Systems thinking: four key skills

This video introduces systems thinking for people with little prior knowledge of the field through four key systems thinking skills:

  1. Exploring boundaries – understanding the inclusion, exclusion and marginalisation of stakeholders and the issues that concern them.
  2. Appreciating multiple perspectives – how and why stakeholders frame issues in different ways.
  3. Understanding relationships – networks of interconnections within and across systems.
  4. Thinking in terms of systems themselves – organised wholes with properties that cannot be anticipated by analysing any one part of the system in isolation.

Different theories, concepts, methodologies and methods help with the practical application of these systems thinking skills. Selected examples are described and illustrated with brief case studies from action research projects undertaken in the UK and New Zealand. The four selected examples are: the theory of Boundary Critique for exploring boundaries; Soft Systems Methodology for appreciating multiple perspectives; System Dynamics modelling for understanding relationships; and the Viable System Model for thinking about governance and organisation in whole system terms.

The case studies from practice demonstrate that systems approaches provide valuable ways forward for dealing with intransigent problems characterised by:

  • Complex and uncertain interactions, with consequences that cannot easily be predicted;
  • Multiple goals (e.g., economic, social and environmental) in tension with one another;
  • Multiple scales (e.g., local, regional, national and global);
  • Multiple agencies, organisations, groups and communities involved or affected;
  • Multiple perspectives on defining both the problem and potential solutions;
  • Conflict, power relations and vested interests making change difficult; and/or
  • Scepticism due to unintended consequences from previous attempted solutions.

Nevertheless, no one methodology or method can respond equally well to all of these complexities, and there is considerable room for the further development of systems theory, concepts, methodologies, methods and practical applications.

Video (31 minutes): “An Introduction to Systems Thinking” presented by Gerald Midgley was a plenary talk at the First Global Conference on Research Integration and Implementation held in Canberra in Australia, online and at three co-conferences (Lueneburg in Germany, The Hague in the Netherlands and Montevideo in Uruguay), 8-11 September 2013. The Microsoft PowerPoint presentation from the video is available as a PDF (200KB).

Please note: in the section of the video where the Viable System Model is discussed, the last slide in the progression of slides about this model has not been reproduced. You can see this slide in this Powerpoint presentation PDF (200KB).

Posted: October 2014
Last modified: June 2015