hard to see how they have much to do with management and leadership of organisations.

Here then is the giant leap in thinking that we need to make (we’re getting pretty high up in the foothills now!) – a system is whatever we make it out to be – whatever we see in the real world that functions as a system can be analysed using the systems concepts we’ve touched upon and the many others that we haven’t had time to explore. What does this mean for leadership and management practice? Well, in our organisations we can identify many different systems, we might see a ‘reward system’, we might see a ‘new product development system’ or we might even see a ‘staff rest area cleaning system’. The systems we see may have been created deliberately as a system, but just as likely is that we identify systems operating that may not have had a purposeful design.

The exhilarating point is that although these systems are very different in nature to the car and bicycle systems, we can examine these organisational systems in the same systemic way:

  • we can explore their boundaries
  • look at the elements contained in each one
  • see how the elements are connected
  • examine the purpose of the system
  • and look for its emergent properties

And here is one of the reasons that systems thinking should become second nature in our organisations – thinking in systems completely sets aside the traditional order by which we manage and lead our organisations and therefore the constraints we’ve traditionally faced.

thinking in systems completely sets aside the traditional order by which we manage and lead our organisations

Let me unpick that big statement a little by looking at some questions a systems thinker may ask when thinking about one of those organisational systems we picked out earlier. Let’s choose as our example the “reward system”. This system, in a typical organisation, rewards staff for their efforts according to principals the organisation sets out, usually including words like “our staff are our greatest asset”. Typically the system will embody the organisation’s pay and conditions policy, but as a systems thinker, rather than accepting that the policy is ‘the system’, I’m going to be asking myself some deeper systemic questions and thinking about the answers that I might find. In doing so I’ll see differently and be able to explore the system in greater depth and form a better understanding of it. So I’m going to ask:

  • what are the elements in this system? Pay checks? Bonus payments? Training and development opportunities? Praise? Promotion? Cultural standing? Recognition for employees? Dress code? Pride in brand? Perceived worth of organisational output to society? Professional standing?
  • how are the system elements connected? Does the sales bonus system affect shop floor operatives? Do the in-house cleaners and maintenance workers get recognised? What are they recognised for? How are managers rewarded? How are non-managers rewarded? What are the perks? Who gets them? What are the retirement terms – for managers, for admin staff, for shop-floor workers?
  • where should I draw the system boundary? Around the pay committee? Around the reward policy document? Around the HR department? Around management? Around the entire business? Around the business and other stakeholders? Around the pay committee and the Union representation? Around the organisation and it’s professional bodies?
  • what is the purpose of the system? Is it to reward hard work? To reward loyalty? Encourage learning and development? Maximise economic return to the owners?
  • what is the emergent property? Compliance with minimum requirements of the law? Staff motivation? Staff demotivation? Excessive staff turnover? Fostering teamwork and commitment? Encouraging older workers to stay and younger workers to leave?

For the time-poor manager and hard-pressed leader this analysis may look like a lot of hard work – and it is. But if the system in question is out of control, is failing or has been implemented or changed without due thought for collateral damage it is probably only the effort necessary to properly understand the system’s behaviour and begin to understand why it is failing. Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline) writes extensively about organisations and system behaviour and says this about organisational problem solving:

“The easy way out usually leads back in.”

He goes on:

“Pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of non-systemic thinking, what we often call ‘what we need here is a bigger hammer’ syndrome.”

A bigger hammer will undoubtedly make a bigger impact but it is one-dimensional problem solving and an approach that we can expect to fail in most circumstances in a world where organisations are increasingly complicated.

We have made good progress through the foothills towards our goal of appreciating the essentials of systems thinking. We’ve looked at some of the characteristics of a system and some of the modes of thinking that help us see through the systems thinking lens. There are many other aspects and tools in the systems thinkers toolbox that we haven’t had time to touch upon. Reinforcing loops, balancing loops, diagramming, systems based organisational interventions – they all await your exploration but all connect with the fundamental ideas we’ve explored here.

What have we learnt?

Let’s wrap up by reviewing the ground we’ve covered:

  • systems thinking is a way of seeing real life
  • it most usefully applies to complex systems
  • systems consist of elements
  • elements are connected together in some purposeful way
  • the purpose of a system is what it does (which is not the same as what we might wish it to do!).
  • systems exhibit characteristic behaviour
  • change the elements in a system or the way they are connected and you change the system and its behaviour
  • systems have boundaries that separate them from other systems
  • change the boundary and you change the system

The key point is that managers and leaders need to see so they can understanding and if they can understanding they can fix and if they can fix then they can build better organisations. Whatever the domain of the system – commercial, voluntary or social, with clear sight and the right tools it can be improved.

Becoming skilled at systems thinking involves learning to use the systems thinking concepts and being willing to practice newly acquired skills. There is no reason why you cannot begin systems thinking today with the ideas you already know. The exciting message of seeing in systems is that you can do it straight away, whatever your context and as you build your capability to see differently you’ll be empowered to do a different kind of problem solving. But be warned, once you start seeing and thinking in systems you can never go back!

At we run courses on systems thinking and we bring systems based approaches to help our clients build better organisations in commercial, voluntary and social contexts. If you have any questions or comments please get in touch with us.