Systems Thinking

‘Systems thinking’ is a term used to describe a perspective and a set of methods and tools that make it possible to look at the full extent of a system, rather than at fragments or parts. Taking a systems approach, it becomes clear that messy, longstanding problems are created by the systems in which they exist. To innovate on these social and environmental problems, it’s necessary to find ways to see, understand and use the system itself.

At its best, systems thinking encourages efforts to address the root causes of big problems.  For example, while food banks very effectively manage hunger issues, there are those who use systems thinking to figure out why hunger is still such a challenge, how it’s connected to other issues, policies, etc. and to search out and support opportunities to decrease or eradicate hunger problems.

Systems thinkers see the whole picture, understand the relationships in the system and can identify opportunities for very strategic interventions that might really make a difference.

“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”
― Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Systems thinking is a way of looking at the world; its challenges and its opportunities. It’s an approach that is useful to make sense of the complexity that surrounds us. When you take a systems view of a situation, it helps you to identify relationships, frame problems more accurately and to understand what interventions have the best chance of positive impact.

This power point highlights some key points about a systems approach.


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In this short video, Dan McCarthy, a SiG faculty member, describes why he has found systems thinking to be a powerful concept for this work and shares a metaphor that has shifted his own approach.


Now that you’ve taken a look at some general principles, read this profile of the Registered Disability Savings Plan – a wonderful Canadian example of how thinking like a system led to social innovation. Dive in for the complete Case Study.

By now you will realize that ideas around systems and complexity are tightly linked. Complexity Theory has been called some of the most important thinking for the 21st century – read this short paper by SiG Fellow, Brenda Zimmerman and her colleagues, that explains why complexity theory matters.

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Al Etmanski is a skilled systems thinker – this case study tells the story of how he was able to make unprecedented change across different systems to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

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If you want to learn more about systems, this book by Donella Meadows is a terrific introduction and is required reading by the students in the Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo. The book highlights tools such as causal flow diagramming, identifying traps (and leverage points) and system mapping, to provide tangible ways to discover patterns and trends in systems, and to use that information to develop strategies for large scale change.


As you get more familiar with systems thinking, you may become interested in activities that can help you and others explore this concept. Check out the Systems Playbook, as a first step to practicing thinking like a system.

Note: A complete list of all SiG educational resources can be found in our publicly-available document library. We hope you’ve found this pathway to learning in systems thinking helpful.