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Systems Thinking – A Novice's View Point

What is systems thinking?

System Thinking is a discipline of science that aims to describe and understand the relationships, forces and components that determine the behaviour of systems. It is main application is based around the concept of if one can understand a system then one make it behave more effectively.

A system will contain a number of components which are linked to each other. The behaviour of one component will impact the behaviour of one or more other components. The system will also have a number of inputs, outputs, feedback loops and transformations. Some systems will have a clear external boundaries which are sometimes termed closed systems. However some systems will have links with their external environment which are called open systems. Although in reality most systems are open.

Where System Thinking can be used?

System thinking has been (and can be) used in a number of different areas; for example

  • Health; trying to understand what causes illness and diseases
  • Organisation designing departments, processes, hand-offs, etc
  • Computing; designing and building software
  • Environment; trying to understand what impacts environment change, global warming, etc
  • Plus many others

What are the issues with System Thinking?

Despite its usefulness, system thinking does have a number of drawbacks:

  • For new systems being created (say for creating a new organisation) then there could be confusion over why the system is required, (i.e. its goals) which means that it will be impossible to design the system correctly.
  • Also when new systems are designed then they could be poorly designed (e.g. issues with its components, links and feedback loops) which means the system would be defective.
  • For existing systems, they could be so complex and that it could be impossible to determine which components exist and their linkages.
  • Some systems (whether they are designed or not) may be so complex, with a vast number of components and linkages, that their behaviour appears irrational and or counter intuitive. 
  • There is a tendency to either focus too much on the big picture (so the low-level specific details are missed) or focus too much on the lower level details so the big picture is missed.
  • Finally it is challenging to design or understand systems to take into account irrational or unpredictable behaviour. 


Personally I think that Systems Thinking is a great discipline and has a large number of very useful applications. However I think it is important to be beware of its limitations and practitioners should look to use other techniques to provide a more balanced understanding.

Paul Taylor

About the Author | Paul Taylor 

Paul is a freelance management consultant with nearly 30 years’ experience of implementing change within the Financial Services sector. He is Chair for the “Commuter Read” section of the Management Book of the Year and a Non-Executive Director for a variety of industry and social enterprises. As a great believer in 
lifelong learning, Paul obtained an MBA from OUBS in 1999 and a Certificate in Web Application Development from the OU in 2008. 

Contact Paul on LinkedIn

 © Paul Taylor 2017
Reviewed 2022

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