Systems Thinking

A 'system' is comprised of interconnected and interdependent patterns of actions involving many components: organizations, institutions, people and their relationships.

Defining Systems Thinking

Introduction to Systems Thinking by Alex Ryan
Systems thinking is about taking a whole-system approach; a dynamic view of a problem while looking for patterns, linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety.
Peter Senge has a helpful definition of system thinking as described in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994), as:
“Systems thinking [is] a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the natural processes of the natural and economic world.”
Systems thinking helps people to look at things that have happened. These systems problems are not easy to see so sometimes we see parts of the system problem expressed in various places. Often they are in the events we read about in the newspaper or see on the news. If we dig a little deeper we may find structures or patterns that cause reoccurring events to happen. If we keep digging we might be able to see what mental models and assumptions could be causing the pattern to repeat itself. Weinlick, Velji, Think Jar Collective. Social Innovation Field Guide.
Employing a systems perspective when understanding your problem is critical to help you and your partners:
  • Build shared understanding of what is known, uncertain, and unknown
  • Cultivate a desire to work together
  • Develop new insights that can be easily updated with new data
  • Ask constructive questions
  • Develop goals, indicators, measures, etc. in flexible ways that build off each other
  • Model and update your understanding of the problem iteratively from new insights gained through experiments

Questions that Systems Thinkers Ask:

  • Has this problem occurred in the past?
  • What structures may be causing this problem?
  • What change is needed?
  • Why is this change needed?
  • How will this change affect other parts of the system?
  • How do we increase people’s understanding of the issue in a way that integrates the richness of diverse perspective with the simplicity required to act?
Adapted from Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change, 2015 as cited in Weinlick, Velji, Think Jar Collective. Social Innovation Field Guide.

Examples and Resources

Buying Tomatoes
The Iceberg Model
What systems do you interact with every day? When was the last time you bought groceries, or went to the doctor? Every item and every person in a grocery store or in a doctor’s office is connected to both something larger and smaller.

Example: Buying Tomatoes

Source: MaRS Solutions Lab
Every tomato in your local grocery store came from a supplier; it was delivered to the store, offloaded, and stacked on the shelves. Who are the people involved? How do they interact with the crates of tomatoes? Who designed the crates? Even before they were delivered, the tomatoes were grown somewhere and checked for quality control. What factors influenced the taste, availability and quality of the tomatoes – weather, food safety policies, technology? What organizations are involved in getting that tomato from the farm to your table? Where did the seeds come from?
There are many interacting components involved in having tomatoes available to consumers in a grocery store, let alone all the other food you find there. All the elements are interdependent on one another. If one aspect of the system changes (such as using automated trucks to deliver the tomatoes) how would that affect the receiving department of the grocery store, and how will that change the price and availability of the tomatoes?
The Iceberg Model helps us to delve into layers of the problem which are held in place by different elements.
Source: Meadows. Thinking in Systems, 2008.
Let’s look at each level here. The deeper we go, the harder it is to identify what action to take, but the greater the leverage we will have to solve the problem.
Events: What are the surface-level issues and challenges that we are seeing and hearing related to the core issue that we are exploring?
Patterns: What are the underlying patterns that we are noticing? What keeps happening?
Underlying (Systemic) Structures: What is causing the pattern we are observing?
Mental Models: These are the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations and values that individuals hold that allow the systemic structures to keep functioning as they do. We often gain these beliefs and values from our society and family, and often unaware of them.
Think Jar collective has developed a couple of templates to use for the Iceberg Model (systems mapping canvas). You can find them here, along with general instructions (thanks to Ben Weinlick & Jaime Calayo).
Template - Iceberg Model
Additionally, this guide from the Systems Academy provides more detail:
For more resources on systems thinking, FSG has a systems thinking toolkit available here:
Alberta CoLab has also developed a collection of systems thinking information sheets available here: