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What is system thinking?

How do we think about systems in a systemic way?

In brief

There are many different ideas about systems thinking, and approaches to understanding systems. You will doubtless develop your own version.

For me, Martin Sandbrook, ‘systems thinking’ is a way of being. It involves a way of seeing or interpreting the world through thought and feeling. It is an attitude of openness, of inquiry, of looking from many perspectives, inner and outer, of holding, or trying to hold, an awareness of my own beliefs and assumptions, of noticing my reaction to things, of understanding the world as an unfolding process where everything is in relation to everything else.

It is an attitude of compassion and love, avoiding judgement, seeking to understand rather than be understood. It is an attitude that is always curious, always ready to learn and amend, realising that to truly know something or somebody, is probably never fully possible, that knowing comes in many forms and is often partial or incomplete, that learning is a subjective process involving a relationship between me and what I am seeking to know, which affects both me and the that which I am trying to understand. It means being prepared to let go of the need to be right, or the fear of uncertainty or the illusion of control.

It contrasts with the mechanistic, reductionist and scientific view of the world, perhaps transcending, but still including it, seeing it as incomplete.

From this systemic way of being, everything else flows. I can interpret the world, sometimes as simple (mechanistic and linear), sometimes as complicated (but still essentially predictable, however complicated it may be), sometimes as complex (where the unexpected emerges, often as a result of human behaviour) and sometimes even as chaotic and unknowable. In each case, I can make use of different tools of interpretation, from the hard and analytical (feedback loops, systems maps) to the soft and fluid (rich pictures, action experiment). I can appreciate different perspectives and the influence of power. I can think and feel the world as a continuously responding process, a set of ideas which exist only in a mutually influencing relationship to each other and to me, which unfold, through conversation or perhaps dialogue.

And I can rely on more subjective, more ‘first person’ ways of knowing – inner and outer. Of course, I can still learn from experts, but I now do this in the context of my own way of being. I can also rely more confidently on ways of knowing which are not openly accepted as valid in our scientific world – intuition, experience, knowing through enacting or being, because I have a way of testing with myself whether these are valid, useful or reliable.

(This extract is drawn from a longer article called ‘Systems Thinking – So What?’)

 In practice

  • Try letting go of the need to be right!.
  • Deliberately ask others for their view of something – perhaps something you need to find a solution for.
  • Notice the effect – inner and outer, on you and on others, or on the system.
  • Where are you in relation to what you are calling the system?

References (in order of significance to Me)

E F Schumacher (1974) Small is Beautiful, A study of economics as if people mattered. Abacus edition, Sphere Books, London

Capra, Fritjof (1997) The Web of Life, a new synthesis of mind and matter. Flamingo, London

Allan Kaplan (2002) Development Practitioners and Social Process – Artists of the Invisible First few chapters. Pluto Press, London

Michael C Jackson (2003) Systems Thinking, Creative Holism for Managers. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK

Donella Meadows (2009) Thinking in Systems, a primer. Earthscan, London

William Perry (1970) Forms of Intellectual Development in the College Years Holt, Rinehart and Winston, USA (see also http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00892447#page-1)

Gregory Bateson (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. University of Chicago Press.

(Bateson is hard to follow in his own words. You might prefer a book by Noel G Charlton (2008) Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, beauty and the sacred earth. State University of New York Press, Albany USA or the relevant chapter of Berman M (1984) The Re-enchantment of the world Bantam, Cornell University Press)

Jean Boulton and Peter Allen (2007) Emerging and Integrating Perspectives – Chapter 14, Complexity

Ralph Stacey (2012) Tools and Techniques of Management and Leadership: Meeting the Challenge of Complexity Routledge, UK

Peter Senge (2006) The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of a Learning Organisation. 2nd Revised Edition  Random House

Stephan Harding (2006) Animate Earth, Science, Intuition and Gaia. Green Books, Totnes, UK

Alistair McIntosh (2001) – Soil and Soul, People versus corporate power. Aurum Press (Also Hell and High Water)

David Abram (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous, First Vintage Press. Also his latest book Becoming Animal

Malcolm Gladwell (2000) The Tipping point. How little things can make a big difference. Abacus, London

Wilkinson R and Pickett K (2009) The Spirit Level. Why equality is better for everyone. Allen Lane. London

Paul Stamets (2004) Mycellium Running Ten Speed Press, USA

Arie De Geus (1997) The Living Company Nicholas Brearley, USA

William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002) Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things North Point Press, New York

Thomas Berry (1990) The Great Work Sierra Club Books, California

Thomas Berry (2006) Evening Thoughts Sierra Club Books, California

 In depth (bullet point summary from the video, above)

For me, systems thinking falls into two parts – inner and outer

Systems Thinking - the 'inner' part

Following these key ideas:

  • “Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.” - EF Schumacher
  • “To change the way we act, we need first to change the way we think (and feel).” – derived from Donella Meadows
  • “There is no 'something' - only relationships between bundles of ideas rooted in their context.” - Gregory Bateson      

Looking at an issue from multiple perspectives

Internal perspectives:

  • My assumptions and beliefs
  • Your assumptions and beliefs
  • Our assumptions and beliefs

External perspective - The "Objective" view

While being constantly aware of the effect of our assumptions and beliefs on how we interpret the world.

Aware that our level of knowledge is limited by our level of consciousness, that it is always open to change in the light of new information

Having a mindset which is open…

       to continual learning - where learning is about my relationship to what I know and its relationship to me, where knowing involves experience, intuition and action, as well as 'objective fact'

       to feelings

       to intuition

       to Spirit

Being comfortable with uncertainty

       Acting with 'committed intention' (as per Jaworski in Synchronicity)

       Accepting things as provisional, for the time being

Living life as inquiry


       Self-aware - or aspiring to this

       Watching my reactions:

  • My thoughts
  • My feelings
  • My impulses      

Holding an awareness of my current worldview and assumptions

Moving toward solutions - rather than away from problems             

Embracing what emerges            

Working with 'both and', not 'either-or'                    

Transcending but still including - for example, transcending the purely mechanical but still including it as vital                  

Integrating It, I and We perspectives - including the subjective and inter-subjective (as per Ken Wilber)

Describing rather than defining

Comfortable with plurality                

Embracing complexity                   

Seeing the world as multidimensional           

Based on the metaphors of organisms rather than machines                   

Aware of the limitations of reductionist, linear and mechanistic thinking                                

Inquiring rather than advocating             

Open to other ways of knowing

  • Through experience
  • Through intuition
  • Through expression
  • Through ideas and theories
  • Through action 

Moving toward better ways of acting

  • Through collaboration
  • Through cycles of reflection and experimental action
  • While being open to what emerges
  • While holding the awareness of our worldview, our assumptions

Systems thinking - the 'outer' part

Establishing what it is we are calling a 'system' while being aware of, and questioning, boundaries

       How real are the boundaries?

       A boundary is a point of relationship with another system

              Are they physical?

              Are they socially constructed?

How do things change if we widen the system to include other aspects?

              What are we including in the boundary?

              What are we excluding?                    

What are the goals?

              What purpose does the system serve?

              What is the unfolding process?

              Does it transform something?

              Who acts within this system?

              What freedom do the actors have?

              What do these actors do?            

Looking at how the system maintains itself

              What are the underlying assumptions?

              Is there a prevailing 'Paradigm'?

                     This is the way we do things round here?

                     What is the context?

              What is taken for granted?

              What are the relationships which comprise the system?

                     Who owns the system?

                     Who could stop it or change it?

              Who holds power?

                     How does it work?

                     What form does it take?



                     What are the political forces?

              What language prevails?

                     Is it exclusive or inclusive?

                     Written or verbal?

              What are the shared narratives?

                     The legends

                     The stories people tell

                     Is there a dominant discourse?

                     Or many discourses?

                     Are there heroes - why are they heroes?

                     Are there villains - why are they villains?      

Trying to establish the properties of the system

              What emerges?

              How is this greater than the sum of its parts?

What stays the same, while the system elements constantly change?

              How does it self-organise?

              Are the nature of the issues within it:

                     Convergent or divergent?

                     Complicated or complex?

              Does it learn?

                     Does it have properties of mind?

                            Arcs linking things or people

                            Information of difference

Trying to understand the Internal Characteristics

              Build a Rich Picture

                     Checkland - Soft systems methodology

              Or, use Systems Dynamics (Donella meadows / Peter Senge), aspects of which include:

              Behaviour over time

              Feedback loops



                     The strength of these?

              Stocks & Flows





              Who has it?

              Who does not have it?

              How timely is it?

              How complete is it?

              What is the nature of the metrics, how it is measured?


              Are there incentives?

              Or punishments?

              What are the rules of the game?

              What Constrains?

Are there traps operating?

              Success to the successful

              Tragedy of the commons

              Race to the bottom



              Fixes that fail

              Perverse behaviour

                     Rule beating

                     Wrong goals

                     Schismogenesis (like the arms race, for example)


                     Double binds

                            Competing goals



Looking at how this system relates to other systems:

              Eg. Social, Political, Ecological

              How does it maintain itself externally?