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Why systems thinking isn't a fad

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Systems thinkers from across government at an event held earlier this year.

I am often challenged that systems thinking is just another workplace fad. I thought I’d share my systems thinking journey, how it has benefitted me and my work and how it makes a lasting difference.

I first came across systems thinking when my line manager handed me a copy of Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth DisciplineI wanted to understand how best to transform organisations and keep focussed on the outcomes we wanted. 

Alongside the book, which I found really inspiring, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by experienced Operational Researchers in my team who were very used to applying the principles.

I managed to pick things up from them. This enabled me to design workshops to bring stakeholders together, gather their thoughts and different perspectives on their system and start to design possible solutions to their challenges.

I quickly realised the power of systems thinking. It focuses on outcomes and it uncovers complexities. Complexity is something which we often interact with in government and achieving the best outcomes for the citizens we serve is the reason many people go into public service. 

The best policy decisions should be made with an understanding or proposal of how an intervention will impact the wider system. 

Without it, the risk of unintended consequences is high. 

I’m passionate about promoting systems thinking in the public sector because I really believe there is energy created in understanding the gap between where the current system is and where we want it to be. I believe it can help us to be more efficient and deliver better outcomes for citizens. 

I’m so passionate about it that I co-founded STIG, the Systems Thinking Interest Group, which I’ll talk about in this post. 

What is a system anyway?

So let’s start from the top. I understand a system to be ‘a set of elements or parts interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time’ (as inspired by Donella Meadows.)

Systems thinking is therefore the framework for seeing these interconnections and a discipline for seeing and understanding the whole system, from structures to root causes.

Essentially, it provides us with a language that begins by restructuring how we think. Systems Archetypes are a useful way of capturing the “common stories” in systems thinking – patterns of structure that recur again and again in diverse settings.

There are many benefits of attempting to understand the detailed interactions within a system:

  1. Understanding and intervening. It helps bring an increased, shared understanding of the problems, the goals and the potential impacts of policy interventions, leading to more developed theories of change. It also helps focus on treating the root cause of problems. Where to intervene in a system is really important and is covered by Donella Meadows’ article “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System”.
  2. Evidence. It helps us to identify data and evidence gaps and prioritise research
  3. Relationships and acceptance. It can help to develop relationships between stakeholders and move stakeholders from a position of blame to that of responsibility; to see themselves as part of the wider problem.
By Corina Angheloiu, adapted from Donella Meadows

Taken together, systems thinking gives us a powerful set of concepts and help make it possible for us to see places where there is leverage in facing difficult challenges and to explain these opportunities to others.

Is this a fad?

We’ve seen increased attention on systems thinking in recent years and months. I think this is because we are currently faced with particularly challenging, uncertain and complex issues like coronavirus and climate change. 

However, I think these issues are perhaps more easily perceived as complex and uncertain, where perhaps many of the issues we are trying to solve in government are the result of a complex system, but we’ve not typically viewed them as such. Often a systems focused approach in areas that are perceived to be well understood can reveal underlying systemic issues. Thus, I believe that systems thinking very much has a role to play across all government priorities.

As a discipline, it’s actually been around for quite a few decades! 

Introducing it into our thinking in government 

This does appear to be quite a shift from the way things are currently done, but we should be positive: lots of us are already thinking in a systemic way and it’s a good idea to start thinking about it sooner rather than later. Perhaps it might take more ‘upfront’ time to design more robust solutions for the long term but I would argue it is worth spending the time getting a solution ‘right’, or as best it can be, to avoid the potential implications and resource drain of things going ‘wrong’ in the long term. 

We need to resist quick fixes that treat only symptoms rather than root causes, only work in the short term and can undermine long-term effectiveness. ‘Fixes that Fail’ is actually one of the classic systems archetypes that I’d encourage you to explore.

What we observe is that people find a fix to treat the symptom of a problem. It appears to work in the short term, however the quick fix unfortunately creates long-term unintended consequences that only exacerbate the problem.

Additionally, due to the time delay, people are unable to attribute the negative consequences to the quick fix. In the worst cases they may assume that the solution to seeing the problem symptom returning is to apply more of the quick fix, ultimately causing the cycle to repeat itself.

Possible ways to avoid this occurring in the first place are to challenge the mental models that determine the potential use of a quick fix in the first place. This could be done through systems mapping to help get to the root of the problem.

What does the STIG do? 

The Systems Thinking Interest Group (STIG) is a network of approximately 300 officials across government who come together at quarterly meetings where members share past experiences of deploying systems thinking or present new issues to the group. 

We provide opportunities for officials to practice some of the workshopping skills in exploratory workshop sessions and encourage those with existing expertise to support with facilitation and workshops where it is needed.

Our broad aims of the group are:

  1. Awareness - To increase awareness of Systems Thinking across central government. Make Systems Thinking a fundamental ‘Go-To’ approach that decision makers in government expect to see
  2. Capability - To increase the number of technical practitioners in the Government Operational Research Service (GORS) and beyond
  3. Network - To create a forum where one can share (or ask for) advice and experiences on best practice

If you have any questions about STIG, please leave a message in the comments section below.

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  1. Comment by Geoff posted on

    Horrified. Systems thinking has always been much more than systems dynamics, meadows and senge.

    • Replies to Geoff>

      Comment by Clare posted on

      It's a blog post, not a bible, Geoff!

      What Adam is doing is sharing his own experience in a few hundred words and mentioning the things that helped him.

      Thanks for writing the post Adam. I'm a civil servant too. It's hard to find the time + motivation to blog on top of the day job so I appreciate it. I 'discovered' systems thinking a few years ago and posts like this that I can share with my team are really useful. TVM!

    • Replies to Geoff>

      Comment by Adam Jones posted on

      Thanks for reading the blog Geoff. This piece was by no means intended to be comprehensive (nor prescriptive) and instead aims to provide an accessible intro about some principles without overwhelming people.

      Senge and Meadows are some of my personal favourites, but of course there are other perspectives such as soft systems methodology and cybernetics (and beyond). Happy to have a chat and hear about the aspects of systems thinking that are important to you.

      • Replies to Adam Jones>

        Comment by geoff elliott posted on

        Hi Adam,
        As Tony K correctly says whilst Meadows, Senge are important systems dynamics is only represents a very small part of systems thinking landscape. Over the past 20 years or so we have had, BPR, Knowledge Management, Agile, Lean, Six Sigma commoditised and sold as "canned risk free methodologies". I recently contributed to some research and subsequent book published Kent Business School which included a paper on the curse of the methodology. ST is not a (structured) methodology - it is a way of thinking. As Tony K points out, ST has been around for at least 100 years and includes 20 or so different approaches; sense making diagramming methods (non syntax) and underpinning concepts and ideas. There are at least 30 underpinning concepts, for example, Clemsons systems Laws. Ashbys law of requisite variety is probably the most famous. Regards Geoff Elliott

        • Replies to geoff elliott>

          Comment by grahamhi posted on

          Hi Geoff, thanks for letting us know you'd be happy to chat with Adam. We have passed on your number. Graham

  2. Comment by Geoff posted on

    Unfortunately the post reflects a US view / tradition of systems thinking. For a more rounded view reference to the open university and open learn could have included.

  3. Comment by Tony K posted on

    It's reasonable to start with Senge and Meadows, as long as those in influence are willing to accept that there are alternatives to the systems dynamics viewpoint. So, accepting those other perspectives and embracing the brilliant methodologies pioneered by Checkland, Beer, Ulrich, Ackoff and the learning ethos of Argyris & Schon, is key to differentiating Systems Thinking from the management 'fads' of the last 40 years (in particular).
    Systems Thinking is certainly not a fad and the principles and methods have been around since the 1950's, especially we reach back to Ashby, Maturana and Varela. The new L7 Systems Thinking Practitioner apprenticeship certainly reflects the necessary breadth and flexibility.
    What I fear is that ignorant management consultants will try to muscle-in and monetarise ST in the same way that has turned BPR, 6-sigma, lean and agile into fads to 'sell' assignments through. We need to call that out wherever and whenever we find it!

  4. Comment by John posted on

    Good blog post for those who have not yet started their ST journey, but are curious and need somewhere to start.

  5. Comment by John Mortimer posted on

    We all need to start somewhere to help us to recognise the paradigms that are responsible for the ways of working that we have today. That then allows us to expand our knowledge and understanding, to create a new and better public sector.
    Those I come across who are attempting to incorporate systems thinking, have found that those who have already translated some of the theory and concepts into more practical approaches, to be a great place to start. Meadows and Senge are perhaps two of the most well known.
    The advice I give when people ask me, and my work is in service & organisational design, is in three parts:

    1. Learning anything profound is not about training, but deeply part of education and how we think. Each of us is different, in that we often best learn in ways that are different to others. I would encourage anyone to choose their approach to learning; it could be from theory and study, or it could be (like me) through learning through doing.
    2. Start at a place that makes sense for you, perhaps with a problem that you have in-front of you. That then gives you an important way to examine something that you are keen to solve, and therefore motivate yourself to learn. I would suggest not starting with something that is too deep!
    3. Learn from others and with others if possible. Systems thinking is not new. Some believe that it is a natural way of how we should be seeing and perceiving, if we had not become so engrossed in machanistic, reductionist, cause & effect based thinking, that we have been absorbed in for the past centuries.

    From engaging with those who practice systems thinking in their work, there appears to be no fixed boundary between what is and is not ‘systems thinking' as such. I see it as a verb rather than a noun. If there is, then you have walked into the realm of dogma, which might be what you are most comfortable with. But there are a set of principles that underpin systems thinking, that do adapt to the realm you are working in, that we do need to understand together. How we understand those is a journey that we all will need to navigate ourselves.

    • Replies to John Mortimer>

      Comment by Adam Jones posted on

      Thanks John - I agree principles are really important here. Keen to hear what the key principles are from your perspective!


      • Replies to Adam Jones>

        Comment by john mortimer posted on

        Adam, that's a good question, because it depends on what it is we are talking about, I refer to critical systems thinking. So, I hesitate to be prescriptive here, as the principles that I develop are developed together with those who are using systems thinking in a particular environment. For instance, public services, policy, transactional, level of complexity, will all have their own characteristics.
        Secondly, the principles are not necessarily owned by systems thinking, but include behavioural and social concepts. But they exhibit systems thinking characteristics, which can be seen as thinking within systems. I find that it also depends on the level of intervention - as each level expresses particular characteristics.
        As such, I find that everyone has got their own preferred list.

        However, after saying all that, principles that I use would include; moving from reductionist to whole thinking through synthesis and interconnections, starting from purpose of the system (if that is appropriate), expanding from machine logic to embracing complexity (if appropriate), acceptance of the view of the participant and observer will be different for each of us.

        Any real analysis would be better performed offline from this blog, if you are interested.

  6. Comment by Pete posted on

    Thanks, really useful background and pointers to extra reading

  7. Comment by George posted on


    Its good to read that you have the STIG actively looking at this. I would echo Tony K's comments about "other perspectives" since it is easy to be drawn into the mistake of only following one approach. In my view systems thinking is a mindset - a recognition that everything is connected - and therefore it is AlWAYS going to be difficult to predict the effect of an intervention on anything other than a very simple system. You therefore need many tools in your toolbox to address different aspects of the problem.

    As I am sure you already know the vast majority of people find anything like this extremely challenging to grasp - the 'natural' mindset of people is to consider only the immediate cause/effect relationship - anything even slightly outside their small box is simply not considered. It is therefore extremely important to develop skills related to the psychology of communication alongside the system thinking skills. Otherwise the message tends to be lost on many people. There have been plenty of examples of that going on during recent times.

    I wish you luck in bringing this perspective to your work

  8. Comment by George posted on

    Hi again,
    I have just browsed through the other blog entries - this is the first time I was aware of this blog/IG. I have a few comments/observations.

    1) As an outsider - but relatively expert in all things systems - I found that there was a lot of good material in the entries. However, I am sure it would be helpful to the more novice reader (and it seems that is who the blog is primarily aimed at) if there were more links to the background of the ideas presented and, importantly I think, to other resources that are available.

    2) I have no idea who is included in the "300" of the STIG, however I know from personal experience that around the world there are a number of different "systems thinking" camps (and even more if you start talking about systems science and complexity theory) not all of whom agree on the 'best' approaches. I hope that you have been using the accumulated knowledge and "standing on the shoulders of giants".

    3) Following on from that I can only assume that the only input outwith the "300" are in the comments and, with one or two exceptions, I do not see names commenting that I am familiar with. Clearly I do not know all the system thinkers in the UK/world so my own "universe" is naturally limited - I can only hope that yours is sufficiently wide. Pleased to see Benjamin Taylor's name as he is a good hub - it was from one of his posts that I arrived at the blog. Hopefully as the STIG gets a wider reputation there will be more who can comment constructively. (although there have already been some very helpful ones)

    4) There is no doubt that my perspective on systems thinking may not be entirely aligned with the next person's. That is an important thing to remember, because people coming to systems from different backgrounds will, inevitably, have different perspectives. Unfortunately, many of them also have their own favourite tool - be it VSM, System Dynamics, SSM, DSRP - I could go on - there are probably hundreds 😉 For me it is important to have as wide a range of tools as you can understand (sufficiently competently) and much more important that you understand the philosophy that underpins them - I am sure you know the saying "a fool with a tool is still a fool"!!

    I am now retired, my background is originally Operational Research and I spent the last 30+ years of my employment working on systems models of one sort or another and trying to spread the "systems" message wider amongst the systems engineering community. One thing that I found was that there was a much more rooted "systems" culture in the UK SE community than in that of the US but the percentage of those who "got it" was still frighteningly low. That is, I think, changing and I am sure there are many in the SE community who could be of assistance to you - assuming that you do not already have links (which goes back to point 2 above).

    • Replies to George>

      Comment by grahamhi posted on

      Hi George, thank your for your comment. Do you have any of your own favourite resources you would point people who are new to systems thinking to? thank you Graham

      • Replies to grahamhi>

        Comment by George McConnell posted on

        hmmm... where to begin 🙂

        Firstly, good to see the name of Michael C Jackson amongst the comments.

        The whole "Systems Thinking" approach is a huge field and knowing where to start is not always easy. Many of the comments on this and previous blog posts have mentioned extremely good sources. Without knowing someone's previous knowledge and the domain they are working in it is possible that you could point them in completely the wrong direction.

        That said, I will list some of the sources that work best for me - with the caveat that, as I said above, you will find disagreement, contradictions and a lot of uncertainty in many of these.

        They are on no order (except the order that I am thinking of them) - the International Society for the Systems Sciences - the New England Complex Systems Institute - the Santa Fe Institute - Derek Cabrera's research lab - Derek Hitchin's page
        University of Hull Centre for Systems Studies
        the Complexity Digest mailing list
        INCOSE Systems Science Working Group

        Will that do for getting on with? 🙂 I suspect that virtually every university has some people working on "Systems" type research - Hull is included in my list because it has a long and distinguished history! It may not be the best now - I don't know.

        As I said - I am now retired - so my activity in this field is much reduced and because it is still a fast growing domain I am pretty sure that some of my knowledge is out of date,

        • Replies to George McConnell>

          Comment by grahamhi posted on

          Hi George, thank you so much for your generosity in sharing these resources. We'd love for the blog to be a place of knowledge sharing and debate around systems thinking, particularly to help people working in government, and for those interested in how government works. So thank you for helping us in that. Graham

      • Replies to grahamhi>

        Comment by George McConnell posted on

        Just realised that I missed the fact that you were looking for more introductory material - Derek Cabrera's pages are good (with the usual caveat that as a systems thinker you shouldn't rely on just one source) and just the other day he published which is certainly one place to start.

        I should also have mentioned a couple of facebook groups

        The Ecology of Systems Thinking
        Systems Sciences

        Derek Cabrera also has a page for his research lab

    • Replies to George>

      Comment by Adam Jones posted on

      Thanks for your comments George. I take on your points about the importance of multiple perspectives and linking people to helpful intros.

      As for the STIG - the members are primarily made up from Government Operational Research Service (GORS) analysts, although there are officials from a range of professions represented. The aim is to promote ST approaches internally (and build capability) and we try to engage as much as possible with external experts. I would say that those commenting on this blog are tending to be external.


  9. Comment by Ksenia Cheinman posted on

    This point really resonates and I can't agree more - "perhaps many of the issues we are trying to solve in government are the result of a complex system, but we’ve not typically viewed them as such" !

    Is the STIG group only for UK Gov, I am from Canadian Government and would be interested in joining.

    • Replies to Ksenia Cheinman>

      Comment by Adam Jones posted on

      Hi Ksenia. Glad that part resonates - it's an important point for me as well.

      STIG is a UK gov interest group, but very happy to speak about how we can best collaborate. Thanks, Adam

  10. Comment by Michael C Jackson posted on

    System dynamics can prove a useful way of understanding and responding to complexity in certain circumstances. However, when it is presented as the only way of viewing complexity (seeing the world in terms of feedback and feedforward loops) and tackling it, it is very limiting and can be dangerous. For example, the whole field of ‘health systems research’ has arguably been held back because system dynamics is, pretty much, the only weapon in its armoury. Critical systems thinking makes the full range of systems approaches available and suggests when each of them, or what combination of them, is appropriate in particular circumstances.

  11. Comment by Trilly Chatterjee posted on


    Really interested to learn more about STIG and potentially contribute. Please let me know how best to get involved.

    • Replies to Trilly Chatterjee>

      Comment by grahamhi posted on

      Thanks Trilly, I've passed your email onto Adam and he'll contact you directly. best wishes Graham

  12. Comment by Martin Kunc posted on

    Very interesting discussion. Just to add to it, I suggest considering systems thinking in terms of three areas:

    Theories: there are plenty of them and you can learn from excellent books and researchers, e.g. Checkland, Stafford Beer, Forrester, etc.
    Methodologies: there are also plenty of them with different levels of complexity, e.g. soft systems, group model building, VSM, system dynamics modelling, etc.
    Intuition: this is the most fertile area because it reflects a mindset/skill/capability to see problems in terms of systems rather than through reductionist approaches.

  13. Comment by Martin Kunc posted on

    I suggest considering systems thinking in terms of three areas:

    Intuition: this is the most fertile area because it reflects a mindset/skill/capability to see problems in terms of systems rather than through reductionist approaches.
    Methodologies: there are also plenty of them with different levels of complexity, e.g. soft systems, group model building, VSM, system dynamics modelling, etc.
    Theories: there are plenty of them and you can learn from excellent books and researchers, e.g. Checkland, Stafford Beer, Forrester, etc.

  14. Comment by Raúl Leal posted on

    It's good news to see this in a site. Of course the UK government did that work on obesity in 2007 with the Dutch group but it was centred around a single (though quite large) problem not as a tool to deal with complexity. I think Systems Thinking shouldn't be seen necessarily as a tool to solve problems but rather something to help us incessantly ask better questions by exploring different dimensions and perspectives.
    Well done for writing the Blog Adam.

  15. Comment by Corina Angheloiu posted on

    Hi Adam, really great to come across this blog and initiative - would love to discuss further in relation to work we're currently doing at Forum for the Future.
    How would it be best to get in touch?

  16. Comment by Kyle Soo posted on


    I’d love to learn more about the STIG.



  17. Comment by Dzhordzhio Naldzhiev posted on

    Hi Adam,

    I would also like to get in touch and get someone from my team involved in the STIG.

    Could you please share further details?

    Many thanks,


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