Systems thinking is used to address complex problems and designs. It can be applied in any discipline or practice. Its origins can be traced back 2,500 years at least, to the ancient Greek philosophers. It is different from but complementary to other ways of thinking like for example scientific reductionism.
“Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots .it is a set of general principles spanning fields as divers as physical and social sciences, engineering and management.” Peter Senge1
“Systems thinking enables you to grasp and manage situations of complexity and uncertainty in which there are no simple answers. It's a way of 'learning your way towards effective action' by looking at connected wholes rather than separate parts. It's sometimes called practical holism.” Open University2
Figure 1: Systems thinking –essential ideas
A way to characterise Systems thinking is through the essential ideas that are used. These ideas provide a basis for rigor. Blockley and Godfrey3 use three key ideas as a framework for Systems thinking ideas:
Components can be seen as being a hierarchy of holons4 , which is anything considered, at the same time to be both a part and a whole. A holon is seen to have emergent properties that derive from the co-operation of the parts. A soft system example would be yourself. You are a part of: your family, your neighbourhood, your country etc and yet you are also a whole made up of parts or sub-systems i.e. skeleton, nervous system etc. This introduces the concept of inside and outside defined by boundaries. An open system is one which continually interacts with its environment whereas a closed system can be assumed to be self contained.
The relationships between the holons and their ability to communicate determine the emergent behaviours and unintended consequences. It is generally useful to think in terms of feedback loops which need to be used to help us to create learning and foresight to manage the processes involved.
Process may be concisely defined as ‘How change happens’. This definition includes for naturally occurring change as well as anthropogenic. Answers to the questions ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ enable us to describe a process. ‘Why’ identifies the purpose and hence drives the change in ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ through the transformations identified by ‘how’. The output of a process may be a product but that in itself has a life cycle and is also a process5 .
It is important to distinguish between purpose which is the result, outcome or effect that is intended from the system and a requirement which is an unambiguous statement of the capability that the system must deliver. A requirement is expressed in operational terms (what the system will do) rather than solutions (how the system will do it). Purpose is the answer to the question: Why are we doing this process? It is the driver of intended change and by inference defines unintended consequences as well.
Models are the means by which a Systems thinker comes to terms with complex real world problems. Checkland’s6 soft Systems method (Figure 2) shows the basic process used.
Figure 2: Using Systems models
The comparison between the real world problem situation and Systems models stimulates learning and action which in turn feeds back into the learning process. It is inevitable that in complex situations the model is not a true view of the situation but it can be sufficient for its purpose. It requires judgment to determine whether something is fit for purpose.
Judgment depends on our use of mental models which as Senge2 put it, “are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures or images that influence how we see the world and how we take action1”. In complex situations we have to simplify the problem as we see it. The way we see it is conditioned by our belief Systems, perceptions and viewpoints. They govern our behaviour so are critical to our ability to achieve successful outcomes when faced with real world complex problems..
One of the key roles of a Systems thinker is to provide frameworks for the integration of different points of view. For example Sillitto describes three world views of Systems hierarchy in the SEASONS report7 (2009)
In Figure 3 this was extended in correspondence with the author to include sustainability as shown in dark green.
Figure 3: Hierarchies of Systems world views
Our ability to develop innovative solutions and successful outcomes depends upon our ability to ‘vision’ the future and establish a process for getting there from where we are now. To do this without historical evidence would mean that we proceed unconditioned by what we know!
Figure 4: Twin focussed approach to Systems integration
The twin focused model for Systems integration has been generated and tested in practice over the past 10 years. It addresses both future and past perspectives. With both views in mind we need to align people to a shared view of purpose based upon recognition of interdependence.
This shared view of success enables a performance regime to be established to ensure we can measure whether we are getting there. This also means that from an anthoprogentic point of view, at least, all hard Systems need to be seen as being embedded in soft ones with purpose defining system success. This principle is entirely consistent with the 6 principles for “Creating Systems that work” published by the Royal Academy of Engineering8, which are:
- Debate, define, revise and pursue the purpose
- Think holistic
- Follow a systematic procedure
- Be creative
- Take account of the people
- Manage the project and the relationships”
1. Senge P (1990) The Fifth Discipline – The art and practice of the learning organisation, Century Business, ISBN 0-7126-56871.
3. Blockley D and Godfrey P (2000) Doing it differently, Thomas Telford, London, ISBN 0-7277-2748-6
4. Koestler A. (1967), The ghost in the machine, Picador, London.
5. Blockley D (2005) New Dictionary of Civil Engineering, Penguin Books
6. Checkland P. (1993), Systems thinking, systems practice, John Wiley, Chichester.
7. SEASON Report (2009) (Systems Engineering Annual State of the Nation), UK Chapter of the International Council on Systems Engineering.
8. Elliot (2007) ‘Creating systems that work’ Royal Academy of Engineering
9. Hitchins DK, (2007) Systems Engineering: a 21st century methodology, Wiley/Blackwell,
10. ISO 15288 System Lifecycle Processes