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.

The Systems Change Framework developed by the Prevention Centre and the Tasmanian Department of Health offers a structure and process for teams and projects to understand and engage in systems change efforts. The Framework identifies the key components of the learning context in which the work should be carried out in, as well the critical steps of inquiry used to investigate the system of interest.

For more information, download a PDF of the Systems Change Framework here

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.

The Systems Change Framework developed by the Prevention Centre and the Tasmanian Department of Health offers a structure and process for teams and projects to understand and engage in systems change efforts. The Framework identifies the key components of the learning context in which the work should be carried out in, as well the critical steps of inquiry used to investigate the system of interest.

For more information, download a PDF of the Systems Change Framework here

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 thinking practices flyer
Systems thinking practices poster

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.

  • Download a poster on systems thinking practices you can do every day here
  • Download a flyer on systems thinking practices you can do every day here

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 grant-making: Parts 1 and 2

I want to hear experts talk about systems

Systems Experts Series: Professor Mike Kelly, Professor Diane Finegood and Dr Therese Riley

Short video: Why use a system’s approach? 

Short video: How I use system’s in my work

Short video: How to measure success

Short video: A guiding principle for systems work 

Professor Pennie Foster-Fishman, University of Michigan

Short video: The practice of systems change 

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