What is “systems thinking”?

Systems thinking is about relationships.

(See the “Social Services Are Broken” video on the Resources page for an excellent explanation of the power of this principle in practice.)

When we say “systems thinking is about relationships,” that means relationships between people, relationships between people and the environment, and relationships between principles. This means that when I typed these words and set up this page, I thought about you, the viewer, and where your eye would likely go, and what sorts of images might help communicate the gestalt of systems thinking to your most effectively.

The aim is to have cognitive flexibility: to be able to move at will from one mode to another depending on the need. (See this great article about the sensemaking framework, the Cynefin: A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.)

Another level of cognitive capacity.

Systems thinking involves an enhanced ability to hold the one and the many in one’s mind at the same time, and to perceive the interrelatedness. This capacity requires a level of comfort with not knowing. Pressure, anxiety, and fear do not go well with systems thinking. They dumb down this ability to perceive interrelatedness, and to attend to one’s more subtle sense perceptions.

A big mind (as opposed to small mind) perspective.

Who does systems thinking?

Organizational Development

Peter Senge and his book The Fifth Discipline is the best known systems thinker in the field of organizational development. Otto Scharmer trained with Peter Senge, and developed the Theory U model and book by the same name. Theory U informs much of Systems Thinking Marin’s structure and activities. Bruce McKenzie and Jane Lorand who formerly led systems thinking training programs in the Green MBA are also a big influence, and have developed an online systems thinking tool called Wind Tunneling.


Biologists, Ecologists, Cyberneticist, Nonlinear Mathematicians

Fritjof Capra and Donella Meadows are the best known authors of systems thinking texts. Fritjof write The Tao of Physics, and dozens of other books since that time, including co-authoring with Pier Luigi Luisi The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Donella Meadows is best known as the lead author of The Limits to Growth, and, Thinking in Systems: a Primer.

You and Me

Human behavior in social settings is an easy example of systems thinking. Our brains–and the brains of all other mammals and many other classes of animals–are wired to perceive and interact within complex social systems. We observe, position, and act in ways that reflect our perception of the social fabric in which we exist: sometimes successfully, sometimes falling on our faces. But in any case, it’s all about networks of interaction.

So what?

Our mechanistic industrial economy has given rise to a complex, perilous situation in which nearly the entire human civilization is precariously perched on the edge of the ecological limits cliff. The infinite growth economic imperative is–right now–running up against finite natural resources. “Natural resources” is itself a term that belies an underlying worldview of the life-giving biosphere as simply a supplier. Systems thinking in these and other fields is necessary to illuminate where we’ve gone wrong, and how to adjust quickly and dramatically.

Systems Thinking Mini-Course
Intro video for the half-hour Systems Thinking Mini-Course.
A great little entertaining introductory video from The Academy for Systems Change, Donella Meadows Project.
A helpful overview describing the difference between reductionist and systems thinking. Check out the whole video series from Complexity Labs.
A very popular, super fun TED talk that demonstrates what we might call “ecosystem thinking.”
Cover of PDF Introduction to Systems Thinking from Carnegie Mellon University 2019