An introduction to


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

Seeing in systems encourages a different kind of thinking.


1. The challenge of thinking in systems.

The power of thinking in systems is both it's strength and its challenge. Unlike many other management techniques it has something of an existential quality. At one and the same time it can produce a rush of excitement as an insight about a system, one previously unseen, suddenly steps out of the fog whilst at the same time it can leave a frustration of never allowing sight of all of to its remotest regions of understanding in one panorama.

Thinking in systems encourages us to challenge the thinking styles that we have probably been using for many years and have never thought to question. The objective in using systems thinking however is not to supplant our existing capabilities but rather to add to and support them with insight from a different perspective.

What follows is only by way of a brief outline of a few of the ideas, techniques and insights that help create the 'thinking' element of systems thinking.

2. Thinking in wholes and appreciating perspective.

Traditional western ways of thinking can be seen to contain two traps ready to snap shut on our ability to resolve problems. These two traps are 'reductionism' and 'dogmatism'.

2.1 Reductionism

Reductionism is the process of chunking up a complex problem into smaller and smaller pieces until those pieces seem small enough to become solvable.

This approach of cutting up a problem seems natural to our mental problem solving apparatus and it is almost certainly the technique learnt in our formal education.

The reductionist approach has undoubtedly driven considerable advance in a number of areas and inparticular technology but the trap in this process is sprung in concentrating on the individual element at the expense of the overall system. The result is that problem solving is targeted at the level of elements or subsystems whilst the overall system is ignored. As systems are collections of interrelated elements intervening in one part of the system can cause problems elsewhere. If you're not looking at the whole system those knock on effects are likely to go unnoticed. Not only that but often elements are connected but with some kind of delay mechanism so that an intervention in one element can cause problems with another - but only after a delay. It's not uncommon that a problem with an intervention in a system becomes apparent not only elsewhere in the system but also quite some time after the initital intervention.

2.2 Dogmatism

The trap of dogmatism lies in our dogged belief that generally our own view of a situation, or system, is the right one. We arrive at this view, usually even without acquiring or examining any other view.

Systems thinkers try to appreciate that theirs is but one view of a system and they try to consider what other points of view are held and why they might be valid. In complex human systems seeking accommodation between different points of view is often the only route to satisfactory improvement of a situation. When so often we assume we are right it's maybe useful to wonder where different views may originate. The answer is clearly too complex to fully comprehend but different world views tend to result in different perspectives. This phenomenon of multiple perspectives is at the root of at least one systems thinking tool.

Without recognising the importance of perspective and dealing with its challenges many attempts at resolving complex situations result in temporary resolution but rarely is there any long term success.

3. Thinking about system behaviour

Thinking in systems involves realising that systems exhibit behaviour.

This remarkable characteristic generally flies in the face of what we want to believe. Our natural feeling is that factors in the environment are what cause systems to behave as they do.

Thinking in systems really demands us to rethink that. Identifying the system and its boundary shows that the environment has forces within it that act upon the system, and the system tends to show characteristic behaviour based on those forces. But systems can surprise us - either because the system suddenly behaves differently or because we have made assumptions about it. The flu virus, for example, doesn't attack you; your body (a system) creates the conditions for it to take hold. And again, drug addiction is not just a failing of the individual it is the product of a complex system the involves sub-systems of criminality, economics, mental welfare, policing and government policy.

3.1 Behaviour archetypes

We've just been considering the idea that systems exhibit behaviour. Perhaps this is not surprising for if we think of a person as a system - a collection of connected mental and physical elements - then we know systems can exhibit behaviour! Thinking in systems extends this idea to any system, human or otherwise.

If we think of human behaviour we can see that certain ways of behaving crop up over and over again. For example the behaviour where someone might indicate 'if I do this for you, you could do that for me'. Similarly systems of all sorts can show similar types of behaviour. One of the thinking tools in systems is the identification of these behaviour archetypes as they are called.

Here is a flavour of some of the archetypes that have been identified that can crop up in any system:


In the escalation archetype the system has two or more actors each with the goal seeking behaviour of bettering the other actors.

This of course creates the classic 'race to the top' whether that is nations engaging in an arms race or neighbours trying to out do each other. It's easy to imagine the impact of these escalation loops and the result of systems behaving in this way is seen in displays of wealth, power and cunning.

Success to the successful

This system behaviour tends to ensure that winners stay winners. It is seen when the structure of a system rewards winners with a better capability to win in the future.

Education systems often enable successful students to compete more effectively at the next level. Early success for a student can ensure they are subsequently successful at each hurdle in the system, making successful pupils successively more successful.

Fixes that fail

Typical behaviour is when policy change is thrown at a system but fails to create lasting change. Often seen in agricultural over production and drug reduction programmes where initially change occurs only for the problem to drift back to original levels.

An archetype often seen in drug reduction programmes and in tackling agricultural over- production.

4. Habits of systems thinkers

At the outset we looked at the idea of systems thinking challenging our existing thinking processes in a way that could extend rather than surplant those capabilities.

Over the years, as the skills of thinking in systems have developed, so it has become acknowledged that some attitudes to think are especially helpful to working with systems. These could be called habits and they help us think in systems kind of way. It would be possible to identify quite a few of these habits but here are three to provide a flavour:

Looks at the big picture

A systems thinker looks at system elements in the context of the whole system. To properly understand the tree, the systems thinker also looks at the whole forest. This approach minimises the risk that local change will produce unintended effects elsewhere in the system.

Watches how a system behaves over time

Studying system behaviour over time helps understanding of how a system might react in the future. Armed with this knowledge it is easier to know whether the best course of action is to intervene or leave the system to make its own progress.

Resists jumping to conclusions

Managers and leaders are expected to have answers. Existing in that context can drive both the belief that it is necessary to act quickly and the belief that the way forward is obvious. The warning is that most systems are more complicated than we realise and if we take the time our interventions can lead to much better outcomes.

5. Mapping

One of the powerful tools that aids us to think about systems, identify how they work and communicate about how to improve them, is the technique of mapping.

Mapping is the process of creating a visual representation, or map, of the elements, connections and boundary that make up a system. Any system we choose to identify and name. Mapping forces us to think about what is in a system, where its boundary lies and how its elements are connected. It encourages exploration of the connections and it is a great tool for team discussion, exploration of issues and creating shared understanding.

"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, p. 58)

Many different mapping techniques have been created and systems thinkers develop skills in both selection of a technique appropriate to the system to be explorated and in the use of techniques to create maps that are useful.

Mapping techniques tend to follow the hard-soft continuum discussed in relation to systems. At the hard end are techniques that focus on simulations of system behaviour and the way systems behave over time. At the softer end are techniques that help with understanding more of the qualitative nature of systems. Often the focus for these is where boundaries and how connections create influence.

6. Finding leverage points

Thinking in systems gives us an alternative way of understanding our world and to better understand how and why it behaves as it does.

While this leads us to marvel at the intricate systems that surround us, it also gives us an opportunity to see how we can change those systems to produce better outcomes. Thinking in systems gives us an opportunity, as we review the wholeness of a system, to ask what is the most powerful leverage point for changing this system?

With much qualification systems thinker Donella Meadows has put forward a list of leverage points that she believes are the most influential points to intervene to change a system. It would be unsystemic to apply any of these without spending time understanding a system and how it behaves; bearing these in mind however can at least provide a focus and at best may produce radical change in otherwise dysfunctional situations. Her list is in order of potency and her 'top three' are listed here:

3. Goals

The goals in a system create the winning line, the achievement of which becomes the focus for the rest of the system.

Change the goal and you can change the whole orientation of the system and its individual elements.

What surprises us in systems work is that when you set about thining about the system you often end up realising that the real goal of a system is not the one that's publicly espoused.

2. Paradigms

A paradigm is all that we know and believe about a situation.

It is assembled from the experiences, lessons, observations, physical and mental circumstances that we have lived with to this point. Systems are driven by paradigms and we understand them through viewing them through a paradigm.

If a paradigm that underpins a system is changed the system itself can undergo a total transformation.

1. Transcending paradigms

Imagine if we were aware of our paradigms, and could switch between them at will or indeed become paradigm agnostic by turning them off!

Controlling our paradigms is the ultimate choice for change in a system. Without the restriction of seeing through a paradigm the feel in which we can play becomes almost limitless!

  • "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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