What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking has been successfully used in engineering, defence, economics, ecology and business since the mid-1950s. It is a way to understand and manage complex problems at a local and global level, and is both a way of thinking and a practical tool to aid decision making when tackling complex problems.

It 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.

Traditional approaches to problem solving often address just the obvious symptoms of complex problems through quick fixes, and fail to recognise and intervene in the root causes of problems. Rather than just tackling the tip of the iceberg, systems thinking delves below the surface and identifies the fundamental and interconnecting causes of complex issues – the patterns of behaviour, the underlying structure and the beliefs (mental models) of the people and organisations responsible for creating that complex issue.

If we try to improve a situation without understanding these connected underlying causes, we can make things worse or create new problems that we or others have to solve in the future.
Systems thinking also refers to theories, tools or methods that help us describe, understand and analyse a system.

Some of these tools provide ways to think about public health issues as problems within systems. Other tools allow us to map elements in a system and the connections among them, which helps to highlight the complexity of public health issues and allows us to test different interventions or policy options to see which are likely to produce the desired change.

Systems thinking 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.