Systems Thinking

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Defining Systems Thinking

"Systems Thinking" refers to a discipline of both Theory (ie an academic discipline) and Practice (ie a discipline used by consultants and practitioners) founded on the notion of a "System" - and a philosophy of systemic causation. Wikipedia tautologously (circularly) defines Systems Thinking as the study of systems. Others, in similarly tautologous fashion, define Systems Thinking as an approach to analysis based on applying the notion of a System to construct models of the "systems collection" of concern (and under study). Barry Richmond defines Systems Thinking as both an "art and science" - involved in the deeper (implied better) understanding of some segment of the world. According to the UK Open University's "Systems Thinking and Practice" course:

   The essence of systems thinking and practice is in ‘seeing’ the world in a
   particular way, because how you ‘see’ things affects the way you approach
   situations or undertake specific tasks.  

According to yet others "Systems Thinking" is defined as:

   Systems thinking is a management discipline that concerns an understanding
   of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components
   that comprise the entirety of that defined system.

The INCOSE UK zGuides use two definitions from the Open University in zGuide 7: What is "Systems Thinking?" and relate "Systems Thinking" to " (Traditional) Systems Engineering".

    Systems thinking enables you to grasp and manage situations of complexity
    and uncertainty in which there are no simple answers. It’s a way of learning
    your way to effective action by looking at connected wholes rather than 
    separate parts. It is sometimes called practical holism. 

Citing Peter Senge, the University of Bristol considers "Systems Thinking" a framework for (systemic) insight:

   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.

Clearly various 'authorities' define "Systems Thinking" in their own ways and adopt a position on a spectrum as to whether any particular concept, practice or method is properly called "Systems Thinking". In the last few decades of the 20th Century there were some fairly acrimonious and divisive debates among the systems thinking community, involving people like Ackoff, Checkland, Jackson and Ormerod about whether any particular concept or practice was included or excluded under some label - like "Applied Systems Thinking" or "Operational Research" or "Soft Systems Thinking". Often the disputes and disagreements were traceable back to fundamental philosophical differences; for example, the subjectivist idealist "System" was only an idea that people impose on reality while for the physicalist, realist the "System" was a real thing independent of peoples' ideas.

STREAMS takes an inclusive, eclectic, pragmatic but principled view and counts as a part of "Systems Thinking" any discipline, practice or method or concept / notion that applies The Concept of "System" to achieve better understanding of something and construct a shared model of the thing. This includes so-called "problem-situation"s.

    "STREAMS considers: "Systems Thinking" is any discipline, practice 
    or method or concept / notion that applies The Concept of "System" 
    to achieve better understanding of something and construct a shared 
    (conceptual) model of the thing."

STREAMS takes the view that the philosophical disputes dividing the systems community are the consequence of bad philosophy. For example, the above dispute between the subjectivists and the physicalists is based on a confusion and conflation of a thing (System) with the idea of a thing (System) - itself based on an invalid assumption of a simple monism, or naive dualism - bad philosophy.

STREAMS considers that this definition of Systems Thinking can encompass all the separate traditions identified in the past - and clarify their relationships through the application of the STREAMS Philosophy. Nevertheless, it is convenient to subdivide Systems Thinking along the lines identified by professor Jackson as below.

Systems Thinking can and has been applied in a wide range of fields, or disciplines,including Economics, Biology, Engineering, and "Management" or Organisational Design. In this sense, it transcends any single discipline and is truly Transdisciplinary.

Systemic and / or Systematic

"Systemic" is a term that comes from medicine where it means roughly "applying to the whole - every subsystem - (of the body)". The term "systemic" was adopted by the financial markets and the financial industry generally where it means applying to every asset class or risk category (or, equivalently, every stock or shares traded in the market). Hence systemic risks cannot be avoided (or mitigated) by diversifying an asset portfolio - by definition the risks apply to every asset.

Hence in the more generalised Systems Thinking "systemic" means applying to a collection of systems, subsystems and components. A "systemic perspective" is a view, or analysis that examines all the systems (or subsystems) that need to be considered.

"Systematic", on the other hand, means "according to system" and usually has an implication, when applied to human activities, of being methodical. Probing a little deeper into the notion of "systematic" leads to the ideas that the "system" involved is a system of human activity that includes cognition and to be "systematic" means to apply the relevant best theory, methodology and methods available for the purposes or activity being undertaken.

The two adjectives are related through the underlying notion of a "system" - but mean quite different things, and have different connotations and implications.

The words "system", "systemic" and "systematic" became somewhat clichéd during the latter half of the 20th century and were often mis-used in an attempt to make something sound impressive, important, intelligent and scientific. Care has to be exercised in reading general literature therefore as to whether these words are being used carefully, with precise meanings or being used merely as buzzwords to create the right psychological effect in the unwary reader.

Hard Systems Thinking or Traditional Systems Engineering

Soft Systems Thinking

Systems of Power or Coercive Systems

Systems of Systems

The Intelligent Complex Adaptive System Of Systems (ICASOS) Model

The Intelligent, Complex, Adaptive System Of Systems Model is a conceptual model of an arbitrary, generic enterprise comprising people and technologies. It is a system of human activity systems and technical systems, that embodies and expresses human intelligence (and machine intelligence if any is available), adapts to its context or environment (and changes in it) and is inherently complex (with emergent behaviours and outcomes). According to Harmon:

       "In this context an enterprise is a system.  It is a complex system.  
       It is an intelligent complex adaptive system (ICAS). 
       ...
       The enterprise is also a system of systems (SOS) and one of several
       systems within a system. This is true in both a hierarchical and an 
       operational context.  Therefore, it could also be viewed as an 
       intelligent complex adaptive system of systems (ICASOS). 
       ...
       The ICASOS assumption is essential to a more complete understanding
       of enterprise performance (capability, operation and results) and 
       performance assurance (management).  Failure to recognize the 
       enterprise as an intelligent complex adaptive system of systems (ICASOS) 
       can lead to improper scoping and the development of solutions for 
       the wrong problem."

STREAMS considers that enterprises are ICASOSs - and can be effectively modelled as ICASOSs.

More on the Intelligent Complex Adaptive System Of Systems Model coming soon.

Systems Thinking and (Real) Enterprise Architecture

A substantial minority, if not the majority, of the Enterprise Architecture practitioners community consider the discipline to be founded on Systems Thinking. Examples include "Enterprise Architecture and EA Governance: A Stratified Systems Approach"

Systems Concepts and Principles

A number of fundamental concepts and principles of systems thinking are collated and defined here - starting with the fundamental "Concept of a System".

Systems Laws

"Laws" are a special subcategory of principles that encapsulate a consistently recurrent causal (nomological) relation. That means a "Law" says something like "if X happens then Y invariably follows". However, Laws and Principles are often mislabeled and confused - but it doesn't matter. From a pragmatic perspective the difference between a Law and a Principle is an unimportant philosophical difference between two categories of human assertion. The important thing is how you use the conceptual tools - not the label on the toolbox.

Theorems can be regarded as a form of well-developed model of reality (or some segment of it) based on a set of coherent concepts, principles and nomological relations (or "laws) that can be widely, if not universally applied to understand that segment of reality. They are much more well-developed and empirically grounded and verified than hypotheses - and can be "established" as the best orthodox way of understanding and describing reality. They are also logically coherent (given their underlying concepts and principles) with wider bodies of knowledge. However, as with Laws and Principles they are often confused and conflated with other forms and modes of "human assertion". Again it is the content of the theorem (or law or principle) that matters and not the intellectual taxonomic label attached to it. The collection of theorems (principles, laws) forms the body of the Theory for the field or discipline.

Within STREAMS, 'Theory' - including concepts and principles - is a link in the chain of logical derivation from Philosophy to Practice between Philosophy and Methodology - with Concepts and Principles closer to Philosophy and Theorems and Laws closer to Methodology.

The 'Laws' and 'Theorems' of Systems Thinking are outlined here.

Systems Methodologies, Methods and Techniques

Traditional Systems Engineering

Functional Decomposition and the "Black Box" Method

Systems Maps

Causal Influence Diagrams

Fundamental System Model

Classical Control Systems Theory

The V Model

More Information: Traditional Systems Engineering

Integrated DEFinition (IDEF) Methods

IDEF0 - Functional Modelling Method

IDEF1 - Information Modelling Method

IDEF3 - Process Description Capture Method

More Information: Integrated DEFinition (IDEF) Methods

General System Theory

General System Theory can be considered to originate in the work of Kenneth Boulding, Ludwig Van Bertalanffy and the Society for General Systems Research. Their aim was to extract general abstract principles and theories from the various systems concepts that occurred in many different fields in the 1950s and 1960s, including Physics, Biology, Economics and Organisational Management. Hence they dubbed the discipline and theory they initiated the theory of the "General System" - not the specific systems of any discipline or field (like Physics or Economics) - or "General System Theory". This was the founding of what is probably more properly known as "Systems Science" - but is also probably the origin of "Systems Engineering".

   ... there exist models, principles and laws that apply to generalized systems or their 
   subclasses, irrespective of their particular kind, the nature of their component elements,
   and the relations of "forces" between them. It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not
   of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems
   in general.
   ...
   In this way we postulate a new discipline called General System Theory. Its subject matter
   is the formulation and derivation of those principles which are valid for "systems" in general. 

( Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, 1968)

Boulding's Hierarchy of Systems (Types)

   # Frameworks. The geography and anatomy of the universe : the patterns of
   electrons around a nucleus, the pattern of atoms in a molecular formula,
   the arrangement of atoms in a crystal, the anatomy of the gene, the mapping
   of the earth, etc. 
   # Clockworks. The solar system or simple machines such as the lever and the 
   pulley, even quite complicated machines like steam engines and dynamos fall
   mostly under this category.
   # Thermostats. Control Mechanisms or Cybernetic Systems : the system will 
   move to the maintenance of any given equilibrium, within limits.
   # Cells. Open systems or self-maintaining structures. This is the level at
   which life begins to differentiate itself from not life.
   # Plants. The outstanding characteristics of these systems (studied by the
   botanists) are first, a division of labor with differentiated and mutually 
   dependent parts (roots, leaves, seeds, etc.), and second, a sharp 
   differentiation between the genotype and the phenotype, associated with the 
   phenomenon of equifinal or "blueprinted" growth. 
   # Animals. Level characterized by increased mobility, teleological behavior
   and self-awareness, with the development of specialized 'information 
   receptors (eyes, ears, etc.) leading to an enormous increase in the intake 
   of information.
   # Human Beings. In, addition to all, or nearly all, of the characteristics
   of animal systems man possesses self consciousness, which is something 
   different from mere awareness.
   # Social Organizations. The unit of such systems is not perhaps the 
   person but the "role" - that part of the person which is concerned with the
   organization or situation in question. Social organizations might be defined
   as a set of roles tied together with channels of communication. 
   # Trascendental Systems. The ultimates and absolutes and the inescapable 
   unknowables, that also exhibit systematic structure and relationship.

More on General Systems Theory coming soon.

The Systems Thinking Iceberg Model (Meadows)

More on the Iceberg Model coming soon.

System Dynamics (Forrester)

"System Dynamics" was one of the earliest and most seminal strands of Systems Thinking and is generally attributed to Jay Forrester. The discipline was originally known as "Industrial Dynamics". The central and most important notion in System Dynamics is that of flows (of various types) into, between and out from the components of the system. In the Concept of the System therefore the "intransitive" (non-moving, unchanging) components of the system effect transformations (perform transformative processes) on the transitive flows through the system - and System Dynamics focuses attention on the flows and hence describes the dynamics of the system - how the state of the system changes over time (and so the name System Dynamics).

Hence one of the most fundamental and informative model constructs in System Dynamics is the "stocks and flows" diagram - which traces and maps the stocks of the transitive elements at each system component - or "node" in the system map - and the rate of flow along the links in the system map. This concept is the fundamental of Operations Management - for example any manufacturing plant can be modelled as a system that has a number of inputs, produces a number of outputs and has a number of flows through transformative processes along which the intransitive elements flow with time.

More on System Dynamics coming soon.

System Dynamics (Senge)

The Senge version of "System Dynamics" may be regarded as the Forrester version updated and re-focused on the social systems inside organizations and re-positioned as a methodology for organizational understanding, problems-solving and learning. Forrester style systems models - focusing on flows, including causal flows - are regarded as models that feed into higher-order organizational perception, decision-making and action-taking loops - that generate system behaviours at multiple levels (or orders). In a manner highly reminiscent of Critical Realism's Ontology and Philosophy of Science applied to the social (managerial) systems of organizations, Senge suggests there are three levels of 'explanation' (or intuitive analysis) that managers adopt: explanations in terms of Events, Patterns of Behaviour, and Systemic Structure.

   "The systems perspective shows that there are multiple levels of explanation in any 
   complex situation...
   ...
   "Event Explanations" - who did what to whom - doom their holders to a reactive stance... 
   ...event explnations are the most common in contemporary culture, and that is exactly 
   why reactive management prevails.
   ...
   "Patterns of Behavior" explanations focus on seeing longer-term 
   trends and assessing their implications.
   ...
   "Patterns of Behavior" explanations begin to break the grip
   of short-term reactiveness.
   ...
   The third level of explanation, the  (systemic) "structural"  is the least common
   and most powerful.
   ...
   Though rare, "Structural Explanations", when they are clearly and widely understood, have 
   considerable impact.

(added emphases).

More on the Senge version of System Dynamics coming soon.

The Formal System Model

Systems Failure Apporach

The Systems Failure Approach (SFA) has much in common with Soft Systems Methodology but is positioned by Fortune and Peters as a formal mechanism of Organizational Learning. In essence the SFA is a technique that examines the causes of project failure - particularly ICT implementation project failures. It does this by considering the project as the subject of a mini-SSM exercise in which the "real-world" project (temporary) organization is compared with and against an idealized reference model of a project - the Formal System Model - to identify the missing or poorly designed elements that were the ultimate cause of the failure. This 'learning' is then (supposed to be) fed-back into the organizational knowledge management to help avoid making the same mistakes again in the next project.

More information on the Systems Failure Approach

The Viable System Model (VSM)

Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA)

Strategic Assumptions Surfacing and Testing (SAST)

Strategic Assumptions Surfacing and Testing is different from the methods of the more Traditional Systems Engineering methodologies and can be considered more of a "meta-level" method. Whereas in TSE the focus of analytical attention is on the World 1 systems (the real-world physical) and their models, SAST steps up a level and looks at the stakeholders involved in the systems analysis and the development of the model. The intention of the SAST method is to make the differing perceptions and assumptions of the stakeholders explicit. SAST identifies four key principles for examining the relationships between stakeholder groups involved in the analysis:

  1. Adversarial - considering of opposing viewpoints, assumptions and perceptions.
  2. Participative - involving and including different stakeholder and analyst groups
  3. Integrative - aimed at bring differing views and perceptions together in a common synthesis
  4. Managerial Mind Supporting - aimed at getting a deeper, consensus understanding

Obviously SAST has clear 'resonances' with other 'sociological' systems methodologies such as Soft Systems Methodology and Interactive Planning

More on SAST coming soon.

Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH)

Appreciative Systems

Learning Systems

Critical Systems

Human Activity Systems (HAS)

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (Checkland)

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) was a product of the "action research" community of systems thnkers centred on Lancaster University but its leading exponent is Peter Checkland. The essential aspect of Soft Systems Methodology is that it transfers the systematicity in addressing "problem situations" from the systems processing the materials, energy and information of the systems involved in the problem situation to the methods and groups analysing the problem situation. SSM is firmly rooted philosophically in Interpretivism - which is a philosophy of academic research that rejects the notion of a "controlled experiment" but commits to the researcher acting in the situation and then interpreting the results, outcomes and consequences of the action as a way to formulate a "proto-theory". This approach - characteristic of "action research" - is though to be more appropriate to social systems - such as organizations - where the practicalities of constructing and running experiements - including costs and effort and possibility of control - make traditional, positivist experiments impossible. Consequently the perceptions and interpretations of groups of stakeholders and "researchers" in the "problem situation" play a central role in the methodology. SSM is fully committed to the principle of knowledge fallibility and that different stakeholder and researcher groups will have different perceptions and interpretations of the same problem situation. It offers a systematic socio-cultural, social-constructivist set of methods whereby different perceptions and interpretations can be assembled, negotiated and reconciled into a consensus multi-aspect model of the "as-is" problem situation. This model can then be compared with the situation idealised (made ideal, with problem resolved) in a "to-be" model that may be used normatively to identify and implement the necessary change actions on the roadmap from real-world "as-is" to "to-be" situations.

The resonances with Enterprise Architecture methodology are clear - and in this sense SSM is a "pre-cursor" form of Enterprise Architecture.

More on Soft Systems Methodology coming soon.

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) (Wilson)

System Of Systems Methdology (SOSM)

System Of Systems (SOS)

Total Systems Intervention (TSI)

Complex Systems

Autonomous Systems

Adaptive Systems

Cynefin

Socio-Technical Systems (STS)

Organizational Cybernetics

Interactive Planning

Systems Standards

ISO/IEC/IEEE-15288: Systems and software Engineering - System Lifecycle Processes

ISO/IEC/IEEE-42010: Systems and Software Engineering - Architecture Description

The IDEF Methods and Modelling Standards

Systems Thinking in UK Universities

The [UK] Open University has a [Systems Thinking In Practice] programme which provides qualifications to M.Sc. level. The programme has resulted in a number of Systems Thinking books. It also provides Systems Thinking modules and input into a number of Open University courses including their Master's programme in Technology Management and also provides an open access introduction to Systems Thinking.


Cranfield University runs a short intensive course on Systems Thinking In Practice targeted at people engaged in the [UK] Defence Industry.


The Centre for Systems Studies is run in the context Hull University's Business School. It is an international centre of excellence for research on systems thinking and practice.

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