Systems Thinking


OECD (2017)

Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges: Working with Change

Complexity is a core feature of most policy issues today and in this context traditional analytical tools and problem-solving methods no longer work. This report, produced by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation, explores how systems approaches can be used in the public sector to solve complex or “wicked” problems . Consisting of three parts, the report discusses the need for systems thinking in the public sector.

Roger C. Conant and W. Ross Ashby (1970)

Every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system

The design of a complex regulator often includes the making of a model of the system to be regulated. The making of such a model has hitherto been regarded as optional, as merely one of many possible ways. In this paper a theorem is presented which shows, under very broad conditions, that any regulator that is maximally both successful and simple must be isomorphic with the system being regulated. (The exact assumptions are given.) Making a model is thus necessary. The theorem has the interesting corollary that the living brain, so far as it is to be successful and efficient as a regulator for survival, must proceed, in learning, by the formation of a model (or models) of its environment.

W. Ross Ashby (1956)

An Introduction to Cybernetics

Cybernetics is here defined as "the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine"-in a word, as the art of steersmanship; and this book will interest all who are interested in cybernetics, communication theory and methods for regulation and control. W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. His two books, "Design for a Brain" and "An Introduction to Cybernetics," were landmark works. They introduced exact and logical thinking into the nascent discipline and were highly influential. Contents include: What is new -- Change -- The Determinate Machine -- The Machine with Input -- Stability -- The Black Box -- Quantity of Variety -- Transmission of Variety -- Incessant Transmission -- Regulation in Biological Systems -- Requisite Variety -- The Error-controlled Regulator -- Regulating the Very Large System -- Amplifying Regulation

W. Ross Ashby (1958)

Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems

Recent work on the fundamental processes of regulation in biology (Ashby, 1956) has shown the importance of a certain quantitative relation called the law of requisite variety. After this relation had been found, we appreciated that it was related to a theorem in a world far removed from the biological—that of Shannon on the quantity of noise or error that could be removed through a correction-channel (Shannon and Weaver, 1949; theorem 10). In this paper I propose to show the relationship between the two theorems, and to indicate something of their implications for regulation, in the cybernetic sense, when the system to be regulated is extremely complex. Since the law of requisite variety uses concepts more primitive than those used by entropy, I will start by giving an account of that law.

Daryl Kulak and Hong Li (2017)

The Journey to Enterprise Agility: Systems Thinking and Organizational Legacy.

This is the first book to seriously address the disconnection between nimble Agile teams and other groups in the enterprise, including enterprise architecture, the program management office (PMO), human resources, and even business executives. When an enterprise experiments with practice improvements, software development teams often jump on board with excitement, while other groups are left to wonder how they will fit in. We address how these groups can adapt to Agile teams. More importantly, we show how many Agile teams cause their own problems, damaging scalability and sustainability, by requiring special treatment, and by failing to bridge the gaps between themselves and other groups. We call this phenomenon Agile illth. Adopting a set of best practices is not enough. All of us, Agile teams and the corporate groups, must change our intentions and worldviews to be more compatible with the success of the enterprise. Join us on the journey to enterprise agility. It is a crooked path, fraught with danger, confusion and complexity. It is the only way to reach the pinnacles we hope to experience in the form of better business value delivered faster for less cost.

Steven Alter: Work System Basics

The following summary is based on Work System Theory: Overview of Core Concepts, Extensions, and Challenges for the Future, which was published in 2013 in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. The summary covers the following topics: Work system definition and special cases, Work system framework, Work system life cycle model, Work system method, and Work system metamodel (an more detailed version of the work system framework).


Exploring Designs for a Process Prioritisation Method

Jens Ohlsson (doctoral dissertation): Process prioritisation is an ill-structured and complex problem that remains a mystery phase in business process management (BPM) research. More explorative approaches are called upon to tackle process management problems, to facilitate process innovation and to design new processes in dynamic environments. This dissertation aims (i) to design and evaluate a Prioritisation and Categorisation Method (PCM) for addressing process prioritisation problems; and (ii) to explore process innovation by disruptive technologies.

Ilia Bider, Erik Perjons, Mturi Elias, and Paul Johannesson (2016)

A fractal enterprise model and its application for business development

This paper suggests a new type of enterprise models called fractal enterprise models (FEM), with accompanying methodological support for their design. FEM shows interconnections between the business processes in an enterprise by connecting them to the assets they use and manage. Assets considered in the model could be tangible (buildings, heavy machinery, etc.) and intangible (employees, business process definitions, etc.). A FEM model is built by using two types of patterns called archetypes: a process-assets archetype that connects a process with assets used in it, and an asset-processes archetype that connects an asset with processes aimed to manage this asset (e.g., hiring people, or servicing machinery). Alternating these patterns creates a fractal structure that makes relationships between various parts of the enterprise explicit. FEM can be used for different purposes, including finding a majority of the processes in an enterprise and planning business change or radical transformation. Besides discussing FEM and areas of its usage, the paper presents results from a completed project in order to test the practical usefulness of FEM and its related methodological support.

Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action

Dubberly Design Office Projects Clients Concept Maps Models Articles About Contact ddo Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro: Working for decades as both theorist and teacher, Ranulph Glanville came to believe that cybernetics and design are two sides of the same coin. Working as both practitioners and teachers, the authors present their understanding of Glanville and the relationships between cybernetics and design. We believe cybernetics offers a foundation for 21st-century design practice. We offer this rationale:

John Gøtze and Anders Jensen-Waud (2013)

Beyond Alignment: Applying Systems Thinking in Architecting Enterprises

This book is a comprehensive reader about how enterprises can apply systems thinking in their enterprise architecture practice, for business transformation and for strategic execution. The book's contributors find that systems thinking is a valuable way of thinking about the viable enterprise and how to architect it. Edited by John Gøtze and Anders Jensen-Waud, the book features contributions from 32 international experts in the fields of systems thinking and enterprise architecture. Contributors: Adrian Campell, Alex Conn, Dennis Sherwood, Don deGuerre, Erik Perjons, Gene Bellinger, Harold Bud Lawson, Ilia Bider, Jack Ring, James Lapalme, James Martin, Jan Dietz, Jan Hoogervorst, Janne J. Korhonen, John Morecroft, Leo Laverdure, Linda Clod Præstholm, Mesbah Khan, Mikkel Stokbro Holst, Namkyu Park, Olov Östberg, Olusola O. Oduntan, Patrick Hoverstadt, Per Johannisson, Per-Arne Persson, Peter Sjølin, Rasmus Fischer Frost, Sally Bean, Tom Graves, and Tue Westmark Steensen.



VSMod is the software created to facilitate the application of the Organizational Cybernetics and more specifically the Viable System Model to the design or diagnosis of organizations from the point of view of their viability. VSMod helps, in first place, to design a new organization, by providing the means to create its structure and to guide the designer during the process of identification of the functions required for its viability, as well as the communication channels required by those functions to work properly. The other fundamental use is to help the diagnosis of any organization from the point of view of its viability.

Conway's Law

Mel Conway: In 1967 I submitted a paper called How Do Committees Invent? to the Harvard Business Review. HBR rejected it on the grounds that I had not proved my thesis. I then submitted it to Datamation, the major IT magazine at that time, which published it April 1968. The text of the paper is here.

Conway's Law Revisited: Successfully Aligning Enterprise Architecture

David M. Dikel, David Kane: For investments in enterprise architecture to pay off, they must be based on a clear understanding of the organization. Whatever approach you choose to implement your enterprise strategy, an understanding of Conway's Law can help to make your alignment efforts successful.

Melvin E. Conway (1968)

How do Committees Invent?

The original article defining Conway's Law, which states: Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce system which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

MIT Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges

Addressing Complexity and Innovation in Healthcare, Education, and Product Development, October 24-25, 2011, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Across industries and government organizations around the globe, a systems-based approach is increasingly seen as critical to addressing the urgent and complex problems we face today. For many organizations, the question is not whether to employ systems thinking, but how to apply it before it is too late. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's annual Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges, sponsored by the System Design and Management Program, will focus on addressing complexity and innovation in healthcare, education, and product development. MIT has carefully chosen speakers not only for their expertise in addressing complex systems challenges, but also for their role in leading the implementation of the day-to-day tasks that produce results.

Harold 'Bud' Lawson (2010)

A Journey Through the Systems Landscape

Systems are everywhere and affect us daily in our private and professional lives. We all use the word system to describe something that is essential but often abstract, complex and even mysterious. However, learning to utilize system concepts as first class objects as well as methodologies for systems thinking and systems engineering provides a basis for removing the mystery and moving towards mastery even for complex systems. This journey through the Systems Landscape has been developed to promote learning to think and act in terms of systems. A unique aspect is the introduction of concrete system semantics provided as a "system survival kit" and based upon a limited number of concepts and principles as well as a mental model called the system-coupling diagram. This discipline independent presentation assists individuals and is essential for building a learning organization that can utilize a systems approach to achieving its enterprise goals. The eight chapters are presented as stops along a journey that successively build system knowledge. Each chapter terminates with a Knowledge Verification section that provides questions and exercises for individuals and groups. Case studies reflecting the utilization of the system related concepts, principles and methodologies are provided as chapter interludes.

Peter Senge (2006)

The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization: Second edition

Peter Senge, founder and director of the Society for Organisational Learning and senior lecturer at MIT, has found the means of creating a 'learning organisation'. In The Fifth Discipline, he draws the blueprints for an organisation where people expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nutured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are contually learning together. The Fifth Discipline fuses these features together into a coherent body of theory and practice, making the whole of an organisation more effective than the sum of its parts.


Forget your people - real leaders act on the system

John Seddon: A real story of a curious public sector leader, a pugilist and a contrarian, who chose to do the right thing and design his system entirely around the needs of the customer - against the advice of inspectors. What happened? Costs fell, morale soared and best practice got better.


System Failure, 2nd edition

The current model of public policy making is no longer right for a government that has set itself the challenge of delivery. Improvements are driven by central policy initiatives which assume a direct relationship between action and outcome - but this is a false assumption. Public services are complex adaptive systems which are subject to the law of unintended consequences, so intervention can make problems worse. That is why the carrot-and-stick approach to reform which links increased funding to tougher performance targets will not succeed in the long run. Renowned systems thinker Jake Chapman describes how the government's energetic attempts to force change from the centre are becoming counter-productive. The alternative is government based on continuous learning. This is increasingly important as the impact of communication technology and other accelerating social trends offers a moving target for public service reformers. Systems thinking offers a better model for change in complex organisations such as the health service or the railway network. Case studies provided by the NHS Confederation show the unintended and often bizarre consequences of introducing new policies without considering their impact on the whole system.


Systems thinking in the public sector

Lean Enterprise Research Centre was recently commissioned to undertake an evaluation of systems thinking in the public sector on behalf of the Wales Audit Office, as part of its programme focusing on efficiency and the constrained public sector financial environment. The Wales Audit Office is working with public sector partners on innovation and efficiency, which the research will inform. It involved three public sector organisations, in which systems thinking has been deployed and each was assessed in terms of the results that have been achieved so far, as well as investigating the improvement approach used.

Claudio Ciborra (2001)

From Control to Drift: The Dynamics of Corporate Information Infrastructures

Firms are investing considerable resources to create large information infrastructures able to fulfil their varied information-processing and communication needs. The more the drive towards globalization, the more such infrastructures become crucial.The 'wiring' of the corporation should be done in a way that is aligned with its corporate strategy-it is global and generates value. This book presents six in-depth case studies of large corporations-AstraZeneca, IBM, Norsk Hydro, Roche, SKF, and Statoil-which offer a rich picture of the main issues involved in information infrastructure implementation and management. Far from being a linear process, the use of the information infrastructure is in fact an open-ended process, in many cases out of control. Current management models and consulting advice do not seem to be able to cope with such a business landscape. This book provides the reader with interpretations and theories that can foster a different understanding and approach.

Claudio Ciborra (2004)

The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems

How to use information and communication technologies in organizations and how to manage their impact has been the traditional domain of computer specialists and management consultants. The former have offered multiple ways to represent, model, and build applications that would streamline and accelerate data flows, while the latter have been busy linking the deployment of ICT's with strategy and the redesign of business processes. This book takes quite a different approach altogether. In a series of essays, Ciborra uses a string of metaphors--such as Bricolage, Krisis, Gestall, etc. -- to place a concern for human existence and our working lives at the center of the study of ICTs and their diffusion in business organizations, and looks at our practices, improvizations, and moods. He draws upon his own extensive research and consulting experience to throw a fresh light on some key questions: why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? What is the value of age-old practices in dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and affections in influencing action and cognition? Labyrinths of Information presents an alternative to the current approaches in management, software-engineering, and strategy that will be of interest to all those concerned with the deployment of ICTs in society today -- whether as users, managers, designers, policy makers or the merely curious.

Tor Hernes (2003)

Autopoietic Organization Theory: Drawing on Niklas Luhmann's Social System Perspective

Organization theorists have, since the 1980s, pointed out that autopoiesis represents considerable potential for developing alternative ways of understanding organizations. Niklas Luhmann's autopoiesis, being developed specifically for theorizing social systems, is gradually finding its way into organization studies. In bringing together authors from different European countries and institutions, as well as from different disciplines, this anthology introduces the reader to selected areas of Luhmann's autopoiesis that have bearing on organization theory. It discusses aspects that are of particular interest to both theoretical and empirical organization theory, and in doing so it enables students of organizations to acquire better appreciation of Luhmann's thinking.

Stuart Sutherland (1992)


Why do doctors, generals, civil servants and others consistently make wrong decisions that cause enormous harm to others? Irrational beliefs and behaviours are virtually universal. In this iconoclastic book Stuart Sutherland analyses causes of irrationality and examines why we are irrational, the different kinds of irrationality, the damage it does us and the possible cures.

Niklas Luhmann (2005)

Risk: A Sociological Theory

A great deal of attention has been devoted to risk research. Theoretical sociology, however, has shown little interest in it. Sociologists in general have limited themselves to varying recognitions of a society at risk and have traced out the paths to disaster. The detailed research has yet to be undertaken. In Risk, now available in paperback, Niklas Luhmann develops a theoretical program for such research. His premise is that the concept of risk projects essential aspects of our description of the future onto the present. Risk is conceived as the possibility of triggering unexpected, unlikely, and detrimental consequences by means of a decision attributable to a decision maker. Luhmann shows how strongly and how differently the separate segments of modern society, such as politics, law, science, and the economy, react to the hazardous situations to which they are exposed. Luhmann's thesis is that the gap has been increasing between those who participate in decisions and those who are excluded from the decision-making process, but who nevertheless have to bear the consequences of the decisions taken. This seminal book will be of interest to professionals and students in a variety of disciplines. It is a classic exploration of risk that will be valued by those interested in technology, communication, sociology, politics, and scientific research.

Mario Bunge (2009)

Causality and Modern Science

4th Edition: The causal problem has become topical once again. While we are no longer causalists or believers in the universal truth of the causal principle we continue to think of causes and effects, as well as of causal and noncausal relations among them. Instead of becoming indeterminists we have enlarged determinism to include noncausal categories. And we are still in the process of characterizing our basic concepts and principles concerning causes and effects with the help of exact tools. This is because we want to explain, not just describe, the ways of things. The causal principle is not the only means of understanding the world but it is one of them.The demand for a fourth edition of this distinguished book on the subject of causality is clear evidence that this principle continues to be an important and popular area of philosophic enquiry. Non-technical and clearly written, this book focuses on the ontological problem of causality, with specific emphasis on the place of the causal principle in modern science. Mario Bunge first defines the terminology employed and describes various formulations of the causal principle. He then examines the two primary critiques of causality, the empiricist and the romantic, as a prelude to the detailed explanation of the actual assertions of causal determinism.Bunge analyzes the function of the causal principle in science, touching on such subjects as scientific law, scientific explanation, and scientific prediction. In so doing, he offers an education to layman and specialist alike on the history of a concept and its opponents.

Niklas Luhmann (1996)

Social Systems

A major challenge confronting contemporary theory is to overcome its fixation on written narratives and the culture of print. In this presentation of a general theory of systems, Niklas Luhmann, Germany's most prominent and controversial social thinker, sets out a contribution to sociology that reworks our understanding of meaning and communication. For Luhmann, the end of metanarratives does not mean the end of theory, but a challenge to theory, an invitation to open itself to theoretical developments in a number of disciplines that, for quite some time, have been successfully working with cybernetic models that no longer require the fiction of the external observer. He links social theory to recent theoretical developments in scientific disciplines as diverse as modern physics, information theory, general systems theory, neurophysiology, phenomenology, and cognitive science. One of the most important contributions to social theory of recent decades, it has implications for many disciplines beyond sociology.

John Morecroft (2007)

Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics: A Feedback Systems Approach

Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics introduces the system dynamics approach to modelling strategic problems in business and society, based on the author’s successful MBA course at London Business School. The book covers all stages of model building (from conceptual to technical) including problem articulation, mapping, equation formulation and simulation. It includes a range of in-depth practical examples that vividly illustrate important or puzzling dynamics in business, society and everyday life (e. g. drug-related crime, perverse hotel showers, intended supply chain cyclicality, spontaneous product growth from word of mouth, managed market growth leading to premature decline, boom and bust in oil and housing, the collapse of fisheries etc). In order to bridge the experience gap for the undergraduate students the book includes gaming simulations and microworlds. The easy to use simulators expose students to the vagaries of communication and cross functional co-ordination in organizations, highlighting blindspots that unintentionally undermine strategy. These tools allow readers to roleplay in dynamically complex and loosely coordinated systems. The simulations include a baffling hotel shower, a start-up low-cost airline, an international radio broadcaster, a commercial oil producer and a fishing firm.

Patrick Hoverstadt (2008)

Fractal Organization: Creating Sustainable Organizations with the Viable System Model

The world of management is in crisis – the old remedies no longer work and organizations are failing at an increasing rate. Although many talk of ‘joined up thinking’, few offer practical guidance on how to achieve this in organizations. The Fractal Organization sets down the practical implications of a well tested systemic approach to building organizations that are capable of surviving and flourishing in these turbulent times.

Donella H. Meadows, Diana Wright (2009)

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

In the years following her role as the lead author of the international bestseller, Limits to Growth, Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001. Meadows' newly released manuscript, edited by the Sustainability Institute's Diana Wright, brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life. Some of the biggest problems facing the world - war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation - are essentially system failures. They cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking. Although both tools and methods are included, the heart of the book reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble and to continue to learn. Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.

Stafford Beer (1994)

Brain of the Firm

This is the second edition of a book (originally published in 1972) which has already become a management 'standard' both in universities and on the bookshelves of managers and their advisers. Brain of the Firm develops an account of the firm based upon insights derived from the study of the human nervous system, and is a basic text from the author′s theory of viable systems. Despite the neurophysiology, the book is written for managers to understand.

John Sterman (2000)

Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World

Today's leading authority on the subject of this text is the author, MIT Standish Professor of Management and Director of the System Dynamics Group, John D. Sterman. Sterman's objective is to explain, in a true textbook format, what system dynamics is, and how it can be successfully applied to solve business and organizational problems. System dynamics is both a currently utilized approach to organizational problem solving at the professional level, and a field of study in business, engineering, and social and physical sciences.

Peter Checkland, John Poulter (2006)

Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology, and Its Use Practitioners, Teachers and Students

From the father of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), Peter Checkland, comes a new, accessible text which clearly and concisely looks at SSM. The book leaves out all of the development detail and historical/intellectual material which can be found in Checkland’s other classic works, but contains the practical essentials that will allow teachers to teach SSM accurately and students to learn it with real understanding.

John Seddon (2008)

Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: The Failure of the Reform Regime.... and a Manifesto for a Better Way

With the UK's public sector in crisis, John Seddon's fiercely outspoken new book is already causing a stir. Wrong-headed, ill thought-out reform from a succession of monetarist governments has led to unwieldy systems of mass production that do little for the people they are supposed to serve. Hospitals, local authorities, schools, housing associations, taxation and benefits offices: all are victims of a dysfunctional regime created by a government-enforced culture of deliverology that puts targets and red tape before people. In Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, John Seddon argues powerfully for the government to forget sticking plasters like CRM and citizen empowerment and says don't tweak the system. Ditch it. Systems Thinking in the Public Sector gives example after example of exactly how the system fails from housing benefits and care for the elderly to call centres like Consumer Direct. Drawing on Seddon's extensive experience working as a consultant with UK public sector managers, this is a fiercely uncompromising, yet rigorous manifesto for change.

Jamshid Gharajedaghi (2005)

Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture

The first edition of Systems Thinking was the first book to develop a working concept of systems theory and to deal operationally with systems methodology. The author has been working for the last 5 years to incorporate parallel development in quantum theory, self-organizing systems and complexity theory, the sum of which is included in this new 2nd edition. He has tested these concepts with 200 executive MBA students, and also with Russell Ackoff, one of the founding fathers of systems thinking. Ackoff reported that it was the most comprehensive systems methodology he has seen. The 2nd edition features the synthesis of holistic thinking (iteration of structure, function and process), operational thinking (understanding chaos and complexity), sociocultural systems (movement toward a predefined order), and interactive design (redesigning the future and inventing ways to bring it about). Also added are the operational thinking and self-organizing aspect of sociocultural systems, with updates made to the holistic thinking and interactive design parts to incorporate recent new developments.

Stafford Beer (1994)

The Heart of Enterprise

This is the 1979 companion volume to Brain of the Firm and addresses the nature of viable systems, those capable of surviving. It does not use the neurophysiological basis elucidated in brain, but develops the same theory from first principles. This book declares that every enterprise is a system, and in particular must be a viable system. Viability is not just a matter of economic solvency; we need laws that govern the capacity of any enterprise to maintain independent existence. The Heart of Enterprise is full of examples (actual, author–generated examples) taken from management practice.

The System Dynamics Society

The System Dynamics Society is an international, nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the development and use of systems thinking and system dynamics around the world.

Conway's Law Revisited: Successfully Aligning Enterprise Architecture

For investments in enterprise architecture to pay off, they must be based on a clear understanding of the organization. Whatever approach you choose to implement your enterprise strategy, an understanding of Conway's Law can help to make your alignment efforts successful.