Systems thinking: Oxfam’s introductory materials

Purpose: To describe some basic elements of systems thinking and how they affect approaches to complex societal and environmental problems.

Description: The report and accompanying video each provide a useful description of systems and show what is required to move to a more systemic approach to a problem when technical solutions focusing on individual parts of a problem are not adequate.

The report describes systems as follows:

We talk about social, environmental and political systems. These interact to form bigger market, governance and ecological systems. Each of these systems is made up of multiple inter-linked parts and actors that influence each other (e.g. formal and informal institutions, natural processes, people and behaviours). For instance, a market system is made up of companies, government agencies, rules and regulations and physical assets (such as infrastructure) as well as environmental, social and political factors that will influence how the market operates and who participates in it. It is not possible to understand what is happening in any of these systems by looking at their individual parts. For instance, imagine trying to understand why there was no water in the river by looking at the riverbed. To understand what is happening we need to understand how the different parts of the system interact and affect each other, which actors are affecting the system and what motivates them. In the case of the river, we would need to understand the environmental factors – such as rainfall and percolation of water into the soil – as well as the different human activities that are having an impact on the water levels.

Highlighted are the necessity of, along with some tools for:

  • Shifting away from fixed, long-term planning to more iterative and adaptive planning based on learning and experimentation. Tools include a table comparing characteristics of technical problems and adaptive challenges, a discussion of adaptive capacity and a comparison of log frames and cycles of action and reflection.
  • Recognising that individual paradigms and pre-conceived ideas often limit ability to understand local contexts. Tools include ways of broadening perspectives.
  • Focusing on multi-stakeholder approaches and co-creation with local stakeholders. Tools include ways of managing power differences, of engaging uninterested stakeholders, and of engaging marginalised groups.

Although the target audience is Oxfam’s own staff and other development practitioners, the resources are more widely useful. 

Video (5 minutes): “Systems Thinking” by Oxfam Great Britain was a video presentation created as an introduction to systems thinking for Oxfam staff, uploaded in 2015. Online:

Reference: Bowman, K., Chettleborough, J., Jeans, H., Rowlands, J. and Whitehead, J. (2015). Systems Thinking: An introduction for Oxfam programme staff, October 2015, Oxfam: Oxford, United Kingdom. Online at:

Related tools on this website:

Related tools on the i2Insights blog:

Related topics on Wikipedia:
There are several relevant entries, with the following as key:

Posted: August 2016
Last modified: March 2020