Guidelines for analyzing and improving systems are included in the books Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development and Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development with Nonprofits.
Three of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and successfully guide changes in ourselves, others, and organizations are systems theory, systems thinking, and systems tools. To understand how they are used, we first must understand the concept of a system.
Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the concept. However, we need to make that intuition even more explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools.
Sections of This Topic Include
- Basics — Definitions
- Systems Thinking in Organizations
- Organizations as Open Systems (examples of organizational systems)
- Five Disciplines of Systems Thinking — Per Peter Senge
- Some Applications of Systems Theory
- Chaos Theory
- Links to Additional Resources
- Creative Thinking
- Critical Thinking
- Systems Thinking
- Strategic Thinking
- Related Library Topics
- Theory of Change – Understanding How Any System Works
Also See the Library’s Blogs Related to Systems Theory, Chaos Theory, and Systems
In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Systems Theory, Chaos Theory, and Systems Thinking. Scan down the blog’s page to see various posts. Also, see the section “Recent Blog Posts” in the sidebar of the blog or click on “Next” near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.
- Library’s Business Planning Blog
- Library’s Building a Business Blog
- Library’s Coaching Blog
- Library’s Consulting and Organizational Development Blog
- Library’s Leadership Blog
- Library’s Strategic Planning Blog
- Library’s Supervision Blog
Definitions: Systems, Systems Theory, Systems Thinking, Tools
What’s a System?
One of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and guide change in organizations is systems theory and systems thinking. To understand how they are used in organizations, we first must understand a system. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the term. However, we need to make the understanding explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools in organizations.
Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually
made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems. For example, an organization is made up of many administrative and management functions, products, services, groups, and individuals. If one part of the system is changed, the nature of the overall system is often changed, as well — by definition then, the system is systemic, meaning relating to, or affecting, the entire system.
(This is not to be confused with systematic, which can mean merely that something is methodological. Thus, methodological thinking — systematic thinking — does not necessarily mean systems thinking.)
Systems range from simple to complex. There are numerous types of systems. For example, there are biological systems (for example, the heart), mechanical systems (for example, a thermostat), human/mechanical systems (for example, riding a bicycle), ecological systems (for example, predator/prey), and social systems (for example, groups, supply and demand and also friendship).
Complex systems, such as social systems, are comprised of numerous subsystems, as well. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts and includes various inputs, processes, outputs, and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Complex systems usually interact with their environments and are, thus, open systems.
A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving the goal of the system. If any of the parts or activities in the system seem weakened or misaligned, the system makes necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve its goals.
A pile of sand is not a system. If you remove a sand particle, you have still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you no longer have a working car.
What’s Systems Theory?
- What is Systems Theory?
- Introduction to Systems Theory
- What is management and what do managers do? A systems theory account
- Principia Cybernetica’s list of links
- Managing Boundaries in Systems
What’s Systems Thinking?
- What is Systems Thinking?
- Introduction to Systems Thinking
- Overview of Systems Thinking
- Organizational Lens — How Different People Can View the Same Organization Very Differently
- Systems Thinking – What’s That?
What Are Some Systems Principles?
What Are Some Systems Tools?
- Logic Models
- Systems Context Diagram
- System Diagrams
- Systems Dynamics (scroll down to “causal loop diagrams”)
- Systems Mapping
Systems Thinking in Organizations
- Business Organizations as Systems
- Quick Tour of Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning (many links)
- Theory of Constraints
- Systems View: A Social-Technical Perspective
- Managing Boundaries in Systems
- Performance and Family Systems
- Systems Thinking – A Leadership Imperative
Organizations as Open Systems (Examples of Systems in Organizations)
Organizations as Open Systems
- What’s an Open System? (includes depiction)
- Benefits of an Open Systems View
- Organizations as Open Systems
- Systems Thinking and Learning Organizations (scroll down to “Organizations are Open Systems”)
- Open system (systems theory)
- Open Systems Planning
Examples of Systematic Activities in Organizations
- Typical Types of Systematic Plans
- Examples of Performance Management Systems
- Examples of Management Systems for Specific Functions (Boards and Strategic Planning Processes)
Five Disciplines of Systems Thinking — Per Peter Senge
Peter Senge wrote a seminal book about systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990). In his book, he suggested five disciplines necessary to cultivate systems thinking in an effort or organization. In addition to the discipline of systems thinking, he suggests the following four disciplines, as well.
Senge describes personal mastery as “continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively” (The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, 1990, p. 7).
Senge explains “Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (p. 8).
- Inquiry and Advocacy are two primary techniques to identify and reframe mental models
- Mental Models
- Mental Model Musings
- Mental Models – Theoretical Overview
- Valuing Diversity
- Appreciative Inquiry
- Continuous Learning
- Effective Questioning
- Inquiry and Advocacy
- Inquiry and Reflection
- Mental Models (scan down to “Mental Models”)
Building Shared Vision
Senge notes “If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it’s the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create” (p. 9).
- Appreciative Inquiry
- Interviews (exit interviews, by media, for a job, selecting job candidate and research method)
- Planning (planning that is carried out well goes a long way toward shared vision)
- Non-Verbal Communications
- Vision Statements
Senge asks “How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?” (p. 9.).He adds “Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations” (p. 10).
Some Applications of Systems Theory
- Management and Leadership: A Systemic Perspective
- Victims of the System or Systems of the Victim
- Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened
- 6 Key Benefits of Building Systems
Systems theory has evolved to another level called chaos theory. In this context, chaos does not mean total confusion. Chaos refers to the dynamics of a system that apparently has no, or little, order, but in which there really is an underlying order. In these systems, small changes can cause complex changes in the overall system.
(In technical terms, chaos theory applies to complex non-linear dynamics systems.) Chaos theory has introduced new perspectives and tools to study complex systems, such as biological, human, groups, weather, population growth, and the solar system.
- Definitions of Chaos
- Complex Adaptive Systems
- What is Chaos Theory?
- Deterministic Chaos
- Managing Complexity
- Complexity, Complex Systems, and Chaos Theory
- Ted Lumley’s Home Page
- Complexity Theory: Fact-Free Science or Business Tool?
- Bill Huitt’s Home Page: Arts as Science
- Innovation Network
- Chaos theory in organizational development
Links to Online Resources
- Applying Systems Thinking to the Practice of Six Sigma
- Link to Numerous Articles
- Balancing Technology, Management, and Leadership
- Systems Thinking Blog
- Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How?
- Tools for Systems Thinker
For the Category of Systems Thinking:
To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.
Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.