An introduction to


Systems thinking is a technique for learning, communicating about and improving human situations.

It is based on the identification and description of systems.


1. Hunt the system

Systems thinking is about 'thinking' in terms of 'systems'. As a first step it's important to do some identifying and recognising of systems before it's possible to apply the thinking.

Working with systems is such an important part of the process, it bears a bit of explanation what a system is, how to identify one, what isn't a system and to touch on the philosphical issue of whether systems really exist or whether they are just a fantasy of deranged systems thinkers.

In our technological age the term 'system' has become synonymous with science and engineering, but hopefully if those words strike a chill in you, you won't be deterred. The systems in systems thinking depend as much on the creative and logical thinking of the observer as they do on the rules in a science book. If describing a particular system proves useful then that system is worthy of coming under the systems thinking umbrella!

"Systems can't be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. .... We can't impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. We can't control systems or figure them out.
But we can dance with them!"
Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008

2. Everyday systems

The word 'system' is in everyday use and most people are familiar with at least a few of the instances in which it's used.

The digestive system is an obvious example, and one of the important skills in systems thinking is the mapping of a system. Here then is a map of the digestive system.

Less obvious, but still in common use is the term railway system. Here it starts to get a bit more complicated as we wonder what we should include in the system and what to exclude

This simple map has representations of just a tiny number of the elements that might be expected to be part of a real railway. Mapping systems forces choices. I this railway map there are no station car parks shown, but if sucj things exist in the world you are observing should they be a part of the railway system... or are they part of the road system? There is of course no answer from a systems theory perspective. The important point is to surface such questions and to come to a considered conclusion.

3. The building blocks of a system

Recognising that in common use, the word 'system' isn't very precise, systems thinking theorists have suggested a number of characteristics that help us to identify and describe a potential system. These characteristics are described below and are annotated on a copy of the railway system map.

Name Description
1 = Element Every system is composed of elements. Elements can be part of sub-systems ad those sub-systems part of the overall system.
2 = Connections Each element has connections to other elements in the system. Connections indicate flows of some sort between the lements. It's the flows between elements that make the system dynamic and it's the dynamics that give systems their complexity.
3 = Purpose A system should always do something. When thinking in a systems sort of way what you can discover a system actually does can be very surprising!
4 = Boundary A system needs a boundary. Without a boundary the whole world rapidly becomes the system and that's not useful for clear thinking. What is inside the chosen boundary is inside the system. Everything else is outside the system. Boundary choice is subjective but where the boundary is drawn can radically change the system.
5 = Environment A system exists in an environment which is defined as everything outside the boundary. Factors in the environment impact the system, at which point the system displays shows behaviour in its response.
6 = Emergence Emergent qualities are those characteristics of a system that are that attributable to the system as a whole. A bicycle system has an emergent quality of transport. Only the whole system working together can provide that possibility.
7 = Perspective Every observer of a system has their own perspective on how the system works, where the boundary should be drawn and what the purpose is. Think how workers and owners might see their organisation from different perspectives.

4. So if it's not a system....

So is there anything that isn't part of one system or another?

Yes - probably. The word 'heap' has been used to describe elements that are not part of a system.

What might constitute a heap? Well obviously something that doesn't have the characteristics of a system. Leaves randomly distributed on a road are unlikely to be a system.

They don't exhibit system characteristics - they aren't connected in any meaningful way, they have no purpose, no emergent qualities and no boundary. However those same leaves could become part of an 'environmental system' if they were an element in a system of decay and release of nutrients. They could also be part of a 'road safety system' if they were combined in a system with rain, tyres, bendy roads and fast cars.

5. Do systems really exist?

From our explorations so far it's probably clear that the systems in the Systems Thinking sense don't exist entirely in the way that we commonly use the word 'system' as in 'digestive system' for example.

The challenge in the systems part of systems thinking is to understand that a system can be a fact or a fiction. Indeed the discipline of systems thinking has itself wrestled with this problem and come up with a way to resolve it as we'll see.

5.1 An engineering heritage

Half a century ago, give or take a bit, systems thinking developed out of engineering disciplines where the systems in question very much existed as electrical and mechanical creations. As it became apparent that this thinking about real systems could be generalised to think usefully about other collections of elements as systems, so systems thinking spread into areas other than engineering. Mostly interest was in applying the ideas where there was need - social situations in need of improvement but with all the complexity and unpredictability associated with human situations. This demanded a new approach leading to systems thinking techniques developed specifically for use in business management, organisational design and even family therapy.

5.2 The hard - soft continuum

The new approaches saw systems not as something mechanical in the real world but as entities that were talked into being or at least came into being when mapped out and described. In creating such systems there became a means of learning about complex situations and the dynamics of activity within them. To that extent these systems did not exist in the real world as harder systems - such as a digestive system - might be considered to exist. This duopoly of approach led to the development of a hard - soft continuum as an expression of the extent to which a system could be identified in the real world or the extent to which a systems technique was designed to impact a hard system. 'System Dynamics' and the organisational design technique the 'Viable Systems Model' inhabit the harder end of the continuum. At the other, the soft end, are systems techniques recognising that systems don't necessarily exist except as a descriptor of a situation as created by an observer. This has led to a whole new expression of systems thinking and to the development of 'soft' systems techniques such as the 'Soft Systems Methodology'.

5.3 Now critical systems

Systems thinking continues to develop and alongside the hard - soft continuum there is now another dimension called "critical systems".

Critical systems thinking is concerned with issues of power and politics in systems. These influences on a system were generally not dealt with well by techniques on the hard - soft continuum. Critical systems attempts to redress the balance and provides tools for considering these very important issues when looking at both system boundaries and system dynamics.

  • "A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness".

    Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)
  • "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful"

    George Box, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (1987)
  • "A school is a system. So is a city, and a factory, and a corporation, and a national economy. ... The earth is a system. So is the solar system; so is a galaxy. Systems can be embedded in systems, which are embedded in yet other systems"

    Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (2008)

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