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Building shared understanding

The Systems Thinker works to catalyze effective change by expanding the use of systems approaches. All articles are available free of charge in an effort to expose as wide of audience as possible. Browse, share with others, save your favorites and tell others about this valuable resource!

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Moving from Blame to Accountability

When something goes wrong in an organization, the first question that is often posed is, “Whose fault is it?” When there’s data missing in…

Balancing Loops with Delays

A simple balancing loop can be thought of as a basic control loop. In this type of feedback loop, any discrepancies between desired…

Pocket Guide: Palette of Systems Thinking Tools

This pocket guide is a handy quick-reference guide to the full array of systems thinking tools–from dynamic thinking tools such as behavior over time graphs,…

Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking

I frequently talk to groups of managers on the nature of systems thinking and its radical implications to management. In doing so, I use…

Guidelines for Drawing Causal Loop Diagrams

The old adage “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail” can also apply to language.

Action-to-Outcome Mapping: Testing Strategy with Systems Thinking

In the “classic” systems thinking approach, a group uses mapping and modeling to help explain an important behavior over time. While we occasionally encounter…

Structure-Behavior Pairs: A Starting Point for Problem Diagnosis

There are many possible starting points for drawing a systems diagram. One way to begin is by telling the story behind the problem, and…

Superstitious Learning

The drive toward improvement has become a way of life in corporations today. Total Quality Management, Business Process Reengineering, and other improvement techniques have…

From Individual to Shared Mental Models

Making individual mental models explicit is only one step toward fostering organizationwide learning. Since perceptions of reality can vary widely among different people in…

Check In, Check Out: A Tool for “Real” Conversations

Your daughter was sick last night and you didn’t get much sleep. Tony’s car was rear-ended on the way to the office. Vivian has…

Pocket Guide: Vision Deployment Matrix II: Crossing the Chasm from Reality to Vision

This handy pocket guide presents a comprehensive example of how to actually use the Matrix. Includes step-by-step instructions. Download the PDF file .

Facilitative Modeling: Using Small Models to Generate Big Insights

All you need to do is read the paper or watch the news to realize that the world is becoming more difficult to understand…

From Spreadsheets to System Dynamics Models

Decision-makers often turn to computer models when they face a problem too “big” to grasp all at once. Having the computer keep track of…

Learning Through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century

What should be the outcome of a systems education? We do not expect most students to spend their lives in front of a computer…

Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide

Whether you are new to systems thinking or merely need a guide to available tools, this collection introduces you to dynamic, structural, and computer-based tools…

The CEO’s Role in Organizational Transformation

Why are attempts to transform organizations usually painful and so often unsuccessful? Why is it that, even when leaders recognize the value of the…

Systems Thinking as a Language

Language has a subtle, yet powerful effect on the way we view the world. English, like most other Western languages, is linear—its basic sentence…

Toyota’s Current Crisis: The Price of Focusing on Growth Not Quality

For the past 15 years or so, I have told audiences a story about how my perception of what determines good business performance has…

Appreciative Inquiry: Igniting Transformative Action

In the streets of Seattle, Washington, last year, the world witnessed a striking expression of social concern. An array of highly disparate groups —…

The Structure of Paradox: Managing Interdependent Opposites

When faced with a problem, how often do teams within your organization become polarized around proposed solutions that are opposites? For example, one group…

Meetings That Matter: Conversational Leadership in Today’s Schools

If the element in greatest evidence in a school system is “young people,” and the second most prevalent feature is “desks,” surely a close…

Operational Thinking

The first three systems thinking skills help you establish an extensive (breadth) and intensive (depth) boundary for your mental or computer-based model. The next…

Palette of Systems Thinking Tools

There is a full array of systems thinking tools that you can think of in the same way as a painter views colors many…

Behavior Over Time Diagrams: Seeing Dynamic Interrelationships

An old Winnie the Pooh cartoon sketch shows Christopher Robin dragging Edward the Bear down a set of stairs by one arm, while the…

Pocket Guide: Vision Deployment Matrix I: Shifting from a Reactive to a Generative Orientation

This handy pocket guide shows you what the Matrix looks like, and helps you take the first step in diagnosing your organization’s current reality. Includes…

Empowering Multigenerational Collaboration in the Workplace

Today’s workforce represents a broad range of age groups. As a result of college internships, modern healthcare, antidiscrimination laws, and a plethora of lifestyle…

Transforming the Character of a Corporation

We judge others by what they do; we judge ourselves by our intentions.” “What you do thunders so loud, I can’t hear what you…

Liberating Structures: A New Pattern Language for Engagement

“We change the culture by changing the nature of conversation. It’s about choosing conversations that have the power to create the future.” — Peter…

People in Context, Part II

The first part of this article, which appeared in the previous issue of The Systems Thinker (May 2010, Vol. 21 N. 4), introduced the “people-in-context”…

Shifting the Burden: Moving Beyond a Reactive Orientation

Although the parable of the boiled frog has become a familiar story in organizational learning circles, it does not yet seem to prevent organizations…

Creating Causal Theories

Peasants in southwest France have been selling smelly but delicious black truffles to restaurants for more than $600 a kilo (2.2 lb). Not surprisingly,…

From Riots to Resolution: Engaging Conflict for Reconciliation

As members of communities and organizations, many people feel their days (and their energy!) being consumed by contentious conflicts between diverse stakeholder groups. Organizations…

The World Cafe: Living Knowledge Through Conversations That Matter

Consider all the learning that occurs as people move from place to place inside and outside an organization, carrying insights and ideas from one…

Anatomy of a Reinforcing Loop

Feedback loops can be thought of as closed loops of interconnection; basically, sequences of mutual causes and effects. The links between each variable show…

Human Dynamics: A Foundation for the Learning Organization

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge posed the question, “How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective…

From Causal Loop Diagrams to Computer Models–Part I

Imagine you are the human resources director for a company in a rapidly growing industry. Your latest strategy meeting focused on developing a human…

Ishmael: Cultural Dialogue

“TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Thus begins Ishmael, a compelling exploration of our shared assumptions…

The “AND” Method

TEAM TIP Apply this method to anticipate— and avoid—unintended consequences before taking action. Irecently read an article by Daniel Aronson called “Targeted…

The Learning Family: Bringing the Five Disciplines Home

Roger and his wife June had been struggling with differing views about how to bring up their children. Recently, Roger attended a program about…

Comfort Zones

It’s a good thing we have comfort zones, those ways of acting and thinking that do not cause us stress or require much thought.

Systems Thinking Concepts for Environmental Education

The goal of education for sustainability (EFS) is “to develop in young people and adults new knowledge and new ways of thinking needed to…

Stress Management–Whose Job Is It?

Stress management — long the domain of psychiatrists and therapists — is increasingly being recognized by corporate America as a critical workforce issue. The reason…

Embracing Vulnerability:A Core Leadership Discipline for Our Times

World events over the past several years have highlighted the need for new ways of exercising leadership. Such events include the ongoing crisis in…

Designing Effective Learning Environments

Imagine you are part of a healthcare team that has developed a computer model to grapple with the complex and often conflicting factors involved…

Using “Fixes That Fail” to Get Off the Problem-Solving Treadmill

It’s Monday morning. You’ve just settled in at your desk to catch up on some reading, when the phone rings. The program manager of the…

How Learning Works

Recently, I had a long conversation with my fifteen-year-old daughter, Elise, about why she had to learn algebra. I had helped her with a…

The Learning Organization Journey: Assessing and Valuing Progress

Suppose you have just been appointed the CKO—Chief Knowledge Officer—of your organization. You are responsible for managing the company’s knowledge capital, including how it…

The Next Great Frontier: Designing Managerial & Social Systems

The 1990s are shaping up to be a decade of dramatic changes. The recent shake-ups at IBM and General Motors are ominous signs that…