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Systems thinking utilizes habits, tools and concepts to develop an understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic systems. When individuals have a better understanding of systems, they are better able to identify the leverage points that lead to desired outcomes. Systems thinking is an essential component of a learning organization. It provides a method of critical thinking by which you analyse the relationships between the system's parts in order to understand a situation for better decision-making.  In the context of a business, a system is one consisting of many parts such as: employees, management, capital, equipment, and products, as well as external entities such as regulators, customers, suppliers and competitors. To see additional definitions of systems thinking, select "Definitions" in the menu. 

The Systems Thinking Approach

The approach of systems thinking is fundamentally different from that of traditional forms of analysis.  Traditional analysis focuses on the 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, in contrast, focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the system - a set of elements that interact to produce behaviour - of which it is a part.  This means that instead of isolating smaller and smaller parts of the system being studied, systems thinking works by expanding its view to take into account larger and larger numbers of interactions as an issue is being studied.  This results in sometimes strikingly different conclusions than those generated by traditional forms of analysis, especially when what is being studied is dynamically complex or has a great deal of feedback from other sources, internal or external - for example, a business!

Examples of areas where systems thinking has proven its value include: 

  • Complex problems that involve helping many actors see the "big picture" and not just their part of it
  • Recurring problems or those that have been made worse by past attempts to fix them
  • Issues where an action affects (or is affected by) the environment surrounding the issue, either the natural environment or the competitive environment
  • Problems whose solutions are not obvious
 Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.

Habits of a Systems Thinker

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A systems thinker "steps back" to examine the dynamics of a system and the inter-relationships among its parts.

S/he sees the forest, rather than the details of any one tree.

Questions to ask:

  • "How can I maintain balance between the big picture and important details?"
  • "What time frame should be considered as I view the system?"
  • "Am I keeping my focus on areas of influence, rather than on areas of concern that I cannot influence?"

A systems thinker "steps back" to examine the dynamics of a system and the inter-relationships among its parts. S/he sees the forest, rather than the details of any one tree.

Dynamic systems are made up of interdependent elements, the values of which change over time.

A systems thinker may use a tool such as a behavior-over-time graph to record and observe the patterns and trends those changes generate.

The graphs can provide insight into the interdependencies of the elements and the structure of the system.

Questions to ask:

  • "What important elements have changed in the system?"
  • "How have the elements changed over time?"
  • "What changing elements represent amounts and how quickly/slowly are they increasing or decreasing?"
  • "What patterns or trends have merged over time?"