Systems Thinking

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking is based on Systems Dynamics, a field introduced over 40 years ago by Jay Forrester at MIT.

Systems Thinking is a language used to model the behavior of complex systems that makes them easier to understand, explain, and interact with.

Examples of situations where Systems Thinking has proven its value include problems:

  • Involving people or groups with different opinions and agendas
  • Having been made worse by past attempts to fix them
  • Having a significant difference between the short-term and long-term benefits
  • Having either no right answer or the solutions are not obvious

A Different Way of Thinking

When we’re struggling with problems, we tend to use Linear Thinking to simplify things, to create order, and to work with one problem at a time.

Traditional linear analysis focuses on separating the individual pieces of what is being studied; in fact, the word ‘analysis’ actually comes from the root meaning ‘to break into constituent parts’.

Systems Thinking doesn’t advocate abandoning this approach completely. Instead it reminds us that for certain types of problems and decisions, linear thinking has limits, and generate as many problems as it solves.

Systems Thinking, in contrast, focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other parts. This results in sometimes strikingly different conclusions than those generated by traditional forms of analysis.

It’s not a better way of thinking; it’s a different way of thinking; and a more appropriate way of thinking for complex problems.

Principles of Systems Thinking

In general, systems thinking is characterized by these principles:

  • Balancing short-term and long-term perspectives
  • Thinking of the big picture
  • Recognizing that systems aren’t linear
  • Taking into account both quantitative and qualitative factors
  • Using models that are visual, not verbal

Balancing Short Term and Long Term

How do you balance the short term and the long term? What works today might not seem like such a good idea tomorrow. An example in business would be laying off customer service people to improve profits. It saves money today and could hurt you in the future.

In thinking about any decision, the best approach is to strike a balance, to consider short-term and long-term options and to look for the course of action that encompasses both.

Systems Thinking provides a way of looking at issues that provides a clear connection between the short term and the long term to strike an appropriate balance.

The Big Picture

Every problem or decision you face is part of a larger issue. When you look at the world from a big picture perspective, it’s apparent that everything is connected and that everything we do has some impact, at least potentially, on everything else.

To discover the source of a problem, you have to widen your focus to include that bigger system. With this wider perspective, you’re more likely to find a more effective solution.

Systems Thinking emphasizes looking at larger wholes rather than smaller parts.

Systems Aren’t Linear

Cause and effect relationships in simple problems are direct and clear.


In complex problems, they are indirect and unclear. Systems Thinking is a circular rather than linear language. In other words, it helps describe how X influences Y; Y influences Z; and Z comes back around to influence X.


Quantitative & Qualitative Data

Systems Thinking encourages the use of both quantitative and qualitative data, from measurable information such as sales figures and costs to harder to quantify information like morale and customer attitudes. Neither kind of data is better; both are considered important. Systems Thinking promotes double-loop accounting: understanding the stories that back up the numbers.

Visual Models

“I understand it. But I can’t explain it.” One of the reasons people have difficulty communicating complex ideas is they might be using the same words while picturing the problem differently.

Complex issues are much easier to grasp and communicate when people can ‘see them’. Systems language uses visual tools, including casual loop diagrams and BOT (behavior over time) graphs, to create visual models of complex problems.

Models not only help us look at problems–they are powerful tools for helping people talk about them. They help make sure everyone is looking at the same problem. They allow us to see and challenge our thinking.

As a result, they are useful to help improve communications on the conflicting issues and tradeoffs that naturally occur when resolving complex issues.

The Connection Between Systems Thinking & Simulation

A systems model is the representation of a process. It illustrates how parts of a system interact.

These models can range from very simple to highly complex depending on the characteristics of the object or process they represent.

Even drawing relatively modest models can be challenging to create because the number of possible interactions increases dramatically with each new variable considered.

How do you deal with the number of issues and possible outcomes associated with more complex models?

One solution is the use of computer simulation.

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