Systems thinking

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Systems thinking is about seeing the whole system instead of just seeing the parts.

In order to understand something, we have often been taught to break it down into its smallest parts, to analyze each piece. In systems thinking, we want to understand the relationship between the parts so that we can understand how a change in one part of a system can create a change in another part of the system over time.

For example, if we are having a debate about public education, we don't just focus on what happens in the classroom, we also look at what influences what happens in the classroom. In other words, we end up in a conversation about not only the students and the teachers, but also about the administrators, the parents, the teachers' union, the city government, the city's budgeting process, the city's economic health, etc.


The first thing to remember about changing systems is POSIWID: "The purpose of a system is what it does." (Coined by Stafford Beer.)

The holy grail of systems thinking is to identify leverage points for change. These are the small places that, if you were to change them, would create change everywhere in the system. For example, in large ships, if you move the trim tab, which is smaller than the rudder, it moves the whole ship. Often, the greatest leverage points for change are invisible.


At minimum, good systems thinking requires acknowledging a larger ecosystem and the relationships within. For example, the Social Ecological Model for Health identifies multiple layers that impact health, starting with individual at the core, then interpersonal, community, organizational, and policy. These layers apply to most things. For example, in my work with Clean Slate Project, we had a similar model for worker well-being.

Root Cause Analysis

Five Whys.

Chesterton's Fence

Systems Archetypes

From "Systems Archetypes and Their Application":

  • Fixes that Fail — A solution is rapidly implemented to address the symptoms of an urgent problem. This quick fix sets into motion unintended consequences that are not evident at first but end-up adding to the symptoms.
  • Shifting the Burden — A problem symptom is addressed by a short term and a fundamental solution. The short term solution produces side effects affecting the fundamental solution. As this occurs, the system’s attention shifts to the short term solution or to the side effects.
  • Limits to Success — A given effort initially generates positive performance. However, over time the effort reaches a constraint that slows down the overall performance no matter how much energy is applied.
  • Drifting Goals — As a gap between goal and actual performance is realized, the conscious decision is to lower the goal. The effect of this decision is a gradual decline in the system performance.
  • Growth and Underinvestment — Growth approaches a limit potentially avoidable with investments in capacity. However, a decision is made to not invest resulting in performance degradation which results in the decline in demand validating the decision not to invest.
  • Success to the Successful — Two or more efforts compete for the same finite resources. The more successful effort gets a disproportionately larger allocation of the resources to the detriment of the others.
  • Escalation — Parties take mutually threatening actions which escalate their retaliation attempting to “one-up” each other.
  • Tragedy of the Commons — Multiple parties enjoying the benefits of a common resource do not pay attention to the effects they are having on the common resource. Eventually, this resource is exhausted resulting in the shutdown of the activities of all parties in the system.

Examples of unintended consequences: Cobra effect from assessing (related to Goodhart's law).

Joanna Macy's The Great Turning

As described in her book (with Chris Johnstone), Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy. Work happens in three areas:

  • Holding Actions
  • Structural Change
  • Shift in Consciousness

See "Joanna Macy On the Three Pillars of The Great Turning."

Behavior Over Time

Behavior Over Time graph

System Mapping

There are many ways to do systems thinking. Jay Forrester at MIT developed and Peter Senge popularized a form of systems thinking that uses a language called "causal loop diagramming" (or more colloquially, "system mapping") to help visualize a system.

Find the loops.


See Also