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
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
Five Disciplines of Systems Thinking —
Per Peter Senge
Some Applications of Systems Theory
Links to Additional Resources
Related Library Topics
of Change – Understanding How Any System Works
Also See the Library’s Blogs Related to Systems Theory, Chaos Theory and Systems
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
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the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related
Business Planning Blog
Library’s Building a Business Blog
Consulting and Organizational Development Blog
Strategic Planning Blog
Library’s Supervision Blog
Definitions: Systems, Systems Theory, Systems Thinking, Tools
What’s a System?
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
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.
What’s Systems Theory?
What’s Systems Thinking?
What is Systems Thinking?
Introduction to Systems Thinking
of Systems Thinking
Lens — How Different People Can View the Same Organization Very
Thinking – What’s That?
What Are Some Systems Principles?
What Are Some Systems Tools?
Systems Thinking in Organizations
Organizations as Systems
Quick Tour of
Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning (many links)
Theory of Constraints
View: A Social-Technical Perspective
Boundaries in Systems
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
as Open Systems
Thinking and Learning Organizations (scroll down to “Organizations are
system (systems theory)
Examples of Systematic Activities in Organizations
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.
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).
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).
and Advocacy are two primary techniques to identify and reframe
Models – Theoretical Overview
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).
To Lead, Create a Shared Vision
(exit interviews, by media, for a job, selecting job candidate
and research method)
(planning that is carried out well goes a long way toward shared
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”
Team learning: More than group thinking
Some Applications of Systems Theory
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
Definitions of Chaos
What is Chaos Theory?
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
Chaos theory in organizational development
Links to Online Resources
Applying Systems Thinking to the Practice of Six
to Numerous Articles
Technology, Management, and Leadership
Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How?
Tools for Systems Thinker
For the Category of Systems Thinking:
To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may
want to review some related topics, available from the link below.
Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.
Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been
selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.