Last modified on 17 November 2014, at 18:30

Systems thinking

It is sheer nonsense to expect that any human being has yet been able to attain such insight into the problems of society that he can really identify the central problems and determine how they should be solved. The systems in which we live are far too complicated as yet for our intellectual powers and technology to understand.
C. West Churchman, 1968.

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole.

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Quotes are arranged alphabetically by author


  • The basic managerial idea introduced by systems thinking, is that to manage a system effectively, you might focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately.
    • Russell L. Ackoff and Fred Emery (1972) On purposeful systems, cited in: Lloyd Dobyns, Clare Crawford-Mason (1994) Thinking about quality: progress, wisdom, and the Deming philosophy. p. 40.
  • Problem solving has traditionally been taken to be an essential function of management. Through systems thinking, however, we have come to doubt the existence of problems and solutions to them.
  • Systems science and technology constitute one aspect of systems thinking, but the humanities and arts make up the other. The fact that design plays such a large part in the systemic treatment of problems makes it apparent that art has a major role in it as well. Ethics and aesthetics are integral aspects of evaluating systems... the systems approach involves the pursuit of truth (science) and its effective use (technology), plenty (economics), the good (ethics and morality), and beauty and fun (aesthetics). To compare systems methodology with that of any of the so-called ‘hard’ disciplines—for example, physics—is to misunderstand the nature of systems. The worry is not that the systems approach is not scientific in the sense which physics or chemistry or biology is, but that some try to make it scientific in that sense. To the extent they succeed, they destroy it.
    • Russell L. Ackoff (1999). "Disciplines, the two cultures and the scianities". Systems Research and Behavioral Science. 16 (6), p. 537. Cited in: Sherryl Stalinski (2005) A Systems View of Social Systems, Culture and Communities. Saybrook Graduate School. p. 5.


  • Systems inquiry has demonstrated its capability in dealing effectively with highly complex and large-scale problem situations. It has orchestrated the efforts of various disciplines within the framework of systems thinking. It has introduced systems approaches and methods to the analysis, design, development, evaluation, and management of systems of all kinds... Systems theory pursues the scientific exploration and understanding of systems that exist in the various realms of experience, in order to arrive at a general theory of systems: an organized expressing of sets of interrelated concepts and principles that apply to all systems.
  • It was appropriate to say up front that systems thinking is the parent of design thinking and systems inquiry embeds design inquiry.
    • Bela H. Banathy (1996) Designing Social Systems in a Changing World. p. 163.
  • Systems thinking plays a dominant role in a wide range of fields from industrial enterprise and armaments to esoteric topics of pure science. Innumerable publications, conferences, symposia and courses are devoted to it. Professions and jobs have appeared in recent years which, unknown a short while ago, go under names such as systems design, systems analysis, systems engineering and others.
  • There is a revolutionary scientific perspective (stemming) from the General Systems Research movement and (with a) wealth of principles, ideas and insights that have already brought higher degree of scientific order and understanding to many areas as of biology, psychology and some physical sciences... Modern systems research can provide the basic of a framework more capable of doing justice to the complexities and dynamic properties of the socio-cultural system.
  • The modern systems view, which flowered during World War II (though building on principles in the wind much earlier), has already borne its first fruits and is in danger of a superficial acceptance into the corpus of sociology by way of the incorporation of some of its now common vocabulary.
  • Critical systems thinkers like Midgley identify three waves of systems thinking over the last 50 years or so. Early systems theorists (e.g. Bertalanffy) described systems in physical terms, resorting to metaphors from electronic computation or biology. This 'hard systems' tradition still has its advocates and practitioners... Subsequently the limits of the physical metaphor... were reached, and the second wave of systems thinking developed. This 'soft systems thinking' employed social metaphors to develop appropriate systems approaches for human systems. The move to a more phenomenological, interpretative understanding of human systems, where meaning is central and is negotiated intersubjectively, parallels the new paradigm / crisis of social psychology of the 1970s. The Third wave, or critical systems school, in which Midgley locates himself, has drawn on the critical theory of Habermas, particularly in relation to theories of knowledge and of communicative rationality, and on the work of Foucault and followers on the nature of power.


  • The ideas set forth by organismic biologists during the first half of the twentieth century helped to give birth to a new way of thinking — "systems thinking" — in terms of connectedness, relationships, context. According to the systems view, the essential properties of an organism, or living system, are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships among the parts. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. Although we can discern individual parts in any system, these parts are not isolated, and the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts. The systems view of life is illustrated beautifully and abundantly in the writings of Paul Weiss, who brought systems concepts to the life sciences from his earlier studies of engineering and spent his whole life exploring and advocating a full organismic conception of biology.
  • Before the 1940s the terms "system" and "systems thinking" had been used by several scientists, but it was Bertalanffy's concepts of an open system and a general systems theory that established systems thinking as a major scientific movement
  • With the subsequent strong support from cybernetics, the concepts of systems thinking and systems theory became integral parts of the established scientific language, and led to numerous new methodologies and applications -- systems engineering, systems analysis, systems dynamics, and so on.
  • Systems thinking, as written about and practiced by Russell Ackoff, C. West Churchman, Peter Checkland and others, contained within it many of the impulses that motivate the application of design ideas to strategy, organization, society, and management. Ideas such as engaging a broad set of stakeholders, moving beyond simple metrics and calculations, considering idealized options and using scenarios to explore them, shifting boundaries to reframe problems, iteration, the liberal use of diagrams and rich pictures, and tirelessly searching for a better set of alternatives were all there. If the business and management community had bought it, we would not be having the many discussions about design, design thinking, and expanding management education to engage the intuitive, to embrace values, to look beyond available choices.
    • Fred Collopy (2009) "Lessons Learned -- Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking". In Fast Company blog, June 7, 2009.
  • It is sheer nonsense to expect that any human being has yet been able to attain such insight into the problems of society that he can really identify the central problems and determine how they should be solved. The systems in which we live are far too complicated as yet for our intellectual powers and technology to understand.
  • A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.


  • Systems thinking means the ability to see the synergy of the whole rather than just the separate elements of a system and to learn to reinforce or change whole system patterns. Many people have been trained to solve problems by breaking a complex system, such as an organization, into discrete parts and working to make each part perform as well as possible. However, the success of each piece does not add up to the success of the whole. to the success of the whole. In fact, sometimes changing one part to make it better actually makes the whole system function less effectively.
  • Systems thinking is a mental discipline and framework for seeing patterns and interrelationships. It is important to see organizational systems as a whole because of their complexity. Complexity can overwhelm managers, undermining confidence. When leaders can see the structures that underlie complex situations, they can facilitate improvement. But doing that requires a focus on the big picture.


  • In the selection of papers for this volume, two problems have arisen, namely what constitutes systems thinking and what systems thinking is relevant to the thinking required for organizational management. The first problem is obviously critical. Unless there were a meaningful answer there would be no sense in producing a volume of readings in systems thinking in any subject. A great many writers have manifestly believed that there is a way of considering phenomena which is sufficiently different from the well-established modes of scientific analysis to deserve the particular title of systems thinking.
    • Frederick Edmund Emery (ed.) (1969) Systems thinking: selected readings Penguin, p. 7: Beginning of editorial by Fred Emery.
  • A great many writers have manifestly believed that there is a way of considering phenomena which is sufficiently different from the well-established modes of scientific analysis to deserve the particular title of systems thinking.
    • Frederick Edmund Emery (ed.) (1969) Systems thinking: selected readings Penguin, p. 7: Beginning of editorial by Fred Emery


  • An example from soft systems thinking is Checkland's appreciation of soft systems methodology. He wants to introduce hard systems approaches to deal with hard problems only after and through a soft systems analysis.
    • Robert L. Flood (1993) Dealing with Complexity: An Introduction to the Theory and … - Pagina 127.
  • If Critical Systems Thinking is to contribute to enlightened societal practice, e.g., with respect to the pressing environmental and social issues of our time, it should be accessible not only to well-trained decision makers and academics but also to a majority of citizens.
    • Robert Louis Flood, Norma R. A. Romm (1996) Critical Systems Thinking: Current Research and Practice. p. 165.


  • In a previous paper on progress in general systems research... I avoided the issue of defining a system. I noted that no definitions are satisfactory, and it seemed to me the essence of the subject area that none can be so. I went on to say that it is the systems approach—emphasizing lack of disciplinary boundaries, the freedom to apply knowledge, and techniques gathered in one field to problems in another, or to suggest that two distinct fields are in fact one, the disciplined freedom of the unconstrained intellect—that has been the source of dynamism and progress. I noted that perhaps the most telling progress of all is that we can so confidently speak of a common field of interest knowing that we could not, and would not wish to, agree on a definition of what a system is.


  • Systems thinking is a lost art with a very practical set of tools which our consultants and l use. lt assists us and our clients' thinking, diagnoses, and actions in whatever we do... and wherever we go in a much better, more holistic and practical way than traditional methods.
    • Stephen G. Haines (2000) The Complete Guide to Systems Thinking and Learning. p. iv.
  • Systems Thinking is based on 50+ years of scientific research by the Society for General Systems Research on the 12 Characteristics of life on earth, leading to the natural way the world works.
    • Stephen G. Haines (2007) Strategic and Systems Thinking: The Winning Formula. p. v.
  • Systems thinking is relatively recent, at least as an identifiable practice. There are books on the subject, but different authors view the subject differently, so it is an as-yet unconstrained discipline.
    • Derek K. Hitchins (2003) Advanced Systems Thinking, Engineering, and Management. p. xv.
  • Systems thinking is not new; it has been around for thousands of years in many different guises. Ancient creation myths were instances of systems thinking. Operations analysis, systems analysis, failure analysis, risk analysis, corporate benefit analysis, financial modeling, quantity surveying, investment appraisal, finite element analysis, civil engineering models, economic modeling, simulations, and many more are all modern ways of thinking about systems. Imaginative visualization should be on the list, too.
    What is new, perhaps, is the ready availability of powerful desktop tools that permit and enable us to think about the most complex and complicated issues and systems. Processors allow us to tackle problems of such complexity and magnitude that, without them, we would be obliged to guess. The same tools reveal unexpected complex behavior from simple systems.
    • Derek K. Hitchins (2003) Advanced Systems Thinking, Engineering, and Management. p. 133.
  • Practitioners and proponents embrace a holistic vision. They focus on the interconnections among subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among various parts. What is significant is that system builders include heterogeneous components, such as mechanical, electrical, and organizational parts, in a single system. Organizational parts might be managerial structures, such as a military command, or political entities, such as a government bureau. Organizational components not only interact with technical ones but often reflect their characteristics. For instance, a management organization for presiding over the development of an intercontinental missile system might be divided into divisions that mirror the parts of the missile being designed.
    • Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes eds. Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The MIT Press, 2000. p. 3.


  • Hard systems thinking is also accused of conservatism. It privileges the values and interests of its clients and customers, and lends its apparent expertise to their realization. It thus gives the facade of objectivity to changes that help to secure the status quo. In general terms, despite its many strengths and achievements, hard systems thinking is today thought of as having a limited domain of application.
  • Peter Senge (1990), Fritjof Capra (1996), Peter Checkland (1999), and other researchers have transferred systems thinking principles and theories into practice by applying them to real-world organizational- wide issues, thus encouraging the thus encouraging the creation and development of learning organizations.
    • Cyndy Jones (2006) "Is your information at risk?" The review of business information systems, Vol 10 (2), p. 7.


  • The assumptions which underpin hard systems thinking and distinguish it from soft systems thinking can now be clearly recognized. A basic assumption is that the world can be understood objectively and that knowledge about the world can be validated by empirical means. This assumption supports the role of models in the hard tradition, which are seen to be representations of and which can be treated as proxies for the world. Methodologies based in hard systems thinking will reflect this assumption by placing great emphasis upon the modeling and validation processes, for these are central to the ability of the approaches to reproduce behavior in the models they involve
    A second assumption of hard systems thinking is the ability to define objectives and then to identify the best way of proceeding in order to achieve them. The notions of goal seeking and rational decision making depend upon this assumption, for if objectives cannot be defined, then a process which sets out to find the best way of achieving them is of no value...
    • Paul Keys (1991) Operational Research and Systems: The Systemic Nature of the Operational Research. p. 171.


  • The notion of "system" has gained central importance in contemporary science, society and life. In many fields of endeavor, the necessity of a "systems approach" or "systems thinking" is emphasized, new professions called "systems engineering," "systems analysis" and the like have come into being, and there can be little doubt that this this concept marks a genuine, necessary, and consequential development in science and world-view.
    • Ervin László (1972) Introduction to Systems Philosophy: Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought. xvii.


  • As our world continues to change rapidly and become more complex, systems thinking will help us manage, adapt, and see the wide range of choices we have before us. It is a way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify root causes of problems and see new opportunities.
  • Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is “out there,” rather than “in here.” It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away.
    Serious problems have been solved by focusing on external agents — preventing smallpox, increasing food production, moving large weights and many people rapidly over long distances. Because they are embedded in larger systems, however, some of our “solutions” have created further problems. And some problems, those most rooted in the internal structure of complex systems, the real messes, have refused to go away.
    Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless.
    That is because they are intrinsically systems problems-undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.
  • Systems thinking is only an epistemology, a particular way of describing the world. It does not tell us what the world is. Hence, strictly speaking, we should never say of something in the world: “It is a system,” only: “It may be described as a system.”
    • John Mingers (2006) Realising Systems Thinking: Knowledge and Action in Management Science. p. 87.


  • Systems thinking is a special form of holistic thinking - dealing with wholes rather than parts. One way of thinking about this is in terms of a hierarchy of levels of biological organization and of the different 'emergent' properties that are evident in say, the whole plant (e.g. wilting) that are not evident at the level of the cell (loss of turgor). It is also possible to bring different perspectives to bear on these different levels of organization. Holistic thinking starts by looking at the nature and behaviour of the whole system that those participating have agreed to be worthy of study. This involves: (i) taking multiple partial views of 'reality'... (ii) placing conceptual boundaries around the whole, or system of interest and (iii) devising ways of representing systems of interest.
    • C.J. Pearson and R.L. Ison (1987/1997) Agronomy of Grassland Systems. p. 8.
  • Systems science is the ordered arrangement of knowledge acquired from the study of systems in the observable world, together with the application of this knowledge to the design of man-made systems.
    • Philip M'Pherson (1974). A perspective on systems science and systems philosophy. Futures, 6, pp. 219-239; As cited by: Hieronymi, A. (2013), Understanding Systems Science: A Visual and Integrative Approach. Syst. Res. doi: 10.1002/sres.2215.


  • Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots. It is a set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering and management
  • Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing the 'structures' that underlie complex situations, and for discerning high from low leverage change. That is, by seeing wholes we learn how to foster health. To do so, systems thinking offers a language that begins by restructuring how we think.


  • The general systems movement has taken up the task of helping scientists unravel complexity, technologists to master it, and others to learn to live with it.
  • As any poet knows, a system is a way of looking at the world.

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