Leveraging systems thinking

Systems thinking is a way of making sense of a complex system....it is the ability to see the world as relationships and connections....allowing us to influence a complex system.  

"You can never understand anything by analysing it...we have to understand the whole before we can understand the parts - what matters is the interaction" Russell Ackoff

Ackoff suggests that what we tend to do is not think in term of systems but instead we tend to revert to anaylsing issues.  Analysing is based on the following assumptIon, that by breaking something down into small parts then each discrete component can then be effectively addressed. However in contrast to this - systems thinking assumes that everything is connected.   In essence, by making a change in one part of a system, this then effects the next component and so on. 

Analysing discrete components clearly has strengths when it comes to some systems...for example when fixing a car its important to analyse what part is broken and then replace or fix it.  Likewise - when we go to a doctor with a physical ailment we hope that the doctor can analyse and isolate the cause of the problem and then prescribe a solution.   

But there are limitations to this way of thinking......we can all think of situations where an action made with best intentions focussed on one component had unexpected and unintended consequences somewhere else in the system.   

There are also positive spin-offs – where an action taken in one part of the system not only addresses that component but also has benefits in other areas.   

The following image is a system thinking causal loop diagram which identifies both the factors influencing the success of an organisation (in this case a university) and also most importantly it maps the links between these factors.  This allows us as leaders to understand how the system we are working with operates and therefore identify the components that have the most leverage for change.   

A causal loop diagram helps us to avoid unintended consequences and also to make the most of positive spin-offs discussed above. For example in the diagram above - if the leader can identify the best leverage points then they can be confident that positive changes in these will also effect all other areas of the organisation.   This allows the leader to prioritize 4-5 annual goals for example rather than feel the overwhelming pressure that all components in their organisations systems must be addressed.   This also allows others in organisations to feel more comfortable about the organisation choosing goals that are not their main area of interest as they know that there will be a benefit for this area too because it is connected within the system..

In the next blog we will work through some useful steps in systems thinking including creating a causal loop diagram and then selecting leverage points.  


  1. This article clearly states the steps that should be taken to organize an event. This is very useful. The diagrams very helpful. Thank you for sharing.

  2. The brand name of BMW is more than enough to convince someone to buy the car.


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