What is “systems thinking”?

Systems thinking is about relationships.

To pair “thinking” and “relationships” is a touch paradoxical. Relationships are associated with feelings. “Feelings” in the wider sense are precisely what are missing from modern institutions; “feelings” both in terms of empathy, and in terms of sensory development. (See the “Social Services Are Broken” video on the Resources page for an excellent demonstration of this principle.)

When we say “systems thinking is about relationships,” that means relationships between people, relationships between people and the environment, and relationships between principles.

This is counter to conventional thinking, which focuses on the individual, on the environment as separate from humanity, or on any given principle in isolation from the system of which it is a part. We don’t want to stop being analytical in our thinking, but rather, make equal space for context-based thinking as well.

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.)

Systems thinking is 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.

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.

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.