Collaborator's Login

Systems thinking


A system is a set of interrelated parts that form a whole. A system is not the sum of its parts, but rather the product of their interaction.

Systems thinking is way to make sense of a complex system that gives attention to exploring the relationships, boundaries and perspectives in a system. It is a mental framework that helps us to become better problem solvers.  As system thinkers we can find ways to shift or recombine the parts in the system to offer an improved outcome.

Systems approaches are the specific tools and methods we can use to better understand the system and the complex problems within it. They are particularly useful because they do not require us to know everything about the system before engaging in problem-solving activities.

A combination of systems thinking and approaches helps us to see the big picture – how the problem we’re trying to solve is made up of connected and inter-related components, so that a change in one part will influence other parts. It is also a way to understand the complex nature of the problems we’re dealing with and how relationships and behaviours change over time to cause the situation to be as it is.

Systems thinking and approaches can be useful in dealing with complex problems when:

  • We’re dealing with a stubborn long-term problem – not a one-off event – that has a known history
  • There are multiple actors (organisations and people) and multiple causes that interact and influence each other
  • There are competing or conflicting interests – or different views of the situation or problem
  • There’s no single explanation for what is causing the problem and no single solution that fits all situations.

A system is a set of interrelated parts that form a whole. A system is not the sum of its parts, but rather the product of their interaction.

Systems thinking is way to make sense of a complex system that gives attention to exploring the relationships, boundaries and perspectives in a system. It is a mental framework that helps us to become better problem solvers.  As system thinkers we can find ways to shift or recombine the parts in the system to offer an improved outcome.

Systems approaches are the specific tools and methods we can use to better understand the system and the complex problems within it. They are particularly useful because they do not require us to know everything about the system before engaging in problem-solving activities.

A combination of systems thinking and approaches helps us to see the big picture – how the problem we’re trying to solve is made up of connected and inter-related components, so that a change in one part will influence other parts. It is also a way to understand the complex nature of the problems we’re dealing with and how relationships and behaviours change over time to cause the situation to be as it is.

Systems thinking and approaches can be useful in dealing with complex problems when:

  • We’re dealing with a stubborn long-term problem – not a one-off event – that has a known history
  • There are multiple actors (organisations and people) and multiple causes that interact and influence each other
  • There are competing or conflicting interests – or different views of the situation or problem
  • There’s no single explanation for what is causing the problem and no single solution that fits all situations.

When considering systems work, it is important to first determine the kind of problem you are working with, and choose the approach accordingly.

First, we need to understand the type of problem we are addressing. Is it simple (how to fill a hole in the road), complicated (how to build the road) or complex (how to address traffic congestion)?

 Simple problemsComplicated problems Complex problems
Understanding
the problem
ClearSome areas of uncertaintyHighly uncertain
Utility of rulesSame rules apply every timeRules are refined over time, eventually becoming repeatableNo direct transference of rules from one context to the next
OutcomeGuaranteed same outcome each timeA high degree of certainty that outcome is predictableHighly unpredictable and uncertain outcome
ExpertiseGenerally not requiredHigh level of expertise in specific areasFocus on understanding context first, bring expertise as required
SuccessFollow the protocol, with the same parts every timeExperiment with a formula to determine protocolRespond to and learn from the dynamics of the context as they emerge
Adapted from: Westley, Zimmerman and Patton. 2006. Getting to Maybe: How the world has changed.

 

Systems thinking is useful because it can:

  • Anticipate and avoid long-term consequences of well-intentioned solutions
  • Engage with complexity, rather than ignore it
  • Motivate continuous learning
  • Mobilise stakeholders to see shared interest and the system
  • Identify leverage points for systems change

Challenges can arise when problem-solving approaches that are useful for complicated problems are applied to complex problems. This can often result in quick fixes that fail to recognise and intervene in the root causes of problems. It can also lead to new or worse problems because we have failed to understand the relationships between parts in the system.

By recognising the complex nature of the problem, and applying systems thinking approaches, investigations can delve below the surface and identify the fundamental and interconnecting causes of the complex issue – such as the patterns of behaviour, the underlying structure and the beliefs of the people and organisations responsible for creating that complex issue.

 

There are a number of ways in which systems thinking differs from conventional thinking in terms of how we conceive of and approach problems. This influences the goal of an investigation into a problem, and who and how we chose to engage people and resources in the investigation.

 Conventional thinkingSystems thinking
How a problem is exploredIsolate parts to understand behaviourExplore emergent nature of the system as a whole
GoalCreate a solution to solve the problemDeepen understanding of the system and identify a response to test
Nature of the problemCan be defined and isolated, with a clear cause and a solution. Problems can be understood objectivelyA situation has multiple causes, with no clear single solution. Wicked problems are understood differently depending on perspective
Who is responsible for the solution?External/othersEveryone is a part of the system and therefore needs to engage in change
How solutions are achievedMultiple short term success leads to long term solutionsMost action has unintended consequences. Need to test, seek feedback and adapt responses
How the problem can be solvedImprove parts to improve wholeImprove whole through improving relationships between parts
Problem solving processLinear process with clear steps, start and finishMultiple entry points, non-linear process focused on learning and iterating
Adapted from: Ison, R. 2010. Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World.

Systems thinking and approaches include both a way of seeing the system (a perspective) and the application of a set of tools and methods. It is important to distinguish between the two, as well as to understand how they need to be taken together to understand the system as a whole.

Systems approaches: tools and methods

Systems tools and methods include:

  • Systems dynamic modelling
  • Causal loop diagrams
  • Social network analysis
  • Outcome mapping
  • Assumption-based planning
  • Soft systems methodology
  • Critical systems heuristics.

Systems tools and methods seek to serve a particular purpose, have a specific strategy for implementation, and have data input requirements. They require the user to develop proficiency, and once achieved, the tool or method can be applied over again.

Systems thinking: practice

In undertaking systems thinking activities, we want to have a high capacity to see and sense a system (i.e. patterns, structures, relationships, boundaries, feedback loops and unintended consequences of actions). We can build our capacity to do this by engaging regularly in a systems thinking practice. This means regularly reflecting on our assumptions and mental models, and exploring unintended consequences of actions and how we listen and learn from other perspectives. These practices will enhance our capacity to see and sense the system when we engage with specific tools such as causal loop diagrams or systems mapping.

Why we need both tools and practice

Systems tools and methods can be applied by anyone to any situation. However, the outcomes will be influenced by the perspective of the individuals applying the tools, and therefore different results will be achieved each time. When a practitioner has a strong systems thinking practice, this will shift and broaden the available outcomes of the work because a wider range of inputs are engaged.

 

I want to do systems…

In my everyday practice:

Article: 12 Habits of the Mind

Article: The systems orientation: from curiosity to courage

Book: Systems Practice: How to act in a climate change world

In my work with others:

Book: Growing wings on the way: systems thinking for messy situations

Website: ABLe Change Framework

Article: Conducting an effective systems analysis

Article: Going deeper: moving from understanding to action

Book: Systems Concepts in Action

Book: Wicked Solutions: A systems approach to complex problems

PDF: Systems Thinking tools: a users reference guide

Software: Beyond Connecting the Dots

Book: Community-based Systems Dynamics

I need an introduction to understand systems

Video: Systems Thinking

Article: Systems Methodology

Article: Leveraging change: the power of systems thinking in action

Book: Systems thinking for social change

Website: Systems Literacy

Video: Understand Causal Loop Diagrams and Drawing causal loop diagrams

Website: The Systems Thinker

Article: 10 useful ideas on systems thinking

I want more theory and concepts

Book: Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

Book: Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Book: Edgeware : Lessons from Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders

Article: Places to Intervene in a System

I want to see systems applied to health

Report: Health and Wellbeing in the Changing Urban Environment: A systems analysis approach — An Interdisciplinary Science Plan

Special Issue: Advancing the application of systems thinking in health

Report: Greater than the Sum: Systems thinking in tobacco control

Report: Making Life Better: A whole system strategic framework for public health

Report: Investing in Prevention: a national imperative

Report: Defining Success in a Systems Approach: The San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative

Report: Systems Thinking for Health Systems Strengthening

Report:  Thinking like a system: the way forward to prevent chronic disease in Ontario

Book Chapter: Systems and Evaluation: placing a systems approach in context

I want to take an online course in systems

Systems Thinking in Public Health

Systems Thinking made Simple

Systems Practice: a practical approach to move from impossible to impact

I want to understand how to fund systems change work

Report: Funding Systems Change: Challenges and Opportunities

Report: Systems Grant-making Resource Guide

Article: Leveraging Grantmaking: Parts 1 and 2

 

I want to hear experts talk about systems

Professor Allan Best, Director of InSource Research Group

Short Video: Five minutes with Professor Allan Best

Long Video: Partnering for change in a complex world

Professor Terry Huang, Director of the Center for Systems and Community Design at the City University of New York

Long video: Connecting the dots: translating systems thinking into public health innovations

Professor Nate Osgood, health data science expert, University of Saskatchewan

Short Video: Five minutes with Professor Nate Osgood

Long Video: Integrating Big Data and dynamic models to support health decision making

Professor Mike Kelly, University of Cambridge and former Director of the Centre for Public Health at the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE)

Short Video: Five minutes with Professor Mike Kelly

Long Video: Nudge and public health: what can we learn from the British experience?

Professor Penny Foster-Fishman, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University

Short Video: The practice of systems change: tips from a change agent

Professor Diane Finegood, Simon Fraser University, Canada, and Dr Bev Holmes, Acting President and CEO, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, Canada

Webinar: Practical strategies to mobilise knowledge in complex systems

 

 

 

 

This section features the best reads and resources we have identified to help you gain a better understanding of systems thinking. The section is compiled by Dr Seanna Davidson, Manager of Systems Thinking and Capacity Building.

June 2017

Book: Community Based Systems Dynamics

Author: Peter S Hovmand

Available for purchase here

Page count: 110

What is this resource?

This is a handbook reference for conducting community based systems dynamic modelling, based on work by the Brown School Social Systems Design Lab at Washington University.

Why is this worthwhile?

There are very few resources that help people understand ‘how’ to do systems. This is one of the rare resources to do so, by providing not only a conceptual understanding but support for facilitating and hosting space where modelling can happen. Importantly, it also considers how to bring people into the room before the modelling begins – ensuring we have diverse perspectives from which to build the model is half the challenge. The book also provides details on what to do after the model is built and its continued use in the systems process.

Who is this useful for?

Systems dynamic modelling is often left to the realm of experts and modellers. This handbook provide an accessible entry point for everyone else interested in participating, enabling or leading community-based systems dynamics.

 


May 2017

Report: Funding systems change: Challenges and Opportunities

Author: The Social Innovation Exchange, Social Innovation Generation, Forum for the Future and the Systems Studio

What is this resource?

This is a report produced from a workshop gathering of the Social Innovation Exchange (SiX) Funders Node, a pioneering group of leaders financially supporting systems change around the world.

Why is it worthwhile? 

The report briefly outlines the conceptual model of systems change that the participants and their home organisations use. It outlines four cases studies of large philanthropic organisations showing the challenges and opportunities for systems change from lived experience of system change makers. The case studies highlight elements such as selected leverage points, measurements for impact and enabling conditions.

Who is this useful for? 

This resource is useful to anyone engaging in systems change work who is seeking to better understand how it plays out in real-life contexts.


April 2017

Report: Mapping Momentum: A snapshot of the emerging field of systems change

Author: Social Innovation Generation (SiG)

What is this resource?

This is a report produced by the systems change collaboration Social Innovation Generation (SiG) in Canada, and the Systems Studio based in New York.

Why is this worthwhile?

Both authors have been instrumental in the field of systems change in North America, through philanthropy and design and implementation of systems change labs. In this report they reflect on experiences and processes to identify the necessary roles and activities required to support systems change. They also explore the thematic areas in which systems change is taking place and provide notable examples of organisations working on these challenges.

Who is this useful for?

This resource is appropriate for policy makers, philanthropic organisations and not-for profit organisations who are seeking to understand the enabling conditions and networks that can facilitate systems change.

March 2017

Report: Building a language of systems change

What is this resource?

This is a synthesis of workshop discussions on systems change terminology.

Why is it worthwhile?

Leading systems change experts in Britain identified that language was a key challenge to systems entrepreneurs, and a leverage point for systems change.  Participants noted that a significant barrier to conducting systems work was being able to effectively describe systems processes in a way that was clear, meaningful and engaging to others.  While the report does not provide consensus, it introduces a shared lexicon which other system actors can draw on.

Who is it useful for?

This resource is useful to anyone who is engaging in systems change work who struggles to characterise, describe and communicate what it is they are doing and why.


February 2017

What is this resource?

‘Systems Practice: A Practical Approach to Move from Impossible to Impact’ is a massive open online course (MOOC) for systems thinking, run  by Acumen and The Omidyar Group.

Why is it worthwhile?

This course offers a structured learning environment with an opportunity to test and apply systems thinking tools to your own project, either on your own or in your team. This course will lead you through each step of understanding a system, analyzing it to find points of leverage, and learning how to adapt in a changing environment. You will also gain access to a portfolio of step-by-step tools, processes, and mindsets to apply to your current and future work.

Who is this useful for?

This course is appropriate for professionals working on complex problems across any field of social impact. A systems practice journey has the potential to transform the way you work, think, and view the world and can get you closer to your goal of creating sustained positive impact.

Register here


January 2017

Website: Developmental Evaluation Toolkit

Provider: Spark Policy Institute

 

Handbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Developmental Evaluation

Authors: Elizabeth Dozois, Marc Langlois, Natasha Blanchet-Cohen

 

Book: Developmental Evaluation: Applying complexity concepts to enhance innovation and use

Author: Michael Quinn Patton

Publisher: Guilford Press

 

What are these resources?

These resources are on the theme of developmental evaluation (DE). Developmental Evaluation is evaluation used to support the creation of program policies, interventions or innovations that operate in a dynamic, novel and complex environment. The evaluation focuses on learning through feedback while programs are in development to enable the most context appropriate and feasible design outcome.

The first resource is an online toolkit for DE, which gives a general introduction to the practice, why and when to use it, and some of the skills required, as well as a list of tools and how to apply them. The second is a practitioner’s handbook on DE that delves deeper into how to apply DE practices, what they can surface in terms of learning, and challenges that can arise. The final is a keystone resource written by the leading DE practitioner that discusses some of the more theoretical and abstract concepts of DE.

Why are they worthwhile?

Applying a systems approach requires us to engage in processes of constant learning. DE grew out of the evaluation literature but has wide applicability to systems work because it approaches learning while doing, instead of learning after completion of an activity. In systems we need to constantly re-orientate  based on what we see emerge from the system. DE provides tools and practices through which to do this.

Who is this useful for?

Experienced systems practitioners who are looking to expand their suite of reflection and action learning tools. DE is also appropriate for those in long-term programs and who are moving beyond post-program evaluation practice.

 

 


December 2016

Book: Growing wings on the way: Systems thinking for messy situations

Author: Rosalind Armson

Publisher: Triarchy Press

What is this resource?

A non-academic book written for systems practitioners from a soft-systems approach (a series of facilitated activities that take a group through a problem-solving process, generally applied to complex social issues).

Why is it worthwhile?

This book is a useful resource for those wrestling with ‘what does this look like in practice’ and wanting step-by-step outlines for group processes. It outlines processes to facilitate systems work in a group setting. Written in a highly accessible tone, the author, a systems practitioner, shares her experiences with these tools, covers the messiness of working in systems, and explores more deeply what a process of inquiry and action learning looks like.

Who is this useful for?

Practitioners who want to apply a soft-systems methodology, or those looking for examples of systems practice in real life.


November 2016

Article: Cognitive Bias

Author: Samantha Lee, Drake Baer

Provider: Business Insider

What is this resource? 

A chart of cognitive bias that affect decision making.

Why is this worthwhile?

In order to engage in systems thinking, we must become aware of the values, worldviews and experiences that frame our perspectives.  All of these inform – and often limit – our ability to ‘see’ the system. A system thinker engages in self-reflection as a step towards engaging and learning from the perspectives of others. A useful tool for gaining this awareness is interrogating our own biases. This chart offers a useful set of triggers to surface and consider our bias and how this informs our perspective on the system. Doing so permits us to set these biases aside and consider the system from a broader view.

Who is this useful for?

This chart is useful for anyone engaging in decision making practices, but especially so for systems thinkers.


October 2016

Article: Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Guide

Author: Dr Daniel Kim

Provider: The Systems Thinker

What is this resource?

This is a handbook of systems modelling tools largely focused on providing an introductory understanding to causal loop diagrams, stocks and flow, and systems modelling. The handbook was created by Dr Daniel Kim, a co-founder of the MIT Center for Organizational Learning.

Why is this worthwhile?

There is a broad landscape of systems tools, many of which are complex and have a rich theoretical and conceptual history, making it difficult to get a cursory view of their applications. This handbook offers an accessible view into several key tools and may help determine which tools are appropriate for which contexts.

Who is this useful for?

The handbook will be most useful for those beginning to consider the design of their investigations who would benefit from an introduction to different systems modelling tools.

 


September 2016

Article: Systems Methodology

Provider: The Systems Thinker

What is this resource?

This short article outlines the five steps in systems thinking and modelling methodology developed by Jay Forrester at MIT, a significant contributor to systems thinking.

Why is this worthwhile?

There are many different aspects and approaches to systems thinking, but Forrester’s contribution to the field is significant and has focused on systems dynamic modelling – one of the better known approaches. This is a general access article which is useful in providing an overview of the steps and methodology which may help direct further investigation into this field.

Who is this useful for?

The article will be most useful for those who have heard about systems dynamics, and want to gain a cursory understanding of its approach.

 


August 2016

What is this resource?

The Searchable Systems Toolbox is an online database of systems thinking tools.

Website: Systems Grantmaking Resource Guide

Provider: Management Assistance Group and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

 

How does it work?

Users can search the database and find appropriate tools based on the kind of systems insight they are seeking. The database includes resources such as visual mapping, narrative reporting, systems process or theories and frameworks. They are rated by time, expertise and participation requirements. You can also search the database by the types of systems questions you want to explore, including people, variables, patterns and structures or learning.

Why is this worthwhile?

Systems work is more than the application of one tool. It is a journey undertaken by a group or in a project that shifts and changes in response to what is learned at each stage. This means there is no one way to conduct a systems investigation, and different tools are useful at different stages, depending on the context. This resource describes and provides access to a full range of tools so you can choose those that are appropriate to the requirements of the group.

Who is this useful for?

Originally collated to support grant applications, this resource is useful for those directly engaged in systems change work on the ground and in communities, or scholars looking for applied frameworks for systems change.


July 2016

 

Video: The Practice of a Systems Change Agent

Author: Professor Penny Foster-Fishman

Audience: Systems Practitioners

Length: 6 mins

 

Webinar: The ABLe Change Framework 

Author: Professor Pennie Foster-Fishman

Audience: Systems Practitioners

Length: 1hr 30mins

 

Article: The ABLe Change Framework: A Conceptual and Methodological Tool for Promoting Systems Change

Author: Professor Pennie Foster-Fishman and Dr Erin Watson

Tone: Academic Article for Systems Practitioners

Word Count: 9300

What are these resources?

The Prevention Centre was fortunate to host systems scholar and practitioner Professor Pennie Foster-Fishman for several days in July 2016.  Below are some resources from her time here, including a webinar that discusses her systems change framework for working with communities and notes from her case studies, a brief video on the practice of systems change, as well as an academic article outlining the change framework.

Why are they worthwhile?

To complement our conceptual and theoretical knowledge of systems thinking, these resources offer on the ground case studies of systems approaches and provide an insight about the challenges and opportunities of enabling actual systems change. These resources highlight the inherent complexities, unintended consequences and hidden benefits of this work – realities that must be considered and incorporated into our systems change efforts.

 Who are they useful for?

The collection will be most useful for those directly engaged in systems change work on the ground and in communities, or scholars looking for applied frameworks for systems change.

 

 


June 2016

Video: Emergence
Author: Complexity Academy
Tone: General Audience
Length: Six minutes

 

Article: Emergence
Author: New England Complex Systems Institute
Tone: General Audience
Word Count: 650

 

What is this resource?

This brief video and webpage describe the concept of “emergence”  – the existence or formation of collective behaviours – and how it is meaningful in relation to systems thinking.

Why is this worthwhile?

The reductionist paradigm encourages us to break apart elements of a system and consider them in isolation, coming to understand its intricacies. In systems thinking, our focus is to understand how the parts are related and interact. Emergence is the idea that a dynamic is created that can only exist as a result of the parts coming together – a dynamic that cannot be seen or explored when parts are examined in isolation. It is this fundamental principle that underpins why we must examine the system, and clarifies why our best attempts to predict responses to change in complex systems will often fail.

Who is this useful for?

The article is produced for a general audience and uses plain language and common examples that will make this concept accessible for most users.


 

May 2016

Article: The Dawn of Systems Leadership
Author: Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania
Tone: General audience
Word Count: approx. 6500
Keywords: Systems change, leadership, systems practice

 

What is this resource?

This article, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, outlines the core capabilities of a systems leader. The article is written by leading organisational change scholar Dr Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline) and colleagues who have worked as practitioners in systems change for many years.  “…these leaders shift the conditions through which others – especially those who have a problem – can learn collectively to make progress against it.”

Why is this worthwhile?

Many people are first exposed to systems thinking through a set of analytical tools that are applied to a complex problem.  Yet, what many practitioners and systems scholars have come to understand is that the set of tools is only as useful as the perspective from which they are applied. Developing one’s own internal systems practice is just as important as applying a systemic tool. The authors also point out that we do not need to be in a traditional leadership role to act as a systems leader and work towards systems change

Who is this useful for?

This article is written for a general audience and is both useful and accessible to practitioners, researchers and government and policy staff. The article helps the reader to develop the mindset of a systems thinker and approach for systems work.


April 2016

Article: Places to intervene in a system
Author: Donella Meadows
Tone: General audience
Word Count: 10,000
Keywords: Systems change, systems theory, social learning

 

What is this resource?

Written by well-regarded US author Donella Meadows, a pioneer of systems thinking from a social perspective, this article will help you understand systems change. Meadows outlines the development of her understanding on how to intervene in a system to enable change. 

Why is this worthwhile?

For many of us, it is easy enough to grasp the idea that ‘everything is connected’. What is more difficult to discern is how to move from this broad principle to a more constructive and insightful framework for analysis and understanding. The 10 elements offered by Meadows direct the reader to specific elements of a systems dynamic, which taken together can provide understanding for appropriate places for intervening. Importantly, the list of elements include our own learning and set of paradigms that we use to make sense of our system. Meadows rightly points out that no one paradigm is true, but the collective taken together informs a richer understanding of a system.

Who is this useful for?

Given that this article is written for a general audience, it is both useful and accessible for practitioners, researchers and government and policy staff. The article’s utility is in helping one become a systems thinker, that is, their mindset and approach for systems work.