Making Sense Of… Systemic Thinking


So what does the word ‘systemic’ mean? How are the terms associated with systemic thinking used? And what exactly is systems thinking?

  • Systemic means ‘relating to a system’. So systemic thinking is literally a system to think about systems! Confused? It means to think about the bigger picture - to zoom out and see all the parts to a system rather just zooming in on one part. A simple example is seeing a car and understanding that it is made up of a tonne of different parts that make it move from A to B rather than just looking at one wheel of a car by itself. Systems thinking helps us to see how a group of things work together, what the relationships are between the different parts of a system, and how changes to one part of a system, can affect other parts or the entire system itself.
  • You’ll sometimes hear different terms to express this: ‘systems thinking’; ‘systemic thinking’; ‘thinking systemically’. You’ll get used to it.  

What is a system? What are the characteristics of a system? What doesn’t constitute a system? And what are some examples of systems?

  • A system is a set of interconnected things. People, cells, molecules or whatever, interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.
  • The relationships between the elements within the system form the ‘web’ of the system.
  • The interconnected elements of system are organised in a way that achieves something specific – so you can say that systems have a function or a purpose.
  • A good example of a system you’ll be familiar with is your digestive system. The elements of your digestive system include your mouth, your teeth, enzymes to break down food, your stomach, your intestines. The function of your digestive system is to break down food into its basic nutrients and transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream. The individual parts all work together to produce an effect that is different from the effect of each part on its own. A change to one element of the digestive system will affect the functioning of the whole system.
  • Characteristics of systems: they are highly ordered; are influenced by the different components of the system; are self-sustaining (we’ll say more about this later); want to protect themselves – as in, they aim to maintain balance or equilibrium to keep the system going; they have a purpose and serve a function as mentioned; and they nest – a system can sit in a system within a system within a system. Kind of like a Russian doll. They can overlap and interconnect too – our bodies are made of various systems – digestive system, the nervous system, the respiratory system, etc, which all work together to keep us alive (so they overlap) and they all sit within the bigger system of our body as a whole.
  • Examples of other systems: families (a family of a mum, dad and three kids can sit within the bigger system of the wider family that includes cousins, aunts, uncles, etc); a rainforest; a country’s economy; the global economy; the drug and alcohol treatment sector; the solar system; the Milky Way galaxy; the universe.

What is the opposite to systemic thinking?

  • Linear thinking – also known as cause and effect thinking. One cause has one effect. An example is a farmer trying to kills slugs on his cabbage. He uses pesticides which gets rid of the problem but he’s not taking into account the impact of the pesticides seeping into the water supply, pesticides going into people’s bodies, people’s life expectancy falling as a result of taking in toxins, this having an impact on the healthcare system… etc. Another example is drug addiction: a drug is addictive, therefore someone becomes an addict. What’s the problem with this example? What’s a more systemic way of looking at it?
  • Linear thinkers tend to break things into separate components, focus on symptoms, and are more concerned with assigning blame.
  • Systemic thinkers are concerned with the whole, see symptoms as surface aspects of a much deeper, often very ingrained problem; and are more interested in finding patterns that explain than things or people to blame.
  • One way to start thinking systemically is identifying whether something you see as a problem is actually a symptom of something deeper. Another thing to think about is whether the problem is one that won’t go away… Addiction is a good example of this, poverty too. They have been around for a long time and attempts to solve the problem haven’t worked which indicates that the underlying problem hasn’t been addressed.

What are the benefits of thinking systemically?

  • As our world continues to change rapidly and become more complex, systems thinking helps us to manage, adapt and see the wide range of choices we have before us. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever before – the more ways of seeing we have, the clearer our understanding of the world and our place in it, and the greater the number of choices we have available will be.
  • Thinking systemically also takes you out of your own personal/individual perspective, and helps see the bigger picture. It’s the telescope analogy – if you’re zoomed in on yourself and your immediate experience, you miss a lot. If you zoom out, then zoom out further, then zoom out further still, you begin to see how things from a perspective that is far wider than just your own.
  • Following on from this, this way of thinking helps you see ‘failure’ or ‘problem behaviour’ as something outside of yourself.
  • Zooming out and seeing the bigger picture also gives a greater sense of clarity – this is invaluable for problem solving.

If thinking in this way reflects how things actually are, why don’t we all think systemically?

  • We’re conditioned from a young age through education to think in a ‘reductive’ (ie. things being reduced to their individual components) way. We study chemistry, and history, and maths, and physics, all in a way that makes us think and feel that the subjects sit independently from each other. A useful contrast to our standard form of education are the Rudolph Steiner Schools that aim to develop students’ intellectual, artistic and practical skills in an integrated
  • It can be overwhelming to see the big picture. Consider the ‘least effort principle’ – where we often want to use the least amount of effort to do or understand something. We’re pretty lazy! Because of this, we have a tendency towards simplicity over complexity. If we’re trained to see things in simplistic and disconnected ways from a young age, it’ll be harder for us to break through the wall of feeling comfortable seeing things in more complex ways. Like anything, the more you learn to see in this way, the more natural it will become.
  • Just to reiterate - seeing complexity can blow our minds – we might feel overwhelmed by the number of parts to a system, the number of variables that can influence the system, the relationships between each part and the relationships of systems with other systems! This is normal when you first start to think in this way and will again get easier with practice.
  • Importantly - systems want to protect themselves. Those who hold power within a system will be driven to maintain the status quo because they benefit from it. An example is racism – it is crucial to understand that racism is not an event, it is a system. Those who hold the privilege within this system will not be inclined for it to change because they fear they will lose it.
  • Another enemy to systemic thinking is others who do not want us to think in this way –people who respond by saying: ‘Why do you have to overthink everything?’; ‘Why can’t you just think like everyone else?’.


 Questions for the seminars

  • Do you feel you are a systems thinker even though you may not have heard the term before? What makes you think that? When did that start/where do you think that way of thinking came from?
  • If this concept is new to you, what is it like to see the world from a systemic perspective?

Try thinking systemically about the following:

  • Addiction
  • Poverty
  • Sexism
  • Racism
  • Capitalism

Are there any others you could add to the list?