Systems Thinking: Theory and Definition

Systems Thinking - Toolshero

Systems thinking: This article explains systems thinking in a practical way. You can read about the definition of this term, its origin and various examples. You will also read about important elements and you will find practical tips to get started with it yourself. Enjoy reading!

What is Systems Thinking? The basics explained

The definition of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a scientific approach and diagnostic tool for overseeing the whole in solving a problem, rather than focusing on individual elements.

The advantage of this is that it is possible to properly consider what role certain parts of a system play in the larger whole.

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The behavior of a system is viewed as an interplay of interacting building blocks, rather than a simple chain of cause and effect relationships. Feedback plays an important role in this. You will read more about the concept of feedback or feedback loops later.

Systems thinking as a discipline has developed since the 1950s and continues to be expanded with theories (systems theory) and methods. It is therefore not a stand-alone theory or technique, but rather a way of understanding complex systems.

It is mainly aimed at discovering connections, patterns and relationships between different elements, in order to understand how a system works.

It has become an important part of many subject areas. It originally arose from a concern of specialists about the increasing complexity of systems and organizations. But also in biology and psychology, for example, as noted by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

In brief:

  • Systems thinking looks at connected wholes instead of separate parts; the big picture
  • Systems thinkers are curious and have an open mind
  • A systems thinker is constantly trying to expand the range of methods and options available to solve a problem

When is Systems Thinking used?

It can be used to solve a complex problem at work, school or even at home. The key is to apply a systems thinking perspective when problems have many interrelated parts.

According to the systems thinker, that could be a problem that meets the following four criteria:

  • The matter is important
  • The problem is recurring
  • The problem is known and has a known history
  • People have previously unsuccessfully tried to solve the problem

What is a System?

According to Talcott Parsons, a system is a complex set of interdependencies between parts, components, and processes that relate to distinct regularities of a relationship, as to similar interdependencies between such a complex whole and its environment.

Gestalt psychology is an example of this in psychology. Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Lewin were the founders of this.

They argued that certain functionally related units that are inextricably linked also contain human characteristics.

Systems thinking: feedback and synthesis

Words like interconnectedness, feedback loops, and synthesis can sound overwhelming to some people. They are important characteristics of this problem solving approach. A few main themes are therefore discussed below.

Mutual connection

Instead of linear, systems thinking should be thought in a circular way. This change of mentality is necessary because in a system everything is connected. This concept is also very present in biology.

Everything that lives needs something else to survive. People need oxygen, food and water. For example, trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight. Many things need other things to survive. If one fails, it has an effect on many other living parts.


Synthesis refers to combining two or more things to create something new. Synthesis, unlike analysis, is the primary goal. Analysis fits more into a reductionist worldview, where the world or systems are divided into parts. Synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness.

Feedback loops

Because everything in a system is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows of information between the elements of a system. It is important to understand these feedback loops, especially the dynamics that drive them.


To properly understand feedback loops, there must be an understanding of causality.

Causality deals with the question: How does one result in the other? In a dynamic and constantly evolving system, this is a major challenge. Cause and effect are common concepts in life. Parents also try to explain these things to their children. Certain actions lead to consequences.

Causality as a concept in systems thinking is about anything that helps to decipher how things interact. A good understanding of this leads to a deeper perspective on feedback loops, connections and relationships. All fundamental parts of mapping systems.

Systems mapping

Systems mapping is one of the most important tools of the systems thinker. There are many ways to do this, from analog mapping to complex digital feedback analysis.

Its principles are universal. It involves identifying elements within a system and elaborating on them to understand they are interrelated.

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Now it is your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation of systems thinking? Do you have experience with systems thinking? Or are your colleagues working on this discipline? In which other fields do you think is this approach important? Do you want more information about a topic that is linked to this? Let us know in the comments below.

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Assaraf, O. B. Z., & Orion, N. (2010). System thinking skills at the elementary school level. Journal of Research in Science Teaching: The Official Journal of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, 47(5), 540-563.
  2. Checkland, P. (1999). Systems thinking. Rethinking management information systems, 45-56.
  3. Zexian, Y., & Xuhui, Y. (2010). A revolution in the field of systems thinking—a review of Checkland’s system thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science: The Official Journal of the International Federation for Systems Research, 27(2), 140-155.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2023). Systems Thinking. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 03/28/2023 | Last update: 12/28/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


One response to “Systems Thinking: Theory and Definition”

  1. Mark van Tatenhove says:

    I am struggling a lot to understand Systems thinking as a whole. I am currently undertaking a Grad Certificate in Project Management, and the subject this semester is Systems in Project Management.

    I have worked over 40 years in Retail Design and Construction, but have not been involved in this broader concept of thinking. I am also managing an ADHD condition, only officially diagnosed last year, so Have struggled for many years trying to overcome my learning difficulties, and to be able to grasp broader management concepts.

    Is there a “template” that might exist to assist in putting this into context?

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