What is Systems Thinking?


Have you ever tried to solve a complex problem, only to find that your solution only addresses a small part of the issue, or worse, creates new problems? If so, you’re not alone.

Traditional analytical thinking, which breaks a problem down into its individual components, can be effective in some cases but often falls short when it comes to addressing complexity.

We are all part of and surrounded by systems. Natural phenomena such as the water cycle, social institutions such as governments, and technology systems such as computers exhibit them.

This article describes how systems thinking differs from traditional analytical thinking, which is more common in today’s business environment.

So, What Is A System?

Simply put, a system is made up of a set of elements or components that are independent but interconnected in such a way that they perform a specific purpose or function over time.

For example, our body is a system, a corporation is a system, and so is the economy. Everything is connected to at least one other thing, but not everything works toward  a common purpose.

Let’s look at the example of our body to better understand a system:

The human body is made up of organs, such as the heart, the lungs, and the brain. These organs are called the elements or components of a system. These elements are interconnected through relationships like blood vessels, nerves, and hormones, through direct or indirect relationships. This interconnectivity plays an important role in a system.

The interconnected, unique elements work together to achieve a common goal or purpose. In our example, the purpose of the system is to transport oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body.

Feedback loops in a system are mechanisms that receive information about its performance and adjust its behaviour accordingly. For instance, our body responds to high blood sugar levels by releasing insulin, which regulates the blood sugar back to normal levels.

Finally, a system does not exist in a vacuum. Its environment or context can influence its behaviour and vice versa. In the case of the human body, a polluted environment can affect its health, and people affect the environment through their activities.

Recap: How can you identify a system? Ask these questions:

  • What are the different elements or components in the system?
  • Do the components interact with one another, and if so, how?
  • What is the purpose of the system and how does it guide the system?
  • Are there any feedback loops within the system, and if so, how do they work?
  • What larger context does the system exist within?

Boundaries of A System

What makes systems particularly interesting is that systems are nested in systems, in other systems.

Continuing with the example above, your body is made up of muscular, circulatory, and nervous systems. You also are a part of other systems, including a team, a family, and various communities.

The image below illustrates how systems are nested in systems – a team is part of a department within an organization, which is part of an industry, and embedded in society and even the biosphere.

nested systems

This sounds rather complicated, as it is hard to know to which elements or components belong and how to make sense of the boundaries of the system.

Because systems work toward a common purpose, it’s possible to infer the boundaries of a system by looking to see which elements are interacting with one another toward the same purpose. For example, when you look at an ant hill, you can infer the ants are contributing to that one hill. When you look at an organization, you can often infer the employees see themselves as part of that organization.

Thinking in Systems

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a system is, we can explore the main question of this article: what is system thinking?

Systems thinking is an approach to understanding the world that focuses on the whole system, rather than simply its parts.

It might be easier to understand systems thinking by considering how most people normally think. The approach most commonly taught in schools and adopted by the majority of Western scientists is called analytical thinking.

Focusing on the individual parts won’t necessarily reveal what is happening at each level of the system. You certainly can’t tell how successful an organization is by interviewing each employee – it’s how well the employees work together that often matters most.

While analytical thinking takes something apart, systems thinking focuses on what something is a part of.

Systems Thinking vs. Analytical Thinking

The figure below illustrates how an analytical thinker looks for cause and effect between elements, whereas a systems thinker looks at the interconnections.

It’s important to note that systems thinking should not be seen as better than analytical thinking, however, their respective strengths depend on the environment in which the system is situated. Analytical thinking is especially useful in stable environments or for systems in which the elements are not highly interconnected. Systems thinking is more suited for rapidly changing, interconnected environments.

The table below highlights the key differences between systems thinking and analytical thinking.

 Systems ThinkingAnalytical Thinking
Problem Solving

Best used for addressing problems situated in complex, dynamic socio-technical systems.Best used for solving specific or technical problems in stable systems.
ApproachStarts with seeing the big picture before drilling into the details.

Identifies the areas of the systems that are worthy of attention by looking for patterns in data, emerging trends, and outliers.
Starts with the most urgent and important issues before getting to the root of a problem.

Seeks to deconstruct these issues to understand cause and effect before generating desirable outcomes.  
OutcomesUses nudges and experiments to transform systems.    Seeks to control a system to build in reliability and quality.  

Favours big, radical solutions (e.g., moonshots) over incremental ones.
Key CharacteristicsSystems thinkers tend to:
• Listen deeply to unheard voices to build greater understanding of the system;
• Use storytelling to simplify complex realities;
• Practice mindfulness;
• Work well with others, even critics and unlikely allies;
• Knows that building support and nudging systems can take time.
Analytical thinkers tend to:
• Appreciate the certainty provided by numbers, models, and frameworks;
• Prioritize speed, efficiency, and success;
• Like challenges and puzzles;
• Constantly want to move faster and do more and better.
MotivationSystems thinkers realize they can’t predict the future and use foresight to imagine and influence it instead. They view the future as what is desirable for the system.Analytical thinkers are confident they can shape a positive future using technology, power, or money. They view the future as a better version of the present.

Reflect: Are you a systems thinker or an analytical thinker? When might you use which approach?

Recap: Systems thinking can help tackle some of the most challenging issues facing our world today. It is a powerful approach to understanding and addressing complex problems. By looking at the system as a whole, systems thinking can help identify root causes of problems, inform planning and decision-making, and encourage collaboration and communication between different stakeholders. While analytical thinking has its place, it often falls short when it comes to addressing challenges embedded in complex, dynamic systems.