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Systems resources


In this section, you’ll find a variety of resources about systems thinking, including websites to books, reports, papers, multimedia and courses. We have tried to include a range of resources for different levels of knowledge.

This is a selection of resources and is by no means complete. If you feel we’ve missed a useful resource, please email us. We’d love to hear from you.

In this section, you’ll find a variety of resources about systems thinking, including websites to books, reports, papers, multimedia and courses. We have tried to include a range of resources for different levels of knowledge.

This is a selection of resources and is by no means complete. If you feel we’ve missed a useful resource, please email us. We’d love to hear from you.

Here is a selection of websites that focus on systems thinking and include a range of practical resources.

Bob Williams: Systems concepts and tools
This website offers information on systems concepts, tools and frameworks.

Donella Meadows Institute
The Institute focuses on the sustainability of economic, social and environmental systems, using the disciplines of systems thinking, system dynamics and collaborative learning. It offers systems thinking resources including information on thinking in systems, leverage points, dancing with systems and a systems thinking resource list.

Linda Booth Sweeney

Linda Booth Sweeney is an educator and author. Her website provides accessible information and resources that help communicate complex systems concepts. It features a list of books and other resources about systems thinking, including Linda’s blog on system issues.

MIT Sloan School of Management
Systems dynamics was founded at MIT Sloan Management in 1956. The school’s website gives a good overview of systems dynamics in layman’s terms and includes some useful links and events in systems thinking.

Systems & Us
This website offers a great introduction to what systems thinking is all about. It also includes a collection of articles covering specific, real-world systems.

Systems Thinking World
This free eLearning environment, coordinated by Gene Bellinger, aims to show how the application of systems principles can help to solve problems.

Waters Foundation
The Waters Foundation promotes the use of systems thinking concepts, habits and tools in schools. Its website has many resources including a page explaining the habits of a systems thinker, free on-line lesson plans and ideas for teachers to develop the system thinking skills of their students.

 

Here is a selection of resources that provide a broad explanation of systems thinking and may be useful for those new to the field.

Online resources

10 useful ideas on systems thinking
This is a good basic one-pager.

Habits of a systems thinker
An interactive poster from the Waters Foundation.

Thinking about systems: 12 habits of mind
A one-pager from Linda Booth Sweeney on the “habits of mind” of a systems thinker.

Beyond connecting the dots
Scott Fortmann-Roe and Gene Bellinger
This is an interactive learning environment for systems thinking and modelling, which starts at a basic conceptual level and becomes increasingly more advanced.

Publications, books and articles

Systems thinking for health system strengthening
The Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, World Health Organization, 2009
This report says it offers a fresh and practical approach to strengthening health systems through systems thinking.

Overview of systems thinking
Daniel Aronson, 1994
This article provides a brief, plain-language summary of systems thinking and its uses.

Rethinking how we live to stop the chronic diseases epidemic
Alessandro Demaio, Fiona Lander, Fred Hersch, Kerin O’Dea, 2012
An article in The Conversation outlining the need for a system wide approach to prevent chronic disease.

Leverage points: places to intervene in a system

Donella Meadows, 1999
This report broadly discusses the leverage points for systems change.

Thinking in systems: A primer
Donella Meadows, 2008
This book gives a good introduction to tools and methods in systems thinking.

Making systems thinking more than a slogan
John Sterman, 2013
This article describes how the world operates as a system and how businesses can incorporate systems thinking.

Systems concepts in action: A practitioner’s toolkit
Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner, 2010
This book explores the application of systems ideas to investigate, evaluate and intervene in complex and messy situations. It details a wide range of methods from many parts of the systems field and provides a selection of practical tools.

Videos

A systems story
This creative video presents a simple explanation of systems thinking through the “lens of love”.

Healthy Together Victoria: Complex Systems Thinking
A short video explaining Healthy Together Victoria’s systems thinking approach to prevention.

Systems thinking: a cautionary tale (cats in Borneo)
A quirky video that tells the story of ‘Operation Cat Drop’ in Borneo in the 1950s.

Systems thinking white boarding animation project
An animated video that uses the example of making coffee to illustrate systems thinking.

Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast
A short TED talk by Ted Wujec on system and design thinking, demonstrated through the process of making toast.

Other resources

Systems thinking: teaching and learning
A useful collection of pictures and diagrams for learning and teaching about systems thinking.

Systems Thinking: Lessons from the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook
This presentation summarises the main system principles explored in the book, The Fifth Discipline.

Systems thinking, curated by Jurgen Kanz
This Scoop.it! page has links to a range of resources on systems thinking.

The following resources provide more advanced information on systems thinking and methods.

Websites

Australian and New Zealand Systems Society
A systems community that provides information about conferences, books, courses and methods for systems researchers and practitioners.

Human Systems Dynamics Institute Wiki
The Institute focuses on Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) theory and practice that uses principles from complex adaptive systems to inform action in any social context. It offers a range of books and resources on leveraging uncertainty and organisational development as well as virtual workshops.

Systems Dynamics Society
The System Dynamics Society is an international, non-profit organisation that encourages the development and use of system dynamics and systems thinking around the world, with members in 70 countries. The website has a resource page that includes a bibliography, tools, videos and upcoming conferences.

Systems Praxis
This is a joint effort of the International Council on Systems Engineering, the International Society for the Systems Sciences and the International Federation for Systems Research. It offers a range of resources including reports aimed at finding a ‘common’ language for systems science.

Systems Dynamics Society
This website covers case studies about projects that used systems approaches.

The Sante Fe Institute
The Institute is a non-profit education and research institute. Its website has many resources including videos, books, working papers, bibliography and online courses.

Publications, books and articles

Introducing systems approaches.
In Reynolds M, Holwell S (Eds). Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide. London, Springer-Verlag, 2010.

Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like?

Sholom Glouberman and Brenda Zimmerman. 2002 Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada

The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation
Peter M Senge, 1990
The book describes disciplines that must be mastered when introducing learning into an organisation.

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health
Joachim Sturmberg and Carmel Martin (eds), 2014 Springer
This book is an introduction to health care as a complex adaptive system. It introduces systems and complexity theory and explores the health applications of systems science theory, from human physiology to medical decision making, population health and health services research.

Wicked Solutions: A systems approach to complex problems
Bob Williams and Sjon van’t Hof, 2014
This practical workbook introduces systems thinking and helps to design suitable ways of tackling complex situations.

Multimedia

The challenge of obesity, and a systems approach to solutions
Ross Hammond, 2014
A one-hour lecture on the challenge of obesity and systems approach to solutions.

Using systems thinking and tools to solve public health problems

Allan Best, Ross Brownson and Kenneth McLeroy, 2011
A free webcast for public health researchers and practitioners that provides an overview of systems thinking, practical tools to help navigate and analyse complex systems, and real-world examples of how systems models can be applied in a variety of settings.

The origins of soft systems methodology
Peter Checkland, 2012
In this 15-minute video, Peter Checkland, the founder of soft systems methodology, describes the origins of soft systems methodology.

Courses

isee Systems
This company, which produces STELLA and ITHINK software, runs online courses in dynamic modeling.

 

Series and supplements

Obesity 2015
The Lancet’s second series on obesity describes how food environments “exploit people’s biological, psychological, social, and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods”. The series calls for regulatory actions from governments and increased efforts from industry and the community to break these vicious cycles.
Obesity 2015. The Lancet, 18 February 2015

Systems Change
This special issue of the American Journal of Community Psychology examines the value of a systems approach to systems change, including the need for frameworks and methods.
Foster-Fishman PG (lead editor), American Journal of Community Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 3-4, June 2007

Systems Science: A Good Investment for the Public’s Health
T
his supplement of Health Education & Behavior “showcases the current state of the field of systems science applications in health promotion and public health”.
Mabry PL (lead editor) Health Education & Behavior, October 2013 40: 9S-12S

Articles

Advancing the application of systems thinking in health
The primary objective of this series is to support the shift from abstract concepts to actual applications and experiences of systems thinking in health, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries. Reference: Health Research Policy and Systems, Volume 12, 2014

Supplemental issue: Systems science applications in health promotion and public health Health Education & Behavior. October 2013; 40

Ahmed S, Shea S, Pinkney S, Wharf Higgins J, Naylor PJ.  Wayfinding the Live 5-2-1-0 Initiative—At the Intersection between Systems Thinking and Community-Based Childhood Obesity Prevention. International Journal of Environmental Research. Public Health 2016; 13(6), 614; doi:10.3390/ijerph13060614

Best A, Holmes B. Systems thinking, knowledge and action: towards better models and methods. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice. Volume 6, Number 2, May 2010, 145-159(15)

Bishai D, Paina L, Li Q, Peters DH, and Hyder AA. Advancing the application of systems thinking in health: why cure crowds out prevention. Health Research Policy and Systems 2014;12:28. (Open access)

Diez Roux AV. Complex systems thinking and current impasses in health disparities researchAmerican Journal of Public Health. 2011 September; 101(9): 1627–1634.

Finegood DT. The importance of systems thinking to address obesity. Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Series 2012;73:123-137.

Forrester JW. Counterintuitive behavior of social systems. Theory and Decision 1971;2(2):109-140.

Hawe P, Riley T, Shiell A. Theorising interventions as events in complex systems. American Journal of Community Psychology 2009; 43(3-4): 267-276

Hawe P, Shiell A, Riley T. Complex interventions: how “out of control” can a randomised controlled trial be? British Medical Journal 2004;328;1561-1563

Hovmand PS et al. Group model-building ‘scripts’ as a collaborative planning tool. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 2012;29(2):179-193.

Leischow SJ, Best A, Trochim WM, Clark PI, Gallagher RS, Marcus SE et al. Systems thinking to improve the public’s health American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2008;35(2 Suppl): S196-203.

Leischow SJ and Milstein B. Systems thinking and modeling for public health practice. American Journal of Public Health 2006;96(3):403-405.

Marcus SE, Leischow SJ, Mabry PL and Clark PI. Lessons learned from the application of systems science to tobacco control at the National Cancer Institute. American Journal of Public Health 2010;100(7):1163-1165.

Naaldenberg J. Elaborating on systems thinking in health promotion practice.Global Health Promotion, March 2009 16: 39-47.

Norman CD. Teaching systems thinking and complexity theory in health sciences. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 2013;19(6):1087-1089.

Norman CD, Charnaw-Burger J, Yip AL, Saad S, Lombardo C. Designing health innovation networks using complexity science and systems thinking: the CoNEKTR model. Journal of Evaluation in  October 2010;16(5):1016-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2753.2010.01534.x.

Paina L and Peters DH. Understanding pathways for scaling up health services through the lens of complex adaptive systems. Health Policy Planning 2011;1-9.

Plsek PE and Greenhlagh T. The challenge of complexity in health care. British Medical Journal 2001;323(7313):625-628.

Rouwette EAJA, Vennix JAM, van Mullekom T. Group model building effectiveness: a review of assessment studies. System Dynamics Review 2002;18(1):5-45.

Skouteris H, Huang T, Millar L, Kuhlberg J, Dodd J, Callaway L et al. A systems approach to reducing maternal obesity: The Health in Preconception, Pregnancy and Postbirth (HIPPP) Collaborative. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. August 2015; 55(4):397-400. doi: 10.1111/ajo.12341. Epub 2015 Jun 30.

 

 

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.

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.