SYSTEMS thinking

What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? (Thoreau, "Sounds", Walden)

This begins an introduction to "systems theory" and "systems thinking" for those who have heard the terms but who are not sure what they mean. There are many books, articles and other media that delve into the depths of systems theory, thinking and philosophy. See the references section for links to some of those. My intention is merely to provide a starting point.

The Problem

In a nutshell: things are too darn complicated.

I'll give some examples of this in a minute, but basically, if you think life today is simple and easy, then I admire your presence of mind, and you really don't need to read any further. On the other hand, if you find yourself confused by a proliferation of ideas, codes, passwords, tools, methods, sources, arguments and the other mental paraphernalia of high tech living ... or if you have a problem to solve that just seems to complicated to think about ... then read on ... maybe this will help.

Two Examples

The first example is small and personal. The second is large and global. I'll use them throughout to illustrate how systems thinking works. I choose "college life" because I am writing this for one of my college classes to read. I choose "fossil fuels" as a very large, very complicated situation that affects everyone.

College Life

College students lead very complicated lives. They "take courses", an activity that is supposed to occupy roughly the amount of time that a full time job does ... about 40 hours each week. In order to pay for their educations, however, many students also work at part-time jobs.

In addition, college is a time of intense socialization ... students spend a considerable amount of time meeting, talking to and getting to know other people. They also must keep in touch with their friends and family at home. Colleges break for a week each term, and for a few weeks between terms, so students also must spend time traveling.

Since their time demands add up to more than 24 hours a day, college students are continually pressed to resolve conflicts among their needs.

The student's basic problem: within constraints that I cannot control, how much of my time do I allocate to which activities?

It is all very confusing and extremely complicated. Some students deal with the pressure by pre-programming their lives into a PDA or scheduling book. Each moment of time is accounted for ... an assignment is due here, work claims these hours, meeting with friends for dinner here, and so on.

Others simply ignore the complexity. They keep track of the minimum requirements: they go to their job, and to classes when they remember and complete an assignment only when a friend reminds them that something is due.

So at the ends of the spectrum we have the remote controlled robot running a tight program with no room for spontaneity, and on the other we have the lobotomized zombie drifting cluelessly from event to event. (Neither of these truly exists, of course ... I exaggerate to make a point.)

Most students make a good faith effort to do all that is required of them ... but find themselves under constant stress from the seemingly never-ending demands on their time. It would be helpful to them if we could provide a way of making sense of their situation.

The goal: we are looking for a way to organize what we know about life during college for the purpose of helping students cope with the complexity.

Fossil Fuels

Millions of years ago, billions of plants and animals died. Over the millennia their remains sank beneath the earth, where, under tremendous pressure from the tons of rocks above them, they were transformed into what we now call coal, gas and oil.

Over the last hundred years or so, we humans have built a society that depends on our digging up, refining and then burning these remains. We call them "fossil fuels", and they power everything from camp stoves to electric power generators.

In doing this we have created two serious problems:

1. There is a limited supply of this stuff buried in the ground and we are using it up. Experts estimate that we have extracted about 900 billion barrels of oil, for example, and our demand is still rising. (The U.S. alone uses approximately 20 million barrels every day.) Everyone agrees that supplies will shrink at some point in the not too distant future; prices will rise; shortages will become common. And sooner or later, we will have no choice but to switch to some other means of powering our civilization.

2. Burning fossil fuels produce various noxious by-products. These include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, among others. Today, these by-products are mostly dumped into the air. This is changing the makeup of the atmosphere and that, in turn, is changing the Earth's climate. We don't know if the results of this will be good or bad ... or a mix of good and bad. But it seems kind of stupid to gamble with the earth's atmosphere this way.

Scientists know that our supply of fossil fuels is limited, and that burning fossil fuels is a factor is changing the Earth's climate. But many people do not believe that there is really a problem. Nor do we have a solution that satisfies enough people to make it politically feasible.

The global problem: how can we define and describe the fossil fuel situation so that people can understand it?

Notice that the task here is not to prevent global warming, or invent new ways of using less fuel, or in fact do anything of a technical engineering nature. If people come to believe that it is important to do these things, then they will tell their scientists and politicians to allocate time and money and make it a priority. No ... our task is to take a confusing situation and explain it so that people can understand it.

The goal: we are looking for a way to explain the difficulties that arise from our continuing use of fossil fuels.

Let Me Count the Ways

Those two problems are not textbook problems with answers at the back of the book. Nor are they television game show problems which, if not answered properly, will have no lasting penalty. They are serious "real life" problems that affect people directly and cannot be avoided.

It turns out that people think about real world problems in a number of different ways. And, the way you think about a problem has a lot to do with what you end up knowing about the problem and what kinds of solutions you can find. Here are four of the most widely used approaches to "problem solving".

Aesthetics: how does it feel?

This is the "look and feel" approach. For example, "math is hard ... I think I'll skip it ... when I graduate with my college degree, I'm sure someone will give me a job". Or, "I love my car ... I want to keep it even with its gasoline engine ... the idea of the sea level rising frightens me and I want climate change stopped somehow ... but don't ask me how ... I'm sure it will all work out".

This aesthetic method deals in emotions. You encounter the situation and you react to it. How does it appear to you? What does it look like? What does it sound like? How does it taste? How does it make you feel?

Many of the problems we face in daily life yield easily to this approach. "What do you want for dinner? I dunno, what have we got? How about tuna? Sounds good to me." Many, if not most, of our decisions can be based on our preferences and desires and made without the need for much thought.

This approach is capable of handling contradictions, and it can provide great satisfaction and emotional support, but it does not help much in gaining understanding of larger or more complicated problems. The method may make you feel better (or worse), but it cannot provide you with answers to situations that require the application of facts.

For more: Stephen Colbert defines "truthiness".

Criticism: let's argue

The premise of the critical approach is that if people argue about something in good faith–which means that they listen to one another's claims and evidence and try to find a common ground – then agreement can be reached. Your professor says, "take theatre appreciation" ... your mother says "take accounting" ... let the two people argue and then base your decision on the outcome of their argument.

The problem with this today is that a multitude of media "voices" constantly proclaim that their opinions are the ones that should really matter. Some of this is good faith argument, but much of it is advertising and propaganda: voices that only pretend to argue but really just state their beliefs over and over again without ever providing evidence to support their claims.

The critical approach gives us a way to compare what we think to what others think, but in a world of many voices, it does not help us resolve our confusion ... in fact it may make us even more confused. The approach itself is good, but we need some way to filter out all the noise.

Science: what does the data say?

Science is a method for identifying facts. Which courses will produce the highest probability of finding a job at graduation? How much carbon dioxide is actually being released into the atmosphere?

However, science is not so good at organizing the facts in ways that are useful in solving particular problems. Knowing that computer engineering majors make the best starting salaries is nice, but not very useful unless you have a degree in computer engineering. Knowing that CO2 emissions in 2005 were 19.5 metric tons per capita does not tell you what you can do to reduce air pollution.

As individuals, we do not and want to and cannot in practice know everything there is to know ... instead, we want the key facts organized in a way that lets us make decisions. We need to filter and organize the scientifically collected data in order to make good use of it. The results of this process do not need to be 100 per cent accurate or perfectly true as long as they give us a good enough approximation to let us deal with our problems.

Systems: how does it work?

Systems thinking is a way of organizing data in order to make use of it. "Systems" models focus on how the elements of a situation interact with one another. These models are constructed specifically for the purpose of addressing particular problems. If I choose my courses carefully, can I leave Tuesdays and Thursdays free for work? If everyone moves to a city where they can use mass transit, will air pollution shrink?

Systems takes the facts from science and simplifies in order to show how certain parts of reality seem to work. These models can be criticized and changed, and then used to make decisions ... after which we can observe how we feel about the results and make additional changes if needed.

Systems thinkers are very fond of diagrams; here is a diagram of the definition that I just stated:

systems def [diagram created with Omni Graffle]

Systems Thinking

As you can see, systems thinking defines a process ... a group of related activities that happen in a certain order.

  1. Having noticed a problem, you first gather data, then use the data to build a model that tries to explain the problem.
  2. As you build this model, you criticize it ... get other people's opinions and compare them to your own ... if you find convincing arguments that your model is wrong, then you change it. Once you are satisfied with the model, you use it to propose a decision.
  3. Next you evaluate the decision ... how does it make you feel ... do you like it ... do you think you can live with it? If not, then go back and change the model.
  4. Repeat all these steps until you have a decision that works for you.

This may sound rather mechanical ... but in practice it is not. Every step has room for thinking and rethinking and tinkering and adjusting. Nor is systems thinking a method of actually solving problems ... it is only what it claims to be: a way of organizing what you know. However, it turns out that many problems can be solved as soon as we know everything we need to know about them. These are the kinds of problems that systems thinking is good for.

How Do These Approaches Differ?


Criticism attempts to reach agreement by means of argument. The agreement need not have anything to do with reality ... for example, two people could agree that all unicorns have only one horn. If no agreement is reached, the argument may never end. (The American judicial system uses this method. Both sides present arguments, and to insure that the argument ends, a judge or jury is invoked to settle the debate.) science

Science is not concerned with problem solving; it only seeks to describe the nature of physical reality. A claim that some notion about nature is true, called by the Greek term "hypothesis", is advanced by a scientist. Other scientists test this claim by conducting experiments designed to expose the facts of the situation. If the facts contradict the claim, then it is judged to be false. If the facts do not contradict the claim, then it is accepted as possibly true. The collection of all possibly true claims is known as "scientific knowledge." In theory science might someday discover all that can possibly be known about nature. At the moment, however, it has not.


Systems falls somewhere between these two. On the one hand it is concerned with facts. On the other hand, it is not concerned only with facts. This has to do with the goals of the three methods. Criticism's goal is to settle an argument; science's goal is to discover knowledge; system's goal is to solve a problem. In order to solve problems, systems thinking uses scientific methods to find facts, and it invokes arguments to help make sure that enough facts have been found. It fits the facts together to build models that explain what is known about the situation, and then it uses the models to test the results of possible decisions. Because a decision must be made, the systems process has to terminate. The goal is not to build a perfect systems model, but rather to get to the point where an informed decision is possible ... if such is impossible, then the model is scrapped and the process ends.

Aesthetics reacts to the emotional impact of the situation. While systems thinking does not apply aesthetics at the beginning of the process, the solutions that it eventually proposes must be acceptable to the people involved. (For example, the world's air pollution could be greatly reduced if automobile traffic was banned in cities. There is no physical or technical reason why this could not be done, but people simply refuse to give up personal transportation regardless of the cost. So that solution is not acceptable.)

Do not think that systems thinking is a panacea. Like all of the methods, it has limitations. In order to build a systems model, for example, a designer must leave out many of the details that describe the situation. The result may be a model that seems to work but has hidden flaws. Similarly, it may be possible for people to agree on using the results of a particular systems model in theory, but then find that they have disagreements when the practical application is made.

When you learn "systems thinking", what you get is a new mental tool ... a skill that helps you deal with certain kinds of complex problems. Systems thinking is useful to us today because today we seem to have a surplus of these kinds of problems.


More About Systems

Systems "thinking" is the use of systems ideas to solve problems and design solutions. Systems "theory" is the study of systems ideas. The following tutorials introduce the basics of this "systems approach". Each links to the pair of examples (college life & fossil fuels) that illustrate the ideas presented in the tutorial. At the end you will find a link to a page with additional references on systems.


Tutorial 1. Is It a System?

Tutorial 2. How to Think With Systems: The Importance of Definitions

Tutorial 3. Building the Model: Elements + Communication + Context

Tutorial 4. Testing the Model: Criticism, Aesthetics and Decision Making

Introductions to Each of the Tutorials

Tutorial 1. Is It a System?

A number of good books and articles have been written about systems theory and thinking. The authors of these books define the term "system" in slightly different ways. This is consistent because ... as the next section will show ... carefully defining what it is that you want to think about is a key step in the systems approach.

This is important. Do not assume that there is only one way of perceiving the world. Or even one best way. By carefully constructing definitions that fit the data you have on hand while also fitting the problem that you want to study, you can adapt your perception to the situation. As it turns out, many "problem" situations simply disappear when looked at from a different point of view.

Here is an example. If you look at a map of the world, you will see that the portion of our planet surrounding the north pole is an ocean. It would be nice if ships were able to use this ocean to cross from one continent to another, but the ocean is frozen solid all year long. Luckily, global warming is changing this. As the earth's surface warms, the arctic ice is beginning to melt. Various nations are already arguing about who owns the fishing and mineral rights in the area, and new shipping lanes are under exploration. So ... from this point of view ... global warming is a good thing. (And I don't mean that in an ironic or satirical way. In terms of arctic commerce, global warming is truly good. There are other ways in which it is bad ... the polar bears may not survive, for example ... but if you work for an oceanic shipping company, you might be looking forward to sailing in the Arctic.)

pointerThis tutorial explains how to define a system to fit your problem.

Tutorial 2. How to Think With Systems: The Importance of Definitions

The first step in systems thinking is to take the facts that you have and use them to build a model that defines the situation that you are facing. sysstems defThere are no limits to this ... you may define things any way that you want as long as your definition fits the facts.

This model building is an ongoing process. As you construct the model, you criticize it ... and even after you finish it, if the model does not give you a decision you can use, you can come back and make changes. This lets you "brainstorm" different models and test out different ideas and decisions.

Much of the work in systems thinking is contained in this part of the process. The model serves as a focal point for your thinking - you build it from the scientific facts that you can collect, you criticize it so that you get the advantage of other opinions, and you react to the "look and feel" of the decision that it produces.

pointerThis tutorial shows you how changes in definitions can affect the way you think about a problem.

Tutorial 3. Building the Model: Elements + Communication + Context

Systems are collections of things that are connected to, or relate to, one another. These relationships are maintained through communication, and they are just as important as the objects. It is the interaction among the elements of a system, as transmitted by its relationships, that produces the behaviors that we find interesting.

Furthermore, no system exists in isolation. Systems thinkers always discriminate between the inside of the system and outside, and everything outside of the system is taken to be its environment. The environment is not as well-defined as the system, but it is always active ... it interacts with the system in ways that may not be as well-defined as the system's inner relationships, but which nonetheless may be important.

pointerThis tutorial explains how the items in a model plus the relationships among the items, interacting in the context of the system's environment, allow us to use the model to investigate the reality of the situation being modeled.

Tutorial 4. Testing the Model: Aesthetics, Criticism and Decision Making

As you construct your model, it is well to test it out by getting additional opinions and viewpoints.

pointerThis tutorial shows you how a typical systems model might be tested and reviewed.


These are best viewed in conjunction with the systems thinking tutorials. Each tutorial ends with a link to the relevant parts of the examples.

Example 1. College Life

Example 2. Fossil Fuels

Reading and Using Systems Diagrams

A quick tutorial that describes the symbols and patterns used in making diagrams of systems models.

References and Links

This page has links to a number of books and websites that cover systems thinking.