Habits of a systems thinker

‘Not mincing words here, developing an organizational habit of systems thinking is challenging and a lot of work. It requires investments in time, money and people. One can certainly utilize books, articles and courses to build an awareness of systems thinking. Training someone to use systems thinking in their day-to-day management requires focus, and it is something best done through broad experiences.’   Knowing all this colleagues and I are still going to try out developing  systems thinking across the organisation.

Why?  Because we go along with the view that ‘the larger the business, the more complex the interactions. It is paramount to be able to evaluate the interrelations of systems, comprehend the forces that are at work on the business and subsequently choose changes that result in improved production both in the near-term and in the long-term [in order to improve business performance]’   Quotes above from: Amplify Your Leadership Effectiveness: Apply Systems Thinking

We’re starting small – by simply providing some resources to provoke discussion and see where that takes us.  But even a this point we can illustrate a systems thinking concept.

In Thinking in Systems author Donella Meadows wrote, ”If you understand the dynamics (behavior over time) of stocks and flows, you understand a good deal about the behavior of complex systems.” In describing stocks and flows, Donella Meadows stated, “A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity of material or information that has built up over time.  It may be a population, an inventory, the wood in a tree, the water in a well, the money in a bank…Stocks change over time through the actions of flows, usually actual physical flows into or out of a stock–filling, draining, births, deaths, production, consumption, growth, decay, spending, saving.  Stocks, then, are accumulations, or integrals, of flows.”

I’m building up a set of resources to support the systems thinking programme.  It struck me that the resources are the stock and the people who take the programme are the flow – they’re ones who will, through their participation, change stock over time.  They’ll add to the resources, take stuff out to use, amend things, comment on items – keeping the accumulation up to date and useful.

The programme is hung on the Waters Foundation poster ‘Habits of a Systems Thinker’.  There are 14 habits and my colleague has organised them into 5 categories.  Each two weeks we will facilitate a group discussion/learning session that covers the habits in that category.  In between each of the sessions participants will have something to read, watch or think about related to one of the habits in the category.  We’re also planning to invite a speaker to each session to give case study input to the topic.

Here’s the initial stock:

Module 1:  Big picture thinking 

Habit:  Seeks to understand the big picture.  Resource: White paper The Dawn of System Leadership, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, & John Kania

Habit: Changes perspectives to increase understanding.  Resource: White paper  Taking Organisational Complexity Seriously Chris Rodgers

Habit: Observes how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends.  Resource: 10-minute video: Systems theory of organisation

Module 2: Thinking about thinking

Habit: Surfaces and tests assumptions. Resource:  8-minute video, Why challenging assumptions is the way to go.

Habit:  Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future. Resource: Blog,  The “Thinking” in Systems Thinking: How Can We Make It Easier to Master?

Habit: Considers an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion. Resource: 5-minute TEDed  Rethinking thinking, Trevor Maber,

Module 3: Cause and effect

Habit:  Identifies the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships. Resource: 4- minute video Introduction to causal loops

Habit: Recognises the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships.  Resource:  Article (academic) Understanding the causes and consequences of disruption and delay in complex projects: how system dynamics can help

Module 4: System acupuncture

Habit: Recognises that a system’s structure generates its behaviour. Resource: Book chapter System behaviour and causal loop diagrams

Habit: Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions. Resource:  Blog,  Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Habit: Makes meaningful connections within and between systems.  Resource:  Guide, Project Interdependency Management

Module 5: Organisational learning

Habit: Considers both short and long term consequences of actions. Resource: Report, Short-termism in business: causes, mechanisms and consequences

Habit: Finds where unintended consequences emerge.  Resource: 3-minute video:  Great moments in unintended consequences

Habit: Checks results and changes actions if needed: ‘successive approximation’. Resource: Blog,  Successive Approximations: What the Berimbolo Taught Me About Learning

What resources would you add to the list to illustrate each of the habits of a systems thinker?  Let me know.


6 thoughts on “Habits of a systems thinker”

  1. Hey Naomi – what a great set of resources! We too, are constantly thinking about systems thinking and I am particularly focused on ‘thinking about thinking’ so I was excited to see that you have that as a module. I would perhaps add some material from Nancy Kline’s Time to Think which talks a lot about our limiting assumptions. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I think another approach to bringing systems into an org is to bring the system together to think as a system, a large group intervention on systemic issues

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