Are you Using Systematic or System(ic) Thinking?

Systematic and system(ic) thinking form the basis of two different approaches to problem solving.  System(ic) thinking is concerned with examining the ‘whole’ of a system of interest, while systematic thinking focuses on the parts using a step-by-step, methodical approach.  There is now growing recognition that system(ic) thinking is needed to better address the complex, interrelated, social and environmental challenges we will continue to face in the 21st century.  However, system(ic) thinking capabilities are weak in the west (1)  Why is this? And how can we best combine systematic and system(ic) thinking to develop the solutions our complex global issues? 

Although many of us may have some intuitive appreciation of system(ic) thinking, it is quite weak for many in the west.  This is likely due to the dominance of the ‘Newtonian’, ‘reductionist’ and individualist paradigm in the west, which has shaped our thinking in many ways and influenced how we have structured our society.  The western tradition of schooling has mostly taught us to think systematically, using an orderly, step-by-step approach as dictated by the scientific method.  This is premised on the view that the ‘whole’ of a phenomenon is best understood by examining it parts.  This is good for in depth understanding of the properties of individual elements, and the determination of linear, cause-and-effect relationships.  To understand the ‘whole’ that emerges from the interactions between the individual elements, however, requires system(ic) thinking.    

To build capacity in system(ic) thinking, it could be helpful to raise awareness of the differences between system(ic) and systematic thinking and to recognize that these two approaches need not be mutually exclusive.  Combining systematic with system(ic) thinking, indeed, could be very powerful if done in the right way.

So, how can we best combine system(ic) thinking with the dominant, systematic and linear frameworks (logical frameworks, budgets, performance assessments, etc.) that structure most of our planning, management and evaluation processes? How do we incorporate the complexity of our operational contexts which these frameworks fail to capture?  Can we develop processes to allow for the reflection and learning which system(ic) thinking can facilitate?  What are useful methods and tools? These are questions AdaptivePurpose is exploring with partners and clients and through the emerging community of practice “Complexity&Praxis” which AdaptivePurpose is helping establish. We will have more blog posts on our activities and capacity-building we are doing to help social and environmental change makers build their system(ic) thinking capabilities.

[1] This essay is inspired by and drawn from Ray Ison’s writings for the course TU812 “Managing Systemic Change” at the Open University, UK.  See reference below.


Ison, R. (2010). Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World.  The Open University. London, Springer.