Ultimate Guide to Structured Systems Thinking for 2022

  • January 4, 2022

    Ultimate Guide to Structured Systems Thinking for 2022

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    Structured systems thinking is the powerful method that influenced three of the most influential business performance trends of the last three decades: The Fifth Discipline, Lean and Agile. But few have heard of the term systems thinking, and those faced with different definitions and meanings. This post will provide an all-encompassing rundown of systems thinking, including its history, important terms, how to use it, what benefits it provides, and resources to get started.


    Systems thinking is an easy-to-learn method for understanding and improving the systems we live in every day. Consider the picture below, People, Process, and Technology the focus of most methods. But there’s a more extensive system within which a process operates, and systems thinking is the tool that helps work with everything in green.

    Image depicting process elements of People, Process and Technology in red at the center of a cloud. Within the cloud, surrounding the process centric terms, are system perspective terms such as attitudes, customers, behaviors, environment, coworkesrs, suppliers, culture, management decisions and policies.

    What is Structured Systems Thinking, and why does it matter?

    Structured Systems Thinking is a practical method of visualizing and understanding systems structure. It breaks down complex connections into simple visual patterns that explain current events and how things unfold over time.


    Structured Systems Thinking helps improve decision making, avoid future problems, and increase performance. Still, it doesn’t rely on technology or deep analysis.


    It is ideal for professional teams, managers, and senior leadership to work together to solve shared problems


    However, business professionals won’t learn this method in college. In a survey, three-quarters of top professors at business school agreed systems thinking was essential to management education. Less than a third of those professors taught it. And less than a fifth taught it in a way that made it meaningful.


    Infographic saying "three quarters of top professors agree systems thinking is essential to management education." Infographic saying "But less than a third teach systems thinking in any form." Infographic saying "And less than a fifth teach it sufficiently to make it useful to business."


    The History of Systems Thinking

    Developed at MIT (1985-1990)

    Systems science expert Peter Senge helped develop systems thinking at MIT. Senge studied under Jay Forrester, the founder of the simulation science of system dynamics used to study complex systems through computer simulations. And systems thinking takes the insights gained from all the simulations and makes it accessible to everyday professionals.

    Systems Thinking is the 5th Discipline of the Fifth Discipline (1990-1997)

    Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of Organizational Learning, is ranked as one of the most influential management books. But did you know systems thinking is the fifth discipline that integrates the first four?


    “Today, systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity. Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity to create far more information than anyone can absorb, to foster far greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace.” The Fifth Discipline (pp. 68).

    Systems Thinking becomes the basis for Lean and Agile (1997 – 2003)

    While Senge was developing systems thinking, James Womack researched the Toyota Production System (TPS) at MIT. He’d come to call these practices Lean in his blockbuster work The Machine that Changed the World. There is no reference to systems thinking in TPS or Machine that Changed the World. But the environment was ripe for crossover. And it occurred in 1997 when the prestigious Industrial Dynamics Journal featured back-to-back book reviews. First, on the 40th Anniversary edition of Industrial Dynamics, the foundation text on system dynamics and systems thinking. Second, a review of Womack’s much-anticipated follow-up to Machine that Changed the World, Lean Thinking. These two articles put the method of systems thinking in proximity with an application seeming to embody that approach in Lean. The two reviews, appearing so close together, were cited over 24,000 times. And from 1997 forward, academic citations combining Lean and systems thinking began doubling in frequency every few years. In 2001 the Agile Manifesto started a movement that would pull heavily from Lean. And systems thinking crossed methods again. This time from process improvement and into software development.

    Systems thinking becomes ubiquitous but divorced from systems science (2003-2019)

    Since 2003 the term ‘systems thinking’ has become ubiquitous in the workplace thanks to Lean, Agile, and a host of thinkers and writers. In 2008, the Department of Defense listed systems thinking as a key core competency for continuous process improvement. And it’s now part of ASQ’s Lean Six Sigma Body of Knowledge. But somewhere along the way, the link between systems thinking and systems science was lost. The simplified tools that powered Fifth Discipline didn’t spread with the term.


    Systems thinking and systems science linked again (2019 – today)

    The turbulence of the global COVID19 pandemic has seen a renewed linkage and importance of systems thinking and the science of system dynamics. System dynamics has continued using simulations to study ever more complex systems ranging from the global pandemic, climate change, economic disruption, and even terrorism. These simulations continue to generate insights and feed knowledge back into systems thinking. But now, business leaders realize the importance of a simplified method that their workforce can broadly embrace to begin talking about and thinking in systems.


    Important Terms to Know in Systems Thinking

    One of the benefits of systems thinking is that it provides a language for talking about systems thinking in everyday interactions. And part of any language is vocabulary. Below are a few important terms to get to know about systems thinking.

    Mental Model

    Systems thinking aims to generate a shared mental model of how a complex system like a business or market operates through vivid diagrams. Creating a shared mental model is important. The essential data for complex systems isn’t always available in measurements or even quantifiable. Often our mental models are built from experiences, rules of thumb, and beliefs. And until we make those models explicit and communicate – two people working in the same company, division, and even department can have very different views of how things work.

    Depiction of three kinds of data. What's important - mental data. What's quantifiable is numerical data. And what's available is measured data.

    Feedback Phenomena

    To build the mental model, we start with feedback phenomena. These phenomena are two-plain language words connected by an arrow. This connection indicates a simple, uncontroversial causal relation, indicated by the polarity mark. Generally speaking, as we have more births, we have more people.

    Depiction of project delays resulting in an increase of project management practices, linked by an arrow.

    Feedback Loop

    Feedback loops are built by connecting these phenomena until they connect in a circle. This indicates that a cause of one phenomenon has rippled through a feedback system until it returns to affect itself. As we have more people, we have more births. There are only two kinds of feedback loops, positive and negative. And in isolation, each feedback loop can only generate a limited type of behavior.

    Depiction of a feedback loop showing that as project management practices increase, project delays decrease.

    Feedback Loop Behavior

    Therefore, a negative feedback loop seeks a goal and trends toward that goal over time. A positive feedback loop fuels compounding growth or geometric decline. When a positive feedback loop is working our favor, we call it virtuous. When it’s working against us, we call it vicious.

    Two charts. The left displaying positive feedback which is exponential growth or geometric decline. The right showing negative feedback loop approaching a goal and settling on it.

    System Pattern

    A system pattern is one or more feedback loops in combination that represent a dynamic and behaviors. Each pattern is also associated with techniques proven over time to help navigate the dynamic. Once we identify the system pattern we’re in – we apply the methods to improve our performance.

    System Pattern Card

    A system pattern card is a thumb sketch guide of everything you need to know about that system pattern. And it all fits on a single standard-size sheet of paper. Each card depicts the system pattern’s name, structure, and behavior. It also provides tips to detect the pattern and ideas on navigating the pattern to improve performance.

    System Pattern Card Catalog

    There are only a limited number of ways to combine positive and negative feedback loops without repeating the structure. Meaning there’s only a limited number of system patterns to learn. Less than 30! This is what makes systems thinking easy to understand.

    System Paradigm

    A system paradigm is when two or more system patterns are combined. With no limit to the number of system pattern combinations, system paradigms can depict virtually any dynamic. But because patterns form paradigms – we already know how each part of the paradigm works in isolation. System paradigms help us walk through the connections between system patterns to see how each pattern could impact the whole.


    How to use Structured Systems Thinking with the Basic Method?

    Structured systems thinking has a basic and advanced method. Systems thinkers leverage existing research in system patterns and paradigms in the basic method. In the advanced method, they learn to create these themselves.

    Basic Method: System Patterns

    Systems thinking makes it easy to solve common problems in complex systems. Because systems thinking pulls from a large body of scientific research, the catalog of system patterns provides everything you need. Just follow these basic steps:


    1. Describe the system and its behavior.
    2. Match behaviors to a system pattern card in the catalog.
    3. Review the card to learn about structure, behaviors, and how to navigate the system pattern.
    4. Create a shared Mental Model with the Card.
    5. Use the guidance on the card – it’s that simple!


    Basic Method: System Paradigms

    Maybe your problem is more complex than a single system pattern card. Or do you seek to understand a more extensive system and how it operates? This is where paradigms come in. It’s a bit more complicated but builds on the system pattern cards.


    1. Define the system boundary.
    2. Identify 3-5 parts of that system.
    3. For each part – identify a system pattern from the catalog.
    4. Check the Paradigm Catalog. If one already exists or is close – use it.
    5. Describe how the patterns link and interact together if one doesn’t exist.
    6. Work through each system pattern through the cards – how does each one operate in isolation? How would it affect the other patterns if this pattern was driving the system?
    7. Document the scenarios you find.
    8. Share the paradigm and scenarios that result.
    9. Revise as necessary – adding or removing system patterns within the boundary that make a meaningful difference in behavior or understanding.


    Skill Levels in Structured Systems Thinking

    Problem-solving and paradigm exploration are just two of many uses of systems thinking. For most in the workforce, novice or practitioner suffice, but some will want to pursue complete expertise. And with a body of knowledge of five competencies and over 30 sub-competencies, progress can be assessed and tracked. This includes a deeper understanding of system structures and how to create custom system patterns and paradigms through the advanced method.


    Skill Level Participates by: Create custom: Lean Six Sigma Equivalent
    Novice Joining systems thinking exercise. N/A White Belt
    Beginning Practitioner Use system patterns from the card catalog. Create custom behavior modes Yellow Belt
    Familiar Practitioner Use system paradigms from the card catalog. Create custom system patterns (Advanced Method) Green Belt
    Expert All of the above. Create custom system paradigms (Advanced Method) Black Belt


    The Pros and Cons of Systems Thinking

    Pro: Easy to start learning.

    Systems thinking is as easy to begin learning with the pattern cards as reading the statistics of a baseball card. Virtually anyone in the workforce: line workers, technical professionals, supervisors, managers, executives can begin learning and benefit from systems thinking.

    Pro: As you advance in skill – systems thinking advances with you.

    Just because it’s easy to start doesn’t mean systems thinking is a method that will leave you wanting more after you’ve mastered the basics. The systems thinking method offers plenty, from learning system patterns to paradigms to creating custom structures. And expert practitioners can advance further into system dynamics –the quantitative science of creating mathematical computer simulations of the qualitative system patterns and paradigms.

    Pro: Patterns and paradigms are ubiquitous across subject areas.

    The structure in systems thinking is based on the interaction of the feedback loops and not the plain language terms of the phenomena. Changing the words shift the structure to a new domain. But the structure remains the same. Once you learn the system pattern of Accidental Adversaries – you’ll be able to see it and understand how to navigate through it in very different contexts.

    Con: Results are qualitative.

    Remember that systems thinking aims to explore and understand the system qualitatively. If more rigorous mathematical forecasting is required, systems thinking extends into system dynamics simulation models. But we find most circumstances don’t warrant that. Even clients who request simulation models often want the results reduced to system thinking patterns to facilitate learning.


    Con: Thinking in systems vs. processes requires practice.

    Another challenge is spending most of our working lives thinking about processes or transactions. Shifting our thinking to encompass the system these transactions occur within is like exercising a new muscle in a workout routine. It can be hard at first. But with practice, it becomes easier over time.


    Benefits of Structured Systems Thinking?

    Interpreting & Navigating Complexity

    Individuals and organizations that work in complex organizations (i.e., global, heavily matrixed) seek more understanding and visualization of the numerous challenges and factors facing them.


    Seeing the Big Picture

    Taking a 30,000+ foot view of the organization, teams, and situations; seeking an understanding of how departments and other factors interact


    “We need to raise our awareness of the interconnectedness of operations and how they impact our mission and customers, now and in the future.”



    Convergent Thinking & Decision Making

    Systems thinking provides a way of bringing different mental models and perspectives together into a convergent view. When everyone understands the system the same way, it’s easier to make decisions that drive business results.

    Making Sense of Data

    Businesses are gathering lots of big data, and metrics-full dashboards abound. Systems thinking helps understand the interactions between the metrics, how a change in one results in a change in another.

    “We’re drowning in data – what I need aren’t just statistical insights – but how it all fits together and what we can do to execute our strategy with these insights.”

    Operational Effectiveness & Efficiency

    Process improvement efforts are only as effective as the system they operate in. Systems thinking augments operational excellence efforts by providing a tool for tackling everything that surrounds the process. It also identifies the leverage points to apply finite resources for maximum impact.


    Diagnosing Opportunities

    Forecasting the future through scenarios uncovered in systems thinking helps identify the best opportunities to pursue. Or the ones to avoid.


    Strategy Development

    Structured systems evolve the strategy discussion from brainstorming around a whiteboard to a rigorous understanding of the more extensive system the business is operating in: economic, political, environmental, stakeholder, and identifying strategies that work well within these system-of-systems rather than working against it.


    Who uses Structured Systems Thinking?


    Executives seeking to develop a strategy that can navigate multiple future scenarios. These scenarios identify strategic opportunities, threats, and business model changes to aid strategy development. Also, to test these strategies for unexpected consequences or better before worse behavior before going down the wrong path.


    Professionals seeking better collaboration across diverse groups to build an understanding of shared problems. System patterns expose differing mental models and promote convergent thinking. This leads to greater cooperation and improved decision-making across cross-functional teams.

    Lean, Six Sigma, and Agile Practitioners

    Practitioners are well-equipped with process-centric methods, whether a Scrum Master or a Black Belt. Systems thinking provides a practical toolset to understand the system that surrounds the process. Also, both Lean and Agile call for the use of systems thinking but lack rigorous tools.

    Learning leaders

    The world continues to grow more complex and disruptive. Learning leaders can create a foundation of systems thinking to improve understanding and solve problems through these changes. As a qualitative visual method, it’s easy to deploy widely.

    Operational leaders

    Operational leaders with urgent projects in their backlog or struggling to complete. Systems thinking workshops can identify a hidden constraint in the system challenging progress. Also, collaboration workshops can improve team dynamics in critical efforts that can’t afford to get derailed by dysfunction.


    Five Ways to use Systems Thinking in your Organization

    1. Develop Capabilities

    A team, department, or division systems thinking provides a straightforward approach to augment and further professional capabilities.


    1. Understand Performance as a System

    We can measure performance in metrics, but it’s generated through a system. Using systems thinking to understand what creates performance in your organization identifies the critical leverage points to focus on and unexpected connections.



    1. Improve Collaboration

    One of the most critical systems we operate in is the interactions between our project teams, managers, and leadership. And we don’t have to leave collaboration to chance. Many systems thinking patterns apply to team dynamics providing insights into why dysfunction emerges and habits we can adopt to improve collaboration.


    1. Improve Forecasting & Strategy

    Forecasting future scenarios before they occur better enables us to pick the right strategy to meet them. Systems thinking also helps avoid unintended consequences of strategy deployment.


    1. Creating Common Understanding

    The most significant benefit we hear from our clients on systems thinking  Systems thinking provides an everyday language in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax for people to describe the environments we operate in and yet struggle to put in words. And using system patterns to teach the unique dynamics of a specific organization aids in professional development and leadership training.


    The need for systems thinking is all around us. And systems thinking has been behind some of the most influential business movements of the last 30 years, from the Fifth Discipline to Lean and Agile. Systems thinking is as easy to begin as reading a baseball card. And yet grounded in systems science, it can extend to a lifetime of deeper learning and even lead to the creation of computational simulations like system dynamics.


    If you’d like to learn more about systems thinking, schedule a webinar, or request training, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@dialecticsims.com.


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