Systems Thinking

We hear of systems thinking or systemic thinking and the resultant systemic structures.  These are vocabulary (or jargon) unique to the field of systems thinking.  But what do they all mean?

First, let me start by stating WHAT IT IS NOT.

MYTH NO. 1: Systems thinking is not thinking about the systems of work processes such as how best to bring the supply of water to a precinct or how best do we remove garbage or litter off the streets of the city.  Yes, it may be a system of work processes but such aspects are not as relevant in this field of work.


Systems Thinking is a unique way of thinking about the world around us that allows us to highlight and see more clearly the inter-relatedness of issues (and these often also include our thoughts and actions) that have stayed resistant to our efforts to change them.  We say these issues are dynamic.  They are in a constant state of flux or change.

Yet, these issues have not shown a corresponding response or change, despite the levels of resources used to deal or fight it.  Think HIV.  Should one plot the amount of money we have placed to fight this epidemic over time on a graph, it would show an increase.  Globally it can bea rather substantial increase.  But the rate of new infections continue to grow, completely disregarding these resources.

Estimated HIV/AIDS prevalence among young adul...
Estimated HIV/AIDS prevalence among young adults (15-49) by country as of 2008. Nederlands: Geschatte HIV/AIDS-verspreiding onder jonge volwassenen (15-49j) per land vanaf 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what is inter-relatedness?  When we say inter-relatedness, we refer to the ways issues affect and cause an effect on other issues and we continue to clarify (and the thinking of) these causalities until we see beyond linear relationships to circles of causality.

A causes B.  B in turn causes C.  C does not stop there.  When it grows, it in turn causes D.  And so on.  Nothing stops suddenly.  They are in constant growth (be it positive or negative) and therefore, continue to have an effect on something all the time.  We continue to clarify them until we see how this line of thinking comes back to A and it would show how it causes A to continue to grow viciously.  At an increasing rate.  This is now a circle of causality.

Stubborn problems are causedby circles of causality.  That is why they keep

English: World map of travel & residence restr...
English: World map of travel & residence restrictions against people with HIV/AIDS: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

coming back.

Let’s take an example.  The rate of prevalence of HIV.  What causes the prevalence?  Prevalence, is caused by the rate of new infections (A is caused by B).  The more there are new infections (drops) of the diseases, the greater is its prevalence (pool).  Next, we move to C.  What causes new infections?  New infections are caused by transmission of the virus.  Should the number of transmissions increase, so would the infection.  What is D?  What causes transmissions?  We know transmissions may be caused by many factors (or reasons).  But by the time, we have a circle of causality, one of them is becoming or has become the main river.  So, let’s try a few.

There are many ways, the virus may be transmitted.  It may be transmitted by blood transfusions, sexual relationships, mother-to-child, accidents and wounds, drugs and needles.  Each of them is a cause of the transmission between people.  But in systemic thinking, we know one of them is the reason for its systemic cause or its constant or growing recurrence beyond people.  So, let’s zoom in to see what it is.  Should we compare, transmissions by mother to child and transmissions by sexual relations between people, which one would you say is ‘the main river’?  I know you can see it.   Did you say, it is sexual relations.  You are right!  Now, this was a startling discovery for the Department of HIV & AIDs prevention! Because it suddenly dawned on them that while it worked hard to stop transmissions between mother and child, through programmes such as PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmissions) and therefore saved that child from its mother, however, when that same child grows up, it is not able to save from itself!  What has now happened to the money that we poured into PMTCT programmes.  Well, it is money literally down the drain.

But we know, not all sexual relations cause transmissions!  Some more than others do.  Which ones would they be?

Systems Thinking do often bring us to a place to face these hard choices but when we do face them, we know we are now dealing with the core of the issue.  It is harder to have to deal with transmissions of the virus as a result of sexual relations.  But should we figure it out, when transmissions by sexual relations go down, so would transmissions by mother to child.  It means, we now begin to save our resources.

We continue to clarify these lines of thinking until we come back to prevalence and see the effect prevalence of the diseases on the nation.

This is systems thinking.

It is a way of investigating for these circles of causality.

Linear thinking is always a part of a circle of causality.  Circles of causality are always more inclusive and complete.  Till we close the circle, we really cannot be sure if the causality that we see, is indeed the real one.  When it closes (or as we say reinforces), then we know that we have identified all we need to know about what is causing an issue to become persistent.


These issues range from everyday matters that may not receive public profile such as to highly profile issues (the likes of which become the mandate of regional and international integration bodies, such as the United Nations).

Examples of low profile issues include:

  1. Ability of people in a (non-blood) relationship to engender and grow long-term emotional ties (or fall in love) with each other and not being in it for self-gains
  2. Willingness of people as students to grow a love for learning (or fall in love with understanding the world) with their minds and hearts and not how well their hands may produce or achieve standards of education
  3. Willingness of employers and employees work together productively for the growth (or love) of their nation and not for the self

Examples of high-profile issues:

  1. Security within and across borders of countries
  2. Levels of poverty
  3. Levels of agricultural output
  4. Health scares through epidemics such as HIV/AIDs, Bird Flu, H1N1, etc.

What is the common theme that weaves through all of them?

They are stubborn or resistant to our efforts to change.

Why do we say they are stubborn?  They have defied our efforts over time and space to deal with them.

MYTH NO. 2:  Are we creating “systems” for (sometime in) the future or are systemic structures already there and they running ahead of us leaving trails of destruction behind it, which we stumble upon later?


When I do work on systems thinking with participants, most are thrilled to finally be able to “see” what has been the reason for the realities we are living in.  Sometimes (not often, unless they have not attended the workshop) it is followed by a sense of resignation that it takes “too long” to create “new systems” all over again.

We did not get this point right about systems thinking.

We are NOT creating systems.  Don’t be disillusioned by that thought!

But rather these systems are already existing amidst us.

MYTH NO. 3: And here’s the third misunderstanding.  These structures are not behind us.  But rather they are running ahead of us both in terms of time and space!


These systemic structures have already passed us by and running at breakneck speeds in front of us.  The trails they leave behind are the ‘carnage’ we experiences in our day-to-day living as problems and challenges (be they crime, killings, suicides, pandemics, health concerns, agricultural production, labour unrests, political unrests, etc.) and as behaviours of their patterns over time.

The question is, could we catch up to these systemic structures?

I am sure we can.

Provided we understand the systemic nature of these structures; the ways to see them in our realities and ways to learn to turn them around.


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