The past 60 years have revealed a unique and profound transformation in the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Climate change, biodiversity decline, societal inequality, food insecurity, and various other chronic and acute stressors and crises are straining the resilience of our communities and the environment.
These issues are systemic problems, and only systems thinking can address systemic problems.
There are decades’ worth of research and insights on systems thinking from the likes of Kauffman, Meadows, Senge, Ackoff, and more to wade through. But, we have done the heavy lifting for you. We have compiled what we consider to be key resources for corporate sustainability practitioners whose work will benefit from seeing and articulating thorny problems in new and different ways.
But first, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s briefly talk about systems and why leading companies adopt a systems view of their business.
Why do leading companies think in systems?
At the most fundamental level, a system is any group of interacting elements that comprise a dynamic, complex, and unified whole. Systems thinking can be understood as both a philosophy and a perspective that recognises the interconnection between the parts of a system and synthesizes these elements into a unified view of the whole.
Your company, and every business, is embedded within an intricate network of systems, and so business leaders need to understand that every organisation is dependent on a complex set of environmental, social, and economic system foundations. Your company’s activities affect the resilience of these systems – either as negative impacts or as positive contributions.
Systems thinking allows you to better understand, anticipate, and avoid possible negative consequences of your decisions on the communities, environments, and economies in which your company is embedded. Considering that industry is awash in systemic sustainability-related problems, there is no better time than right now to become acquainted.
Systems thinking also allows you to focus attention and energy on those parts of the system where you can make a meaningful difference. By understanding the interrelationships between different elements and processes, we can identify interventions that have significant leverage in the broader system.
How can your organisation build its systems thinking capabilities?
It can be challenging to wrap your head around systems thinking and to identify systems in the world around you, and harder yet to know where best to begin. Before you commit yourself to reading an entire textbook on the subject, consider these five introductory resources, which will help you get started:
1. Introduction to Systems Thinking
When it comes to explaining systems and systems thinking, we have just barely scratched the surface. Fortunately, Daniel H. Kim has written an excellent primer that will help you to learn the language of systems and acquaint yourself with some of the tools that will help you to translate systems thinking principles into practice.
2. Tools for Systems Thinkers: Getting into Systems Dynamics… and Bathtubs
A key outcome for better understanding systems is learning about boundaries, stocks, and flows. There are many articles and reports that explore and explain these concepts, but few use approachable (and enjoyable) terms and tone. This brief article from Leyla Acaroglu is a fast, fun, and approachable read that will help you to better understand these aspects of a system. It includes a useful illustration in the context of life-cycle analysis in supply chains. The article can also help you to share this understanding with those on your team and beyond, empowering them to better identify the scope of the system they want to assess and the connections therein.
3. Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking
In addition to her writing on the more granular and tangible aspects of systems, Leyla Acaroglu penned this primer on the most common and important themes within systems thinking. This primer on interconnectedness, synthesis, emergence, and more will help you to quickly adopt a systems mindset by unpacking some of the most common, specific, and daunting concepts in systems thinking.
4. Donella Meadows’ recommendations for how to dance with and intervene in systems
On the subject of introducing and integrating systems thinking into corporate strategy, the works of Donella Meadows – particularly her insights into leverage points – remain hallowed. Building out from this work on leverage points, one of her final contributions to systems thinking discourse was a 14-point set of guidelines for facilitating positive change in a system. This great Medium article from Daniel Christian Wahl succinctly summarises her advice.
5. What are Indigenous and Western Ways of Knowing?
The growing emphasis on systems thinking in Western science and management, while important, is not novel. Over millennia, Indigenous cultures around the world have developed and implemented sophisticated forms of systems thinking that recognised their communities’ interdependence with the natural systems, in which they live. This short article provides an initial introduction to this with an emphasis on Australian First Nations. There remains much we can learn from these longstanding traditions of systems thinking.