The Systems Thinking Process

System means a configuration of parts connected and joined together by a web of relationships. Systems thinking and the practice of systems thinking is a set of methods and ways to identify and address challenges; to see underlying patterns, find leverage points; and to choose actions that may provide healthier outcomes. Systems thinking and practices address four major questions:

  1. How can one map the environment within which we live, as a system?
  2. How can one engage the system to have highly leveraged impact?
  3. What is the system’s underlying theory of change?
  4. How can one test a system to learn and adapt?

The previous blog addressed the general nature of systems thinking.  It described briefly six phases of systems thinking:  Launch; Discovery; Build Maps; Find Leverage; Act Strategically and Learn.

This blog deals with Launch and Discovery


First, start with questions such as what is happening, what trends do you notice, how are the parts related, what influences the patterns, what values, assumptions, and what beliefs shape the system? This initial work will help you focus on the challenge at hand.

In the section, it is important to articulate the guiding and near stars – the goals of your process.  These “stars” are designed to achieve a healthier system state, not a typical end-state like corporate goals. For example, rather than reaching a specific number of people with a training effort, your guiding star would be a system by which overall education within a community improves. 

To define your guiding star, ask “What future system is your team working toward?” The guiding star is a vision that is framed as a desired future system toward which you are working. A near star is a 5-10 year goal that is framed as a distant, yet foreseeable and achievable, step toward the guiding star.

Ask several questions for your near star: (a) What have you learned about being effective in your problem; (b) What do you know about this area? (c) What outcomes are most important to you? (d) What specific areas of the challenge are within your strengths? (e) What trends, research, or bright spots have you identified that point to promising approaches?  


Examples of Guiding Stars and Near Stars:

Guiding: Eligible citizens are motivated to vote, can do so with ease, and trust government officials so that election outcomes are fair and legitimate;

Near: A modern, voter-centric election system, comprising of, (a) modernized voter registration systems; (b) states assume a primary role in voter registration, making voting less burdensome; (c) improving and equalizing access; and (d) reducing the risk of low voter turnout;

Guiding:  A system that eradicates the worst form of human exploitation in corporate supply chains;

Near: A new standard and verification methods for corporate supply chain practices that increase responsibility and decrease the risk of labor abuse.



During the next phase, discovery, it is important to cast a wide net to illuminate the various forces that cause your system to behave as it does.  This phase is influenced by the quality of your data and your interpretation of that data to develop themes and priorities for future systems work.

It’s important to define the forces that are causing the current condition. Ask yourself the following questions: (a) Why is the system the way it is? (b) Have you defined your terms so that your team is using the same language? (c) Have you avoided baking in preferred solutions? (d) Have you analyzed your assumptions;

Lastly, be sure that you have identified the stocks and flows of your system.  For example, a stock could be knowledge and the flow could be the transfer of that knowledge through education or mentoring. For another example, a stock could be numbers of people in a community and the flows could be people arriving or leaving. The stocks and flows analysis may be useful as you build your system’s maps. What forces inhibit and what forces enable the system to work toward your guiding and near stars? You could start by brainstorming the ideas and then clustering ideas into themes. Define six to eigth hemes that include enablers and inhibitors.


Examples of two themes and some enablers and inhibitors:

The U.S. financial inclusion team identified factors that enable and inhibit a household’s financial health.

Income stability and predictability (enablers): Consistent wage payment; predictable wage; earned income tax credit; right balance between income and expenses; predictable work schedule.

Mistrust in financial institutions (inhibitors): Institutionalized behavior; business models conflict with consumer needs; lack of physical proximity to financial institutions; complicated bank language; intractable racial issues; prior bad experiences with financial institutions. 


Try to identify upstream causes (things that lead to the theme) or downstream effects (things that the theme causes to happen). Do this analysis for each theme. Causes can be a combination of physical and social aspects of an environment (e.g., housing stocks, transportation system), attitudinal (e.g., institutionalized racism, lack of social capital) and even processes used by people (e.g., community leadership, political processes).


Mistrust of Financial Institutions:

Upstream: lack of physical proximity of financial institutions to low-income communities; business models conflict with needs for low-income customers’ communities; self-fulfilling prophecies after bad experiences with financial institutions; complicated bank language.

Downstream:  large number of people are under-banked; proliferation of non-traditional predatory lending firms; focus on the short-term; fatalism that financial prosperity is unattainable; sensational stories of financial scandals; high demand for predatory lenders.


Next, look for patterns where no force exists in isolation.  Each force has a cause and effect and they are connected. Look for loops. This mapping supports a key premise:  that sustaining large-scale change only happens if the entrenched patterns are changed that drive the system.

Frame your key factors as nouns that can increase or decrease.  They should capture the essence of what you feel is important. For example, the legitimacy of the government; pride in the school system. Look for logical linkages and add or subtract information that makes the system story clearer and more compelling. Your loops are formed in ways that start with a factor and then look for what it causes and causes it. Provide a label to the loop. Try to understand how the factors are increasing or decreasing. Is an increase in factor A causing a decrease in factor B?

Here is a loop about mistrust of financial institutions:

This mistrust led to a large number of people being unbanked. This situation increased their financial stress which made these customers less attractive to the banks. This loss of attraction made the banks less responsive to their client’s needs which made the mistrust of financial institutions even greater. 

Mistrust in financial institutions (+)->(+) people under banked (+)->(+) financial stress (+)-> (-) customer attractiveness to the bank (-)->(-) responsiveness of bank (-)->(+) mistrust in financial institutions.

Sometimes you care create different types of loops:  vicious (things are getting worse and worse); virtuous (things are getting better and better); stabilizing (keeping things from gettering worse); and stagnating (keeping things from getting better).

If you find this work infinitely expansive, you are understanding the demands of systems thinking. This way of thinking is expansive and needs to be organized to be useful to you.  In future blogs I’ll show you how to capture your work in maps then find leverage points for focused work.  These phases are focusing and helpful to gain a handle on how to influence and improve a system to achieve your guiding and near stars.


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