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Making sense of different systems

 Systems Thinking – so what next? How do we make sense of systems? We can start by asking what sort of system are we dealing with: simple, complicated, complex or even chaotic.

In brief

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework offers a useful way to decide what sort of system we are dealing with and what tools or methods might be useful to help us understand it. The framework may look a bit mechanistic, but it provides a useful place to begin.

Cynefin suggests there are 4 types of system:

  • simple (linear)
  • complicated
  • complex; or
  • chaotic

This Cynefin framework points towards tools and approaches we might use to understand and find solutions to system issues. These tools are analytical in relation to simple and complicated systems, but more concerned with building broad pictures or experimenting forwards, where complex systems are involved. We are still not sure how to deal effectively with chaotic systems.

EF Schumacher also suggests that solutions can be found where systems are simple and complicated because it is possible to ‘converge’ on a solution via analysis. But in complex or chaotic systems, where views diverge, where more than one right answer may be possible, analysis does not serve and other approaches are needed. 


In practice

Try looking at some systems and fitting them into the Cynefin framework, working out how you might act in relation to them.

What are your assumptions and beliefs about the extent to which the world can be understood? This will be important in terms of how you look at systems.

Do you believe that, with sufficient analysis, any system can be understood and therefore solutions can be found? Or, do you believe the world is too complex to ever be fully explained and therefore it is better to treat analysis with caution, trying other ways to find solutions?



Dave Snowden 

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

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

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

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

Fritz, Robert (1989) The Path of Least Resistance - Learning to become the Creative Force in your own life Fawcett Columbine, New York, USA

Arie de Geus (1999) The Living Company - Growth, Learning and Longevity in Business Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd, London

Bohm, David ( ) On Dialogue

Harrison Owen (1992) Open Space Technology - A User's guide Abbott Publishing, USA


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

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework offers a way for understanding and approaching systemic problems, where systems may be simple, complicated, complex or chaotic.

Simple / Linear Systems


              Right answer exists

              Machine type process

                     Repeating patterns

                     Consistent events

                     Clear cause and effect



              Service production lines


              Total Quality Management (now 6 Sigma or Lean) e.g. Process definition, Flowchart, Fishbone diagram, Operational models


Complicated Systems


              Cause and effect not obvious but discoverable

              More than one right answer possible

              Expert diagnosis required

Predictable – no unexpected emergent properties (it does what is expected unless it breaks)                           


              Jet engine


              System Dynamics (see Meadows and Senge references above)

                     e.g. Behaviour over time (including Statistical Process Control)

                     Stocks and flows

                     Causal Loops – positive and negative (balancing) feedback loops

                            Why, why?

                     Traps etc

              Viable System Model (for more information see Jackson reference, above)

Simple and Complicated would be described by E F Schumacher as ‘Convergent’. In other words, capable of solution via analysis, where it is possible to converge on a single solution, which exists and can be found.


Complex systems


              Differing worldviews, values, purposes

              Unpredictable, non-linear, flux

              No right answer or many possible answers

              Emergent events

              Challenge to power


              Human social systems           


              Soft systems methodology (Checkland) (for more information see Jackson reference above)

                     Rich picture

                                   Consider all aspects to create as rich a picture as possible

                                   Include: feedbacks, human, social, political, cultural, elements, any sub-systems

                     Create root definitions to describe the system using CATWOE                  

              Future base (Robert Fritz – Path of Least Resistance - see reference above)

                     which also leads to Scenario planning (see Arie de Geus reference above)

              Action research/experiment (see next section of this site)

              Dialogue (see David Bohm reference above)




              No right answers

                     No point looking


                     No time to think

                     Many decisions to make

              Emergent events

       Tools to experiment with

              Collaborative enquiry

              Open space (see Harrison Owen reference above)

              Dialogue (David Bohm On Dialogue)

              Conversation (Ralph Stacey)

              Spiritual awareness       

Complex and Chaotic would be described by E F Schumacher as Divergent, where there is more than one possible answer, which cannot be reduced to a single solution and where different worldviews may never be able to converge. Schumacher criticised many approaches to solving organizational and political problems because they attempted to drag what is clearly a divergent problem into the convergent, simplifying complex issues via analysis to try to arrive at a simple, one-size-fits-all solution when this is not possible, even dangerous.

Schumacher stressed the importance of recognizing when an issue is Divergent; of working out ways to reconcile divergent views, rather than trying to force convergence.