Category Archives: Defining systems thinking

What do YOU mean by ‘Systems Thinking’?


“I’m a systems thinker.”

I hear that a lot when I tell people who I teach systems thinking.  And I’m learning to not accept the assertion at face value, but to find out more precisely what the speaker means.  Because saying ‘I do systems thinking’ means many different things to different people.

It’s no big surprise that even for those who have studied the topic, there is confusion about the definition of the terms.  One reason is the number of similar concepts about systemic thinking that are used in various applications throughout the world.  There are multiple fields of study related to a systems approach to complexity which can come to mind for when discussing systems thinking–i.e., cybernetics, systems theory, complexity science, chaos theory, family systems theory, system dynamics, etc.  (see for a helpful visual depiction of the large web of systems-related approaches.)

In the US, arguably the most popular academic understanding of systems thinking developed out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where system dynamics was founded by Professor Jay Forrester in the 1950s, and where later systems thinking was made popular by MIT-trained Peter Senge (a student of Forrester’s) in the best-selling management book, The Fifth Discipline, published in 1991.   Twenty years after publication of The Fifth Discipline, an internal debate still festers within the field of practitioners about the history and scope of systems thinking and system dynamics.  For a clear explanation of the distinctions, see Barry Richmond’s ‘System Dynamic/Systems Thinking: Let’s Just Get On With It.

To complicate matters yet further, ‘systems thinking’ as promoted within The Fifth Discipline and similar systems thinking texts associates itself with a large number of related skills, tools and mindsets.  Unlike the short lists of discrete ideas readers are used to finding in texts about business management (i.e., ‘5 Steps to More Efficient Meetings’), the primers on systems thinking suggest using an interrelated set of skills that may or may not include perception, awareness, humility, and reflection, as well as fairly detailed use of mathematical logic and/or a basic understanding of simple algebraic formulas.  Suggestion of these last two skills reinforce the perception that systems thinking exists in the domain of mechanical modeling and engineering–only one of many fields that benefit from systems understanding.

So it’s easy to see why a shared understanding of the phrase ‘systems thinking’ hasn’t yet become widely accepted.

In Washington State, a group of folks is beginning to work on some common understanding of the phrase ‘systems thinking’–at least in the context of how the phrase is used in the new K-12 education standards for science and environmental sustainability.  More on that in another next blog post.