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Jim Stroup

"tell us what system to use" That, of course, is what so many people want and - even at the executive level - expect that they can get - a system to do their thinking for them. What they don't want to do is back up and look at how each decision and behavior taken in an organization affects the others, and how they combine to cause the desired, unexpected, or undesired results that are actually experienced. Systematic thinking helps discipline people to follow the reverberations of all of those incidents within discrete systems that may have unforeseen consequences as they spread outside them, in neighboring but also vital systems and procedures.

It seems to me that when we see an absence of systematic thinking, we are also likely to find perhaps two more things behind it: a lack of focus on the core aim of the organization, or (and) a lack of strategic execution.

This sort of discussion should be the starting point of almost any problem analysis that a manager - or a consultant - engages in. Otherwise, we may find ourselves contributing to the problem, or creating more, rather than understanding what really is going on and what really should be done.

Thanks for this Steve.

Steve Roesler


Thanks for checking in on this one. You point out some underlying issues that impact organizations deeply: a lack of focus on the core aim and/or a lack of strategic execution. When a company finally sees either of those problems for what they are, it's a good indicator that they need to sit down and start connecting the dots--and find out which ones are no longer connected.

David M. Kasprzak

Hi, Steve!

If it's any consolation, the whole reason I clicked this link from my RSS feed (I send out a tweet of all your blog updates, BTW) was because it had "systemically" in the title!

Systems thinking is difficult to instill. We're all taught from an early age to find the direct cause and solution and, chances are, most executives have risen to their rank due to the ability to respond to a fire, rather than to prevent one. It's a systemic problem. ;^)

Nonetheless, while I share your intestinal discomfort over the situation, I have to wonder if it is possible to offer this client a "system" for thinking "systemically?" In response to his claim, ""Here's Steve to tell us what system to use to get the most out of our people" could a series of creative problem solving exercises been used to help these folks better understand their organization?

Obviously, I'm not familiar with the specific environment, but it would be interesting to see if it's possible to demonstrate the value of exploring different ways to examine a problem, in order to break them out of their linear thinking shell. If they learn those methods, would they be able to use them as a system of tools for stimulating systemic thinking?

Steve Roesler


You made my day. Expect to see some of your comment quoted in a later post:-)

Our collective brilliance should be packaged. I actually did set up a system for addressing concerns and decisions systemically. They loved it; nearly made my head explode putting it together.

Thanks for stopping by. . .

Dan Erwin

Steve: It's rare to find anyone in business today, and I'm talking about senior execs in Fortune 100 companies, who have an understanding of sytems thinking. IT people often have an understanding of systems thinking as it relates to hard IT issues, but it neither computes nor correlates in their mind to people and organizational issues.

Furthermore, few of the MBA programs outside of the top 8 or 10 schools have yet to offer systems thinking training. Remember, this form of thinking was created by Forrester and popularized by Senge relatively recently, and people are not going to understand it with a few classes.

On numerous occasions, as a result of the financial meltdown, it would have been exceedingly helpful for politicians and bureaucrats to have understood, but in listening and reading about their conversations I heard little to suggest that they understood.

It was obvious that Tim Geithner understood, ditto for Larry Summers and Bernanke. I never was certain that Volcker understood, although he was supposedly a wise old head. I'm skeptical knowing that most wise old heads don't keep up, and that systems theory and systems thinking are relatively recent processes historically. Although Weiner probably made as much contribution through cybernetics as anyone, that was again oriented to hard science. Those of your readers in family theory (Ackerman, et al), practice one form of highly applicable systems thinking, but I don't believe (may be wrong here) that anyone in family theory took systems thinking to organizations.

However, it should be a prerequisite for MBA and grad economics programs. As a general rule, the research shows that without grad training (Yeah, this is as elitist as hell)few are able to successfully draw intelligent inferences. One of my friends, a statisician (PhD) just laughed when I asked whether that was taught or could be learned in undergrad. He said no way.

Systems thinking is highly useful and it certainly gives business a leg up on the competition when it's understood.

Thanks for your introductory post.

Steve Roesler


You've obviously thought about this before and it appears that you recognize when its application is being used, misused, or ignored (perhaps out of ignorance).

I don't think I'm going to spend much time going deeper--simply wanted to create the awareness. However, buried underneath your friend's remark is the notion that awareness might not necessarily lead to an enthusiastic investigation and learning. At least not until one finds one's self in a graduate setting.

May need to reconsider. ..


I suspect systemic thinkers may frustrate the hell out of the ones seeking their input, because the 'seekers' are truly seeking 'a system' solution, with their seemingly intentionally retained depth of naivety.

True 'systemics' (by nature) however, are not intending to go there - not until some complex, holistic and (I believe essential) reflective thinking has been undertaken. They are on different planets, and clear conversation is darned hard to achieve. I find it causes (me) repetitive distress to watch 'a new system' being developed - 'efficiently' and put in place by those who just cannot engage with the necessary learning about complexity. Thus, onwardly-muddley process-gress goes forth, reinvented with the same errors in a new format & the loop continues.

Either the system seekers or the systemics need to get a tighter dialogue going on, or better controls put around the long-term processes of systemic analyis I suspect.


Hi, Steve and Dan,
Systems thinking is a tough sell...it's easy to learn by doing. The GreenMBA program at Dominican U of California (yes, I'm an alum) has a systemic thinking requirement and has completely integrated systems thinking into our coursework. Sustainability can only be understood in terms of complexity, so systems thinking is essential to anyone in the truly "green" field. In addition to theory, students learn by experiencing a suite of systemic thinking tools designed to bring out the wisdom resident at different levels of a hierarchy, and we apply them in real-life situations. A team now is using systemic tools to create a climate action plan with a local community (with, not for). thanks for the post!

Martijn Linssen

Great fun Steve! although I do sympathise wholeheartedly

"Hey Doc! I feel really bad, fix me up please. No, I don't care what I have, just gimme a shot"
Always, always, always, do we all want a tech solution to a biz or org problem. We never need one, but we do want one [some exaggeration intended]

Outsourcing, offshoring? We misused and abused that too, to get rid of our problems. In stead of outsourcing boring, dumb and dull work so as to leave the interesting and fun (complex) work to those we really care about (let's be honest here), we're now offshoring the problematic bleeders "cuz the competition is a pure Indian player". We once had a goal so we built (acquired) a system, now we have that system and use it for pretty much anything

So, maybe, you shouldn't get in the way of the competition and see how they do it - maybe you can learn. Or laugh afterwards

Systemic thinking helps though. I solved all (sic) IT problems I encountered in my career, by simply not ruling out anything - no matter how very, very silly and unlikely a cause might have seemed

Steve Roesler

Creating Change

Thanks for the in-depth comment.

In the grand scheme of decisions and processes, I would gravitate toward your "holistic" reference. In my experience, what is overlooked is the total connectedness of organizational parts and their impact on each other.

Steve Roesler


Me thinks you've been down this path in many different ways.

Very interesting and entertaining addition to the conversation!

Steve Larzelere


On Linkedin there is a Russell Ackoff group that so far has posted 158 comments based on your article. I would say you have succeeded in raising awareness but I'm starting to think we might be getting a little hung up on semantics. I think there is fairly clear understanding of what "systems" thinking is referring to among those in the know. It's the general populus that struggles with the term. If changing the "s" to an "ic" does the trick with your client, I think you should go with it. Personally, I'm new to all of this and am all of two weeks into a graduate course at UPenn on Systems Thinking and Design so perhaps my naivete is showing. Just my two cents, but so far I'v seen a whole lot of discussion and debate surrounding theory and nomenclature. I'm looking forward to discovering and discussing some practical applications of this way of thinking. Thanks.


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