Systems thinking 101: How to understand an increasingly complex world

The short version

  • The modern world is mind-bogglingly complex and our traditional mode of problem solving doesn’t allow us to understand and engage with this complexity.
  • We make interventions in the world and find they are ineffective, inefficient, or have an array of unintended, perverse outcomes.
Unintended consequences
Credit: Lee Sauer

Systems thinking is a new paradigm that encourages and enables us to understand complex systems. It shows us how all the various components within systems interact with and depend on one another. By using systems thinking, we are better able to understand our world and develop meaningful, strategic, and lasting solutions.

Going deeper

Systems thinking is an essential part of creating a sustainable, equitable, conscious world. Here’s what you need to know.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is an emerging way of looking at complex issues.

A system is a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. Think of an ecosystem – different species of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. all interacting with one another in complex ways. Think of systemic racism – it’s not just individuals saying the n-word, it’s the institutions, laws, beliefs, and language that subtly create an effect of inequality and oppression.

In the past, we might be tempted to look at individual pieces of a situation. If the sheep are disappearing, it must be the wolves, right? Get rid of segregation and racism is over, right?

Systems thinking asks us to look at the bigger picture. It allows us to see how and why many distinct elements interact with and build on one another in often unexpected, invisible, and incredible ways.

Systems thinking in action

Imagine a farmer with pest insects eating all her bugs. Traditional thinking would say, OK you have too many pests, so go get some pesticide and spray it around and there you go, no more pests. Easy, right? (If you’re saying “no, not right”, keep in mind this is what we’ve actually been doing for decades now.)

Unfortunately, too often, what appear to be simple fixes actually make the problem worse. In this case, after applying your pesticides, all of a sudden you have more pests. So you go back and get more pesticide, but the problem gets even worse, and so on and so on.

What happened?

More and more, we are finding that what appear to be obvious solutions are not solutions at all. They are actually products of overly simplistic thinking and a failure to grasp the system at play.

What traditional analysis doesn’t allow us to see is that there a many different factors at play. This isn’t a matter of understanding how A affects B, but how A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J all interplay with one another to create J, K, L, M, N, O, and P.

What our farmer didn’t realize is that pesticide is killing some of the pests she is worried about as well as a greater amount of the other insects that would be eating those pests. So the problem gets worse. At the same time, that pesticide is making her crops more resistant to pesticide, making her and her family sick when they eat them, and polluting the local groundwater (which then goes back and reduces her crop yield). There’s a long list of unanticipated consequences. She didn’t see how the whole system is working. She just looked at two parts of it and paid the price.

Credit: Emma Segal (

Why this matters

Systems thinking give us a framework for seeing the whole picture and understanding complex dynamics and interdependencies. When we step back and look at the whole picture, we are better able to determine strategic interventions that we might not otherwise see. This saves us money, time, and allows us to actually address root causes instead of simply putting on a Band-Aid.

In the case of our farmer, when she applies systems thinking she finds that introducing more of the pest’s predators and setting targeted pest traps works better.

When we are dealing with wicked problems, like global poverty, systemic racism, climate change, etc., the ability to deal with complexity is not only helpful, but essential. It allows us to get toward the root of problems and find lasting solutions. Instead of implementing Band-Aid solutions, we look into deeper structural issues that caused poverty, for example, in the first place. With this lens, perhaps we start looking at unfair local tax structures, unregulated trade, ineffective education, and even the belief that poverty is in all cases a product of laziness.

If we don’t look at underlying causes and dynamics, how can we find lasting solutions to complex problems?

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Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA with his partner Sara, child Owen, and cat Winnie.

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