What is systems thinking and how should I use it?

soccer clip board

Have you ever had the feeling that the same problems arise constantly, even after numerous discussions? In addition to this, for some reason, it’s hard to make any changes. The systems thinking approach might just be the answer you have been looking for.

Systems thinking characteristics

Systems thinking is a method to analyse the relationships between the system’s parts to understand the potential for better decision-making. The system isn’t just a collection of things, it consists of  elements,  interconnections  and a  purpose.

A football team is a system, with elements such as players, a coach, field and a ball. Interconnections are game rules, strategies and players’ communications. The purpose is to win games, have fun, or have exercise. We are all members of numerous systems and subsystems.

Systems thinking has typically some of the following characteristics: the issue is important; the problem faced is not a one-off event; the problem is familiar and has a well-known history and people have unsuccessfully tried to solve the problem before. For these reasons, systems thinking is more a strategic than operational tool.

Make systems visible

The widely used systems thinking tool is a causal loop diagram. The causal loop diagram connects the cause and effect relationships between selected variables. It helps to answer the question “what structure could be causing the system’s behaviour”. Causal loop diagrams contain elements such as variables, links, effects, constraints, delays and feedback loops. See the simple causal loop diagram example below:

a causal loop diagram

This example shows what happens if the product release cycle slows down. An element can have an effect on another; such as if features per release increase, then the number of defects per release increase. A causal link effect also works in the opposite direction; such as if time consumed for the overhead costs increases, then the time consumed for product improvements decrease.

The best way to implement causal loop diagrams is to invite the necessary people to the same room and sketch the diagram on a whiteboard. The output is a shared understanding of how the system works. The next step is to think how it’s possible to change structures or goals to improve results. It is recommended to keep the model as simple as possible.

It’s a learner’s game

According to studies, people are more motivated and have more positive feelings towards activities where they have choice, involvement, and control. By definition, a game is not a game without these things. Games also let people make mistakes without great consequence.

A good resource is the Systems Thinking Playbook which introduces thirty systems thinking exercises. The purpose is to promote a greater awareness of systems under the guise of play. Harvestpaper tear and community maze are just a few examples.

Exercises work well for teams’ workshops and these games last from five minutes to one hour. The necessary equipment is typically available in any office supply store. The causal loop diagram is a good way to pull together the exercise.

Less irrational decisions 

Systems thinking helps us to understand why people behave like they do. It is a tool for modern decision making and suits well the Agile mindset. Seeing the whole also reduces suboptimisation and jumping from crisis to crisis. Systems thinking has shown its power when someone asks, “Should we think of other solutions rather than adding more team members to our software project”?


Thinking in systems by Donella H. Meadows
The Systems thinking playbook by By Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows