Systems Thinking Explained

Schools as Learning Organizations

What is Systems Thinking?

What are the key elements or characteristics of Systems Thinking that help to explain and flesh out its’ meaning? Comparing how Systems Thinking and the Industrial Model of organizational management relate to these characteristics helps deepen understanding.


This quote by John Donne, many of us are familiar with, does a great job of explaining the basic tenet of Systems Thinking:

‘No Man is an Island’

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.



Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

John Donne, 1624

This evocative prose of John Donne expresses our relationship with our fellow human beings and our place in the great cycle of life and death and provides a perfect introduction to the concept of interconnectedness and Systems Thinking.

Connectedness of parts within the organization

Organizations consist of a number of components, elements or parts.  The Industrial Model thinking is focussed on the parts that make up the organization. Rather than simply understanding the parts of the organization, systems thinkers study the parts AND the relationships between those parts.  Systems Thinking entails perceiving the organization as a dynamic system of interconnected and interdependent parts. 

Interconnectedness outside the organization

This concept of interconnectedness and interdependence extends to the interconnectedness and interdependence of one system with other systems.  Systems Thinking entails not only understanding the individual parts of the organization on their own, but also studying and understanding how they connect with other parts of the organization but also how each organization is a part within other systems each connected to each other.

The idea of connectedness and interdependence that Donne expressed so eloquently can also be explained by a metaphor; the “butterfly effect”.  When one is asked the question – Could a butterfly flapping its’ at the side of a tree located in Peru, cause a typhoon to occur in Kansas?

Someone who is an Industrial Model thinker would virtually answer “no” or perhaps even “of course not”.  But a Systems Thinker would almost always give another answer “Perhaps”.  Because the Systems Thinkers studies and tries to understand the interconnectedness and interdependence of systems they are much, much more able to see the possibility, even though extremely unlikely.  The Systems Thinker, if this were somehow deemed to be important,  would have to study the connections between the two.

Here is another similar kind of question.  Could a single cell organism, morphing in its’ composition and constitution somewhere in China, kill millions across the world and significantly impact the lives of virtually every single human being on earth?  In this case all of us should answer the question “yes” or “of course”. I am sure you can see where this is going.  In this case, I am sure a scientist could create a pathway that explain how it occurred.  If COVID taught us anything, and it did and will continue to teach us a lot it is the interconnectedness of systems.


Another way of understanding Systems Thinking is to examine the approach taken to understand and study the organization.  Industrial model thinkers are mainly concerned with analysis – breaking the organization down into its’ component part and using analysis to understand it more deeply.  The Systems Thinker although seeing the usefulness of analysis for understanding the organization, in addition are very concerned with synthesis – how the parts relate, interconnect and influence each other.  Here is a definition form the internet: “Synthesis” is the ability to combine parts of a whole in new and different ways. It requires students to think flexibly, determine alternatives, and find new ways to accomplish a given task. A more advanced level of abstract thinking is needed for synthesis.

When Systems Thinkers examine the parts and how they are connected or could be connected to each other.  How do the parts relate or engage with one another?  How do they rely or depend on each other?  What is the give and what is the take in each parts of the organization with one another?

They also examine the parts and look at how they are connected as processes – a series of steps or actions taken to achieve a desired outcome.  

Industrial Model thinkers also see the organization as a number of parts most often as “departments”, but with connections between them being supervisory and hierarchical.  The focus is on studying or understanding or analyzing the part as opposed to an emphasis placed on the connections. 


“A system must have an aim.  Without an aim there is no system.”

Edwards Deming

You cannot understand an organization without it having a clearly articulated aim.  In order for an organization be considered a system it must have an aim. Without a clearly designed purpose An organization, through the lens of a systems thinker (seeing the organization as a system) can only be really understood be really understood in conjunction with its’ aim.  Deming’s definition of a system probably says it best: “A system is an interconnected complex of functionally related components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. “

The difference between the two school of thought (Industrial Model and Systems Thinking) is that the Systems Thinker sees the organization as a system and a system MUST have an aim.  Often when we view the organization through the lens of the Industrial model – we may or may not see the organization’s aim.  We may and often do see school districts as a collection of parts; departments, school buildings, functions but not necessarily in conjunction with its’ aim.  A Systems Thinker sees the organization as a system and in order to understand a system, it needs to be viewed with its’ aim.  This may not seem that important, but when these ideas begin to be applied in school improvement initiatives the difference and the importance become crystal clear.