Introduction to Systems Thinking

bigThinking’s mission is to provide an innovation framework that uses systems thinking as a foundation for understanding and solving complex problems. This guide provides an introduction to systems thinking and how its principles, methods and tools can be used for innovation & problem solving. Continue to read for definitions, historical timeline of the discipline, video highlights of leaders in systems thinking, and stories of systems thinking in practice.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems Thinking provides a framework for describing, evaluating and understanding the elements and relationships that shape the behavior of a system. The purpose of this site is to provide an innovation framework that uses systems thinking to understand and solve wicked problems. This section will provide an introduction, including a definition of systems thinking, an overview of the historical timeline of the discipline and video highlights its founding leaders.

What are the Systems Thinking Principles?

Systems thinking can be described as a system for thinking about systems. It provides methods for “seeing wholes and a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.” The intent is to increase understanding and determine the point of “highest leverage”, the places in the system where a small changes can make a big impact. Here an introduction to the six foundational principles that drive systems thinking methods.

Wholeness & Interaction

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts (the property of the whole, not the property of the parts; The product of interactions, not the sum of actions of the parts)


Living systems can only be understood in the context of its environment. No problem or solution is valid free of context


Cause and effect is iterative, not linear, predictable or one-directional. Identifying the any patterns that emerge from several agents who are free to act autonomously. Looking for patterns and trends over time as a part of the natural dynamics of system. 


The boundaries of a whole system may be chosen and defined at a level suitable for the particular purpose under consideration; e.g. the education system vs. a single school.


To see complementary relations in opposing tendencies and to create feasible wholes with infeasible parts. There is no single root cause. Building the ability to see complex relationships.


Actions intended to produce a desired outcome may generate opposite results. Cause & effect may be separated in time and space


Here’s our list of worksheets, presentations, exercises, diagrams, audio materials and other “bigThinking” resources that can be downloaded for free.

People & Behaviors

On becoming a systems thinker; an exploration of the habits & behaviors of systems thinkers.


The process for amplifying human capabilities and solving the world’s wicked problems with computer science, systems thinking and creative intelligence.

Discovering Ideas

Expanding your solution space. Get a diverse group of people, from different points of view, who are seeing different parts of the system to come together and they will collectively begin to see something that individually none of them could see. 

Understanding Problems

Begin with an understanding of how things work.  Difficulties in solving problems often stem from the fact that problems do not occur in isolation, but in relation to each other. Attempting to solve complex issues without systems thinking can result in more problems or unintended consequences. The solution may only address a part or a symptom of the system, rather than creating solution that addresses a root cause. Systems thinking is a powerful approach for understanding the nature of why situations are the way they are, and how to go about improving results. Really understand the evolution of things; how did this evolve over time. What’s been done already? What didn’t work? Why?

Brainstorming Solutions

Successful brainstorming ensures that you are taking the necessary time to generate great ideas and requires prior knowledge and understanding of the system of impact and its connections. Adopt a flexible, open-minded approach to brainstorming & executing solutions. The best solution could be one that does not involve writing any code or deploying new technologies and may be as simple as the right person making a better policy decision and enforcing it consistently. 

Building Solutions

The primary goal for building a solution is to test that the idea will provide the expected impact. Understanding your desired impact and being clear on what you are testing is critical before taking action.

Measuring Impact

Measuring Results is the process for quantifying the outcome of your actions. Results should be measured continually to proactively address performance drift and identify opportunities for improvement and adjustment.

Projects & Practice

Examples of systems thinking activities and an exploration of systems thinking projects in practice (in real life).