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Systems Thinking, Systems Tools and Chaos Theory

Guidelines for analyzing and improving systems are included in the books Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development and Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development with Nonprofits .

Three of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and successfully guide changes in ourselves, others and organizations are systems theory, systems thinking and systems tools. To understand how they are used, we first must understand the concept of a system. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the concept. However, we need to make that intuition even more explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools.

Sections of This Topic Include

Much of the content of this topic came from this book: Consulting and Organization Development - Book Cover

Basics -- Definitions
- - - What's a System?
- - - What's Systems Theory?
- - - What's Systems Thinking?
- - - What are Some Systems Principles?
- - - What are Some Systems Tools?
Systems Thinking in Organizations
Organizations as Open Systems (examples of organizational systems)
Five Disciplines of Systems Thinking -- Per Peter Senge
Some Applications of Systems Theory
Chaos Theory
Links to Additional Resources

Also see
Creative Thinking
Critical Thinking
Systems Thinking
Strategic Thinking
Related Library Topics
Theory of Change - Understanding How Any System Works

Also See the Library's Blogs Related to Systems Theory, Chaos Theory and Systems Thinking

In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Systems Theory, Chaos Theory and Systems Thinking . Scan down the blog's page to see various posts. Also see the section "Recent Blog Posts" in the sidebar of the blog or click on "next" near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

Library's Business Planning Blog
Library's Building a Business Blog
Library's Coaching Blog
Library's Consulting and Organizational Development Blog
Library's Leadership Blog
Library's Strategic Planning Blog
Library's Supervision Blog

Definitions: Systems, Systems Theory, Systems Thinking, Tools

What's a System?

Adapted from the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development: Collaborative and Systems Approach to Performance Change and Learning.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in how we understand and guide change in organizations is systems theory and systems thinking. To understand how they are used in organizations, we first must understand a system. Many of us have an intuitive understanding of the term. However, we need to make the understanding explicit in order to use systems thinking and systems tools in organizations.

Simply put, a system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, which together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. So a system is usually made up of many smaller systems, or subsystems. For example, an organization is made up of many administrative and management functions, products, services, groups and individuals. If one part of the system is changed, the nature of the overall system is often changed, as well -- by definition then, the system is systemic, meaning relating to, or affecting, the entire system. (This is not to be confused with systematic, which can mean merely that something is methodological. Thus, methodological thinking -- systematic thinking -- does not necessarily mean systems thinking.)

Systems range from simple to complex. There are numerous types of systems. For example, there are biological systems (for example, the heart), mechanical systems (for example, a thermostat), human/mechanical systems (for example, riding a bicycle), ecological systems (for example, predator/prey) and social systems (for example, groups, supply and demand and also friendship). Complex systems, such as social systems, are comprised of numerous subsystems, as well. These subsystems are arranged in hierarchies, and integrated to accomplish the overall goal of the overall system. Each subsystem has its own boundaries of sorts, and includes various inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes geared to accomplish an overall goal for the subsystem. Complex systems usually interact with their environments and are, thus, open systems.

A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving the goal of the system. If any of the parts or activities in the system seems weakened or misaligned, the system makes necessary adjustments to more effectively achieve its goals.

A pile of sand is not a system. If you remove a sand particle, you have still got a pile of sand. However, a functioning car is a system. Remove the carburetor and you no longer have a working car.

Definition of a System

What's Systems Theory?

What is Systems Theory?
Introduction to Systems Theory
What is management and what do managers do? A systems theory account
Principia Cybernetica's list of links
Managing Boundaries in Systems

What's Systems Thinking?

What is Systems Thinking?
Introduction to Systems Thinking
Overview of Systems Thinking
Organizational Lens -- How Different People Can View the Same Organization Very Differently
Systems Thinking - What's That?

What Are Some Systems Principles?

Some Systems Principles (for changing systems)
Principles of Change

What Are Some Systems Tools?

Logic Models
Systems Context Diagram
System Diagrams
Systems Dynamics (scroll down to "causal loop diagrams")
Systems Mapping

Systems Thinking in Organizations

Business Organizations as Systems
Quick Tour of Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning (many links)
Theory of Constraints
Systems View: A Social-Technical Perspective
Managing Boundaries in Systems
Performance and Family Systems
Systems Thinking – A Leadership Imperative

Organizations as Open Systems (Examples of Systems in Organizations)

Organizations as Open Systems

What's an Open System? (includes depiction)
Benefits of an Open Systems View
Organizations as Open Systems
Systems Thinking and Learning Organizations (scroll down to "Organizations are Open Systems")
Open system (systems theory)

Open Systems Planning

Examples of Systematic Activities in Organizations

Typical Types of Systematic Plans
Examples of Performance Management Systems
Examples of Management Systems for Specific Functions (Boards and Strategic Planning Processes)

Five Disciplines of Systems Thinking -- Per Peter Senge

Peter Senge wrote a seminal book about systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990). In his book, he suggested five disciplines necessary to cultivate systems thinking in an effort or organization. In addition to the discipline of systems thinking, he suggests the following four disciplines, as well.

Personal Mastery

Senge describes personal mastery as "continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively" (The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, 1990, p. 7).
Personal Wellness
Personal Development

Mental Models

Senge explains "Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action" (p. 8).
Inquiry and Advocacy are two primary techniques to identify and reframe mental models
Mental Models
Mental Model Musings
Mental Models - Theoretical Overview
Valuing Diversity

Also see
Appreciative Inquiry
Continuous Learning
Effective Questioning
Inquiry and Advocacy
Inquiry and Reflection
Mental Models (scan down to "Mental Models")

Building Shared Vision

Senge notes "If any one idea about leadership has inspired organizations for thousands of years, it's the capacity to hold a shared picture of the future we seek to create" (p. 9).
Developing a Vision
To Lead, Create a Shared Vision

Also see
Appreciative Inquiry
Interviews (exit interviews, by media, for a job, selecting job candidate and research method)
Planning (planning that is carried out well goes a long way toward shared vision)
Non-Verbal Communications
Vision Statements

Team Learning

Senge asks "How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?" (p. 9.).He adds "Team learning is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations" (p. 10).
Team learning: More than group thinking
Team Building
Group Performance Management

Some Applications of Systems Theory

Management and Leadership: A Systemic Perspective
Victims of the System or Systems of the Victim
Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened
6 Key Benefits of Building Systems

Chaos Theory -- Seeing Patterns and Themes in Chaos

Systems theory has evolved to another level called chaos theory. In this context, chaos does not mean total confusion. Chaos refers to the dynamics of a system that apparently has no, or little, order, but in which there really is an underlying order. In these systems, small changes can cause complex changes in the overall system. (In technical terms, chaos theory applies to complex non-linear dynamics systems.) Chaos theory has introduced new perspectives and tools to study complex systems, such as biological, human, groups, weather, population growth and the solar system.
Definitions of Chaos
Complex Adaptive Systems
What is Chaos Theory?
Deterministic Chaos
Managing Complexity
Complexity, Complex Systems and Chaos Theory
Ted Lumley's Home Page
Complexity Theory: Fact-Free Science or Business Tool?
Bill Huitt's Home Page: Arts as Science
Innovation Network
Chaos theory in organizational development

Links to Online Resources

Applying Systems Thinking to the Practice of Six Sigma
Link to Numerous Articles
Balancing Technology, Management, and Leadership
Systems Thinking Blog
Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How?
Tools for Systems Thinker

For the Category of Systems Thinking:

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