What is Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is a way of positioning yourself relative to an organisational issue. People who use systems thinking keep one eye on the big picture and one eye on the detail. They recognise how structures in one part of the organisation can impact on other parts, and they understand the longer term patterns of behaviour that lead to events and crises. Systems thinking is an essential component informing all our consultancy work.

Systems Thinking provides a set of tools that support the issue focussed approach described above. These include:

  • Dynamic thinking: positioning your issue as part of a pattern of behaviour that has developed over time;
  • ‘System-as-cause’ thinking: constructing a model to explain how the problem behaviour arises;
  • ‘Forest’ thinking: seeing the ‘big picture’ and taking a more ‘on average’ view of the system;
  • ‘Operational’ thinking: analysing how things actually work, the cause and effect relationships, and how performance is actually being generated;
  • ‘Closed-loop’ thinking: moving away from laundry lists of exacerbating factors and describing the ‘feedback loops’ that interact to create the performance of the system (see What is system dynamics?);
  • ‘Quantitative’ thinking: quantifying not just the hard data but also the soft variables that are operating in the system;
  • ‘Scientific’ thinking: using models to discard falsehoods not just to ascertain ‘the truth’.

(Barry Richmond, isee Systems, 1998)

Systems Thinking uses tools such as causal loop diagrams and graphs over time to analyse and describe problems and ways of making improvements, but it rarely takes the additional steps of constructing and testing a computer simulation model, and testing alternative policies in the model. This is the role of System Dynamics.