Introduction to Systems Thinking



Systems Thinking: Watch a Little Film About a Big Idea


(Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 1st Edition, pg 68)

Systems thinking is a conceptual framework grounded in Systems Dynamics that has been developed over the past fifty years to discipline us in seeing and understanding patterns – looking beyond events – to deeper “structures” that control events, and discovering the leverage that lies hidden in these structures.

The essence of the discipline lies in a shift of mind to:

  • See interrelationships rather than linear cause-effect chains, and
  • See processes of change rather than snapshots

The practice of systems thinking starts with understanding two simple concepts:

  • “Feedback” – that shows how actions can reinforce or counteract (balance) each other
  • “Delays” – when things happen … eventually

Since we are part of the system, it becomes twice as hard to see the whole pattern of change.  Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.

In this discipline, people learn to better understand inter-dependency and change, and thereby to deal more effectively with the forces that shape the consequences of our actions.

Systems thinking is based upon a growing body of theory about the behavior of feedback and complexity-the innate tendencies of a system that lead to growth or stability over time. Tools and techniques such as systems archetypes and various types of learning labs and simulations help people see how to change systems more effectively, and how to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic world. The circle in this icon represents the fundamental building block of all systems: the circular “feedback loop” underlying all growing and limiting processes in nature.


The third sensibility of chaos theory is that complex systems can be understood by identifying some very simple patterns.  We don’t know how to believe that a deep pattern, when combined with autonomous self-expression and rules of inter-connectedness, can give intricate, complex, beautiful, and predictable shape to our organizations.  As we learn this, however, it is clearer that as leaders we should be managing patterns, not people.

Margaret Wheatley

We often hear of system(ic)s thinking or systems intelligence and the resultant application with systemic structures.  These are vocabulary (or jargon) unique to the field of systems thinking.  But what do they mean?

First, let us start by asking WHAT IS IT NOT?

MYTH NO. 1: When we think of systems thinking we often think about a system, a mechanism either a machine or a management control system or set of processes designed to achieve a specific objective for which the “system” was intended for, often designed by man.  For example, how best can we bring the supply of water to a precinct or how best can we remove garbage or litter off the streets of the city  or how may we control crime, and so on.

system ˈsɪstəm/ noun
  1. 1.
    a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole. “the state railway system”
    synonyms: structure, organization, order, arrangement, complex, apparatus, network;
  2. 2.
    a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method.  “a multiparty system of government”
    synonyms: method, methodology, technique, process, procedure, approach, practice, line, line of action, line of attack, attack, means, way, manner, mode, framework, modus operandi;

This way of thinking about the term is obviously very appealing since by working on a machine on a pre-designed rigorous structured / orderly assembly system or a process it will mean “speeding up” our capability to reach the desired end-state, often to increase sales, reduce problems, lesser voter apathy, better revenue, and so on.  All we then need to do, is to learn what we would need to change “within the system”, pump in the resources so as to make the changes in the system and that way we are well on our way to creating the results that we want.  Instant gratification!  No delays.

This, however, is not what the discipline of Systems Thinking stands for.

So, now we know what it is not, WHAT THEN IS Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking is a tool to help us work and turn around persistent sectoral and national issues.  Not just reduce or increase something, but actually turn it around for good, without needing to tweak or solve the problem in the future.  Hard to believe?  Well, that’s its potential when we harness its power to do so.  How does it do that?

Systems Thinking is a unique way of thinking about the world around us that throws a spotlight on the inter-dependence or relatedness of issues and these often include looking beyond machines or processes to include our thoughts and actions that cause the issue to become resistant to our efforts to change its course.

These “systems” have been existing before we had designed our control systems  to deal with it.  Often we recognize the presence of these issues by the way they behave over time in that they often do not show a corresponding response or change despite the levels of resources used to deal or fight it.

Think crimes.  We have since from time immemorial designed “management control systems” to control the number of crimes that occur.  This would mean constructing police stations or posts, employing officers to man the posts and these men are in turn assigned a set of control systems to ensure they are able to carry out the mandate assigned to them, which is to control the number of crimes occurring in their jurisdiction.  Would that mean that should these control systems be removed now centuries later, and after investing in billions of money country after country, that crimes were going to go away?  Disappear?  Most of us even harbor the fear of remotely carrying out such notions and in our minds we are decided that doing so will most certainly not see a decline in the number of crimes.  Crimes did not come about because we did not have police stations.  Therefore, something else caused it.

Let’s now think of HIV/AIDs.  When we plot the amount of resources placed world-wide to fight this epidemic, over time on a graph, it would show a persistent increase over time.  Globally that can be a rather substantial increase.  But despite these efforts, the rate of new infections still continue to grow, that seems to completely disregard or buckle the resources used to fight it.  Why does this happen?  That’s what Systems Thinking or systemic intelligence works with.

When we design control systems to fight a problem to nab the criminal, but address what would cause such issues and therefore over time such issues persist and they then become increasingly resistant to our efforts to work with or change them.  We say these issues are complexities of a dynamic nature.  They are in a constant state of flux or change and studying it systemically allows us to recognize or learn (rather than design) more clearly the systemic nature of the resistance.  Systems Thinking therefore now offers us a way of thinking about such resistant interdependent issues.

Estimated HIV/AIDS prevalence among young adul...

Estimated HIV/AIDS prevalence among young adults (15-49) by country as of 2008. Nederlands: Geschatte HIV/AIDS-verspreiding onder jonge volwassenen (15-49j) per land vanaf 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what is inter-relatedness?  When we say inter-relatedness, we refer to the ways issues affect and cause an effect on other issues and we continue to clarify (and the thinking of) these causalities until we see beyond linear relationships to see circles of causality.  We do ‘not stop the thinking until the loop is closed’,

A causes B.  B in turn causes C.  C does not stop there.  When it grows, it in turn causes D.  And so on.  Nothing stops suddenly.  They are in constant growth (be it positive or negative) and therefore, continue to have an effect on something all the time.  We continue to clarify them until we see how this course of thinking eventually comes back to feed A and therefore show how it would cause A to continue to grow viciously.  At an increasing rate.  This is now a circle of causality.


Stubborn problems are caused by circles of causality.  That is why they keep coming back.  Let’s take an example.  The rate of prevalence of HIV.  What causes the prevalence?  Prevalence, is caused by the rate of new infections (A is caused by B).  The more there are new infections (drops) of the diseases, the greater is its prevalence (pool).  Next, we move to C.  What causes new infections?  New infections are caused by transmission of the virus.  Should the number of transmissions increase, so would the infections.  What is D?  What causes transmissions?  We know transmissions may be caused by many factors (or reasons).  But by the time, we have a circle of causality, however, one of them is becoming or has become the main reason.  So, let’s try a few.

English: World map of travel & residence restr...
English: World map of travel & residence restrictions against people with HIV/AIDS: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are various ways, the virus may be transmitted.  It may be transmitted by blood transfusions, sexual relationships, mother-to-child, accidents and open wounds, drugs and needles.  Each of them present a plausible a cause by which transmission of the virus may happen between people.  But in systemic thinking, we know one of them is the reason for its systemic cause or the reason for it growing  So, let’s zoom in to see what it is.  Should we compare, transmissions by mother to child and transmissions by sexual relations between people, which one would you say is ‘the main river’?  I know you can see it.   Did you say, it is sexual relations?  You are right!  Now, this was a startling discovery for the team particularly for the Department of HIV & AIDs prevention! Because it suddenly dawned on them that while it worked hard to stop transmissions between mother and child, through programmes such as PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmissions) and therefore they saved that child from its mother, however, when that same child grows up, to be an adult it is not able to save from itself! It receives the transmission through another adult.  What has now happened to the money that we poured into PMTCT programmes.  It is literally money down the drain.

But we know, not all sexual relations cause transmissions!  Some more than others do.  Which ones would they be?

Systems Thinking do often allows us to talk about and face these hard choices using clean lines of discussion, not tempered by emotions or prejudice.  And when we do face them, we know we are now dealing with the core of the issue.  It is harder to have to deal with transmissions of the virus as a result of sexual relations.  But when we figure it out, and as a result when transmissions by sexual relations go down, so would transmissions by mother to child.  It means, we now begin to save our resources.

We continue to clarify these lines of thinking until we come back to prevalence and see the effect of the prevalence of the diseases on the nation.

That is systems thinking.

It is a way of investigating and uncovering these circles of causality.

Linear thinking is always a part of a circle of causality.  Circles of causality are always more inclusive and complete.  Till we close the circle, we really cannot be sure if the causality that we see, is indeed the actual one.  When it closes (or as we say reinforces), then we know that we have identified all we need to know about what is causing an issue to become persistent.


These issues may range from everyday matters that may not receive public profile as to highly profile issues (the likes of which become the mandate of regional and international integration bodies, such as the United Nations).

Examples of low profile issues may include:

  1. Ability of people in a (non-blood) relationship to engender and grow long-term emotional ties (or fall in love) with each other and not being in it for self-gains
  2. Willingness of people as students to grow a love for learning (or fall in love with understanding the world) with their minds and hearts and not how well their hands may produce or achieve standards of education
  3. Willingness of employers and employees work together productively for the growth (or love) of their nation and not for the self.
  4. Understanding what causes r

The Systems Thinker V8 N1 Feature

Examples of high-profile issues:

  1. Security within and across borders of countries
  2. Levels of poverty
  3. Levels of agricultural output
  4. Levels of crime
  5. Health scares through epidemics such as HIV/AIDs, Bird Flu, H1N1, etc.

What is the common theme that weaves through all of them?

These have become stubborn or resistant to our efforts to change.  They typically have defied our efforts over time and space to deal with them.

MYTH NO. 2:  Are we creating “systems” (sometime in) for the future or are systemic structures already there and therefore they need to be discovered?


When I do work on systems thinking with participants, most are thrilled to finally be able to “see” what has been the reason for the realities we are surrounded by.  Sometimes (not often, unless they have not attended the workshop) it is followed by a sense of resignation that it takes “too long” to create “new systems” all over again.

This is a misconception of systems thinking.

We are NOT creating systems.  Don’t be disillusioned by that thought!

But rather these systems are already there.  They are existing amidst us.

MYTH NO. 3:   How far along are these systemic structures that are already there?  Are they behind us or are they catching up with us?

These systemic structures have already passed us by and running at breakneck speeds ahead in front of us.  The trails they leave behind are the ‘carnages’ we experiences in our day-to-day living as problems and challenges (be they crime, killings, suicides, pandemics, health concerns, agricultural production, labour unrests, political unrests, natural resource depletion, poverty, etc.) and as behaviours of their patterns over time.

So the question is, could we catch up on these systemic structures?

Yes, we can.  It would be done requiring much less effort than we think we need to make it happen.  Here is Peter Senge’s story that illustrates this.  It is a story of a clam fisherman’s journey of restoring natural systems from what appeared was a wipe-out of the clam population in their fisheries to a rebound of a thriving population of clam fisheries.  It showcases how systemic intelligence when applied from the ground up, on the ground, can turn around any real-life situations.

That is provided we also understand the systemic nature of these structures; the ways to recognize them in our realities and learn to turn them around from their negative to positive forms that will in turn help turn around problems to themselves becoming the solutions.


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