What is Systems Thinking?

I was recently asked by a clever colleague to explain systems thinking. An easy question you might think as I have an ‘ology in systems thinking. However this clever colleague has written books on systems thinking and I was in an interview….

This was one of those situations where you can’t spend too long thinking of a witty and erudite response, a time when there is a need to provide the ‘right’ answer based on what you think they want to hear and this was not the opportunity for a healthy discussion (shame). So I quoted back to him what he had written and I hoped that counted for something.

What I really wanted was a meaningful conversation.

Later that day this got me thinking about systems thinking and reflecting on what it means to me. I have boiled it down to some simple components. This time in my own words, after deliberation and with a view for debate.


For me systems thinking is all about context. It is about considering things in context and realising that the same thing can have different contextual meaning to different people in different circumstances. A simple example: the pond in my garden is an ornamental feature of beauty to me, it is a habitat to the fish that live in it and it is a source of lunch to the neighbour’s cat. It is still the same pond. What systems thinking teaches me is the importance of recognising the nature of context in any situation and being sensitive to it.

Some writers talk about perspectives, other reference worldviews and others talk about traditions. Context brings these together and emphasizes the subjectivity of experience and thinking.



Systems thinking is a humbling pursuit. Being a systems thinker is a constant reminder that mine is not the only opinion that counts and that I may not always be right. This is perhaps one of the reasons why systems thinking is not always popular with certain types of senior manager. Systems thinking grounds me and forces me to consider other contexts. This keeps me humble and keeps my mind open.



There are those who recommend systems thinking as a tool for managing through complexity. I do not subscribe to systems thinking as something you do on occasion. Systems thinking is not something you do, it is something you become. Systems thinking is an enlightenment, it is a way of being.

Before I sound like some crazy weirdo, what I mean is that systems thinking is not a tap you turn on or off. It is who you are because thinking defines how you perceive the world. Once you learn to think in terms of systems you see systems everywhere.



Like Dirk Gently, the Douglas Adams’ famous holistic detective I see interconnectedness everywhere.  I think in terms of patterns not lines. I can’t help myself and boy does that cause trouble when dealing with colleagues who love their ‘left to right planning’.


Just a few thoughts, more to follow another day….


Systems thinking > Vanguard

I love John Seddon and what he stands for. I particularly like those videos of a cartoon Seddon having a good old moan about non-systemsy people. I think the Vanguard Method is a fabulous way for service organisations to focus on  transforming themselves to be better. 

When you ask many people who claim to be systems thinkers what they mean by systems thinking is Vanguard.  Now don’t get me wrong Vanguard is about systems and thinking and thinking about systems. However it is not the only systems thinking approach and neither is it my favourite (shock horror).  

In the big wide world of systems thinking there some fantastic approaches that have nothing to do with Vanguard but are brilliant for systems thinking and thinking systemically. I couldn’t possibly do them all justice in one short blog, so consider this just a name check. Go forth and Google them. Or better still go to a library and read about them in a book. Or even better still find a good university and study them.

So here goes, not a complete list, at all but some other approaches to systems thinking and some key systems thinkers in brackets worthy of further exploration:

  • Viable Systems Model (Stafford Beer)
  • Systems Dynamics (Donella Meadows)
  • Soft Systems Methodology (Peter Checkland)
  • Appreciative Systems (Geoffrey Vickers)
  • Social Learning Systems (Etienne Wenger)
  • Cybernetics
  • Systems Failure Method

The list goes on. This is just some of what I have had the pleasure to learn about. The list will continue to evolve and grow. Some of these approaches and people might not be as well known or as prevalent on social media but they deserve an occasional mention. So go on find out some more. Be curious…..