Why every designer should be a systems thinker

What is systems thinking and how does it add value to a designer’s thinking, methods and practice? These are learnings from my own experience as both a systems thinking practitioner and from up-skilling leadership and teams around the world.

Original illustration by Jackie Nam on Freepik.com

1. What is a system?

A system is a a group of interrelated elements organized towards a shared outcome.

e.g. a breakfast table with dishes, utensils and food stuffs is not a system. One does not influence the other. The milk has no influence on the fork, remove the jar of Marmite and you can still have breakfast (hopefully).

A car is a system. Without the engine the car would not move nor would the engine move on its own (1).

If you split a glass of milk in two you would have two glasses of milk — a glass of milk is not a system. If you split a cow in two you would get a dead cow — the cow is a system (no cows were hurt in this experiment).

In my experience, most customer problems are system problems. A person reasons and acts based on a multitude of different influences; from their personal emotions, experience or knowledge to company guidelines, IT systems, colleagues, friends, family, culture, etc.

…most customer problems are system problems

Understanding what the most significant influences on the customer are, how they interact and relate in a given situation is possible if we understand the system the customer is a part of.

2. What is systems thinking?

“Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character” — Peter Senge (2)

Systems thinking is simply thinking in terms of systems and system dynamics (3). Being able to understand through insights collection, sense making and modelling how a multitude of different forces influence each other at the same time or in which sequence, how they relate, behave together and produce outcomes.

3. What is systems thinking compared to analytical thinking?

Analytical thinking helps us understand how stuff works, and systems thinking helps us understand why stuff works.

Analytical thinking takes something apart, systems thinking focuses on what something is a part of.

Analytical Thinking identifies the properties and behaviors of the parts taken separately, Systems Thinking understands the behavior of the bigger whole (4).

Imagine you are trying to understand the design of car engine. Analytical Thinking would take the engine apart, understand the components individually then put it back together and understand the whole as the sum of its parts.

With Systems Thinking you would ask why the engine is the way it is in the first place. And you would start to see influences like the thermo dynamics of fuel, if it’s a family car or a race car, the local government regulations etc.

Read more: The difference between Analytical thinking and Systems thinking.

4. Seeing the whole

When choosing a model to make sense of the world (5) it is easy to autopilot into a top-of-mind model which only includes part of what we are trying to understand.

Many common models are simple models using singular data sets / insights to describe the narrative from only one perspective. A model can often be the initial source of bias when trying to make sense of something (all models are biased). Be careful with models!

Blindfolded man walking with his hands carefully raised
Illustration by Dalina at Freepik.com

E.g. a persona or a customer journey are one-dimensional models describing only parts of the environments they are trying to portray. These models present the world as something simple often linear and with direct relationships between cause and effect.

It has also been my experience that these models are poor at helping cross-functional teams share and externalize their knowledge since they are asking everyone to look at a situation from the same perspective.

Modelling a system partially can hide important insights and relationships. If we don’t understand how things are connected and influence each other our solution might fix one problem, but as the change cascades through the system new problems emerge. This common behavior is often called out through quotes like:

“Every time you solve a problem you create one” — Kevin Slavin (6)

“In a system there are no side effects, only effects” James Paine, MIT (7)

Read more: Understanding complex systems

Over-use of models is the flip side of this coin. Trying to map everything with extensive use of different models like SWOT, journeys, personas, actors mapping, empathy maps, the customer value canvas, the business model canvas etc. With too many models the risk increases that the models don’t communicate, inform each other or help the team prioritize across. More models aren’t necessarily better. Fewer models might focus and strengthen the insights collection and sensemaking.

scribbles of four messy balls with a string combining them depicting four chaotic models
Illustration by Asyam Design on freepik.com

It’s more important to use the right model at the right time than to use every model all the time.

5. A different way of thinking

“You can not solve a problem with the same thinking that created it” – A. Einstein

What influences a system is different from what influences a simple cause-and-effect relationship.

Think of influencing a system like administering a vaccine. The injection doesn’t go into your body and take out the disease. It trains the immune system to look for, detect and reject future bacteria or virus. A vaccine works because it uses the properties and dynamics inherit in the system (body) to work.

When thinking in systems we have to take into account the dynamics of the system we want to influence. This means that how we make improvements might seem counterintuitive compared to traditional direct cause and effect thinking:

e.g. in linear thinking if our goal is to increase the efficiency of an organization’s operations we would centralize and standardize (Zuboff). But from a systems perspective these changes would not necessarily speed up the organization but rather slow it down. In a system the flow of information is critical(x). Increasing the flow of information will lead to more transparency, these will then support more autonomy and the company could design for its coordinated parts (teams) learning together to solve their shared opportunity. In linear thinking you assume the solution is known and you are trying to have less people decide. In systems thinking you assume the perfect answer is not known, but needs to be learned and you motivate the whole system to learn and share — increasing the speed and scale of learning. What solution fits best for an organization is for them to decide, but you can see the almost polar opposite approaches and ways of thinking.

According to Donella Meadows there are 12 ways to intervene in a system (8). Each one with its unique costs and effects. Read more about the 12 leverage points here.

An illustrated overview of Donella Meadows 12 leverage points to intervene in a system
Source: Carina Angheloiu, IPCC: a site for innovation in its own right?

A systems mindset challenges us to think differently about how and where we can have influence in the world. This requires curiosity, discovery and openness. It demands that we reflect and inquire into what we think the world is and why we think that.

Assumptions need to be understood and brought into the open to be tested. People who are not open to admitting they could be wrong or not trying to challenge their own thinking will see little benefit from systems thinking.

“If managers ‘believe’ their world views are facts rather than sets of assumptions, they will not be open to challenging those world views. If they lack skills in inquiring into theirs and others’ ways of thinking they will be limited in experimenting collaboratively with new ways of thinking.” — Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (9)

In linear or direct thinking there is a clear and simple assumption about cause and effect. If we do more of x, y will happen. With systems there is often a complex set of interrelations that makes simple answers spin out of control, sometimes producing the opposite effect of what is intended.

In my own experience there is a big aha-moment when you realize that how you are used to directly infuse a solution into a binary problem makes less sense in a system.

Instead, I would try to identify why the system is operating the way it does — which often would present an entirely different problem. And then figure out how and where to use the system to nudge itself.

6. Finally: what I’ve learned from using systems thinking?

Personally, I have found Systems Thinking to be particularly valuable across a range of opportunities. Here are a few of my key learnings:

  1. Helping diverse teams develop a shared understanding and a shared language
  2. Cross-functional coordination and collaboration
  3. Helping teams understand the humble role of their products and offerings as an influence in the systems where they are a part
  4. Run a more inclusive process where every voice and expertise in the room equally contributes
  5. Produces a one shared view of the whole organization in one market. Seeing how strategies and activities all fit together, competing against or supporting each other
  6. Invites discussions on where to intervene and makes unchecked biases more transparent
  7. Becomes a living map where learnings are immediately captured and synthesized
  8. A self-centric / product centric mindset does not survive in a system.
  9. Teams move from an internal mindset (how we make things) to an outcome focused mindset: how and where do we produce value?
  10. Helping teams appreciate complexity and operate in them
  11. Helps the team understand that the best way to serve the customer is to serve the whole system


(1). Dr. Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking — Pt 2, https://youtu.be/UdBiXbuD1h4

(2). Peter Senge, Seeing systems, http://seeingsystems.weebly.com/what-is-systems-thinking.html

(3). John Sterman, MIT, Introduction to System Dynamics, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnTwZVviXyY

(4). Dr. Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking — Pt 1, https://youtu.be/IJxWoZJAD8k

(5). Farnam Street, Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions, https://fs.blog/mental-models/

(6) Kevin Slavin (former MIT Media Lab): Market trading systems need to be rebuilt for humans | Money | WIRED, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Goa1Y9OBHU

(7). James Paine, System Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-Yp8A7BPE8

(8). Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, https://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

(9). Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifth_Discipline

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