Better Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is essential for managing complexity – if done well. These guides for systems theory, practice, and evaluation can help.

Systems thinking is natural for people when given the freedom to contemplate their world around them. While simple to do in general terms, systems thinking can be difficult when applied to specific problems, particularly those with high complexity.

To help reduce that difficulty we share three resources that look at systems theory, practice, and evaluation aimed at improving your systems thinking capabilities.

Systems Theory Guide

Psychologist Kurt Lewin once said, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” For systems change, applying theory is often seen as overwhelming: where do you start? The folks at NPC had the same issue so they created a guide to help people looking to create, participate in and guide systems change using theory. A better theory can translate into better action (and impact). 

Another great option for those looking to understand systems theory is an older, yet still highly accessible book by Michael Jackson from the University of Hull entitled simply Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers that I highly recommend.

Systems Thinking Workbook

While systems thinking is considered essential for good design of any socially-minded innovation, what does it mean to practice it? Thankfully, the Omidyar Group has been thinking about this and developed a useful Systems Practice Workbook that introduces readers to systems mindsets, tools, and strategies for applying systems thinking to human problems. 

Another reference that is worth the read is the 2007 National Cancer Institute monograph Greater Than the Sum, which provides an applied overview of how different systems thinking approaches can be applied to a single topic (tobacco control). Even if you are not in the health sector, this resource can be valuable and understood.

Systems Thinking Evaluation

The final critical piece to systems thinking is understanding the ‘so what?’ questions, which is what evaluation does. Thankfully, my colleague Bob Williams has done an enormous amount of work in articulating systems theory and practice with an eye toward evaluation. Bob has build a career consulting to international development organizations, governments, and social agencies on the application of systems thinking to evaluation and has an enormous catalogue of case studies, workbooks, and other publications.

Bob’s book, Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner’s Toolkit (co-authored with Richard Hummelbrunner) is among my most-recommended systems and evaluation texts to colleagues and clients.

These resources provide an excellent starting point for those looking to better understand systems thinking and its application to support program design, innovation, and impact. For more check out the bi-weekly Censemaking Innovation Newsletter (subscribe).

Need more help? Contact me . A systems orientation is what we at Cense Ltd. bring to helping organizations learn and both design and implement innovations.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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