What do we mean by 'systems thinking'?

There is a lot of talk of ‘systems’ at the moment - market systems, environmental systems, governance systems and social systems are all having a moment. But what do we really mean when we talk about addressing them? John Chettleborough, Agricultural Markets and Enterprise Unit Manager at OGB, introduces us to two new resources that can help us understand more.


Taking a ‘systems perspective’ is different to what we’ve been doing traditionally.

Instead of seeing poverty as a series of individual problems and tackling them as such, we recognise that the causes of poverty are much more complicated and interrelated, with multiple moving parts and actors that connect and influence each other. A quick example is a market system made up of companies, Government agencies, rules and regulations, physical assets, as well as environmental, social and political factors. All of these will influence how the market operates and who is in it. This is what you start to see when you draw up a market map.


Structural change can not be achieved, therefore, through a simple linear process in which we can put in place an intervention and be confident that it will have a particular outcome. Rather, we must tackle the whole complex web of the system, and be aware that the impact may be unpredictable, and may even be negative. This is the reality of most of our work, and it has a number of implications for how we operate:


  • Adaptive programming. Gone are the days of planning for five years at a time. The world is too fast paced, and too changeable. We must be more responsive to what we’re learning about the system as we go along.

  • Iterative programming. In reality, we cannot predict exactly what will happen from the start. But we can experiment, test something, see what happens, learn from it and develop our ideas further. This means that some experiments will not work out as planned and that’s OK – as long as we learn from it.

  • Collaborative programming. We gain new insights from working more with others and listening to different perspectives that challenge our pre-conceived ideas, and help us understand the system from multiple angles.

  • Locally-led programing. As Oxfam, we benefit from giving up some of our power and letting local stakeholders, who understand the system better, take more control over the direction of programmes.


For most people, it is obvious that this is how we should work because it is how people live. After all, how many of you could have predicted what you’d be doing now, twenty years ago? Certainly not me -- I planned to be an astronaut!


However, despite the fact that systems thinking is quite intuitive, organisational factors often get in the way of this more adaptive, less prescriptive way of working. Our organisational culture, and our reliance on donor funding, can restrict our ability to work adaptively or experiment in programmes.


I believe that things can change though, and that if we apply systems thinking effectively to our work, we can achieve greater, deeper impact on a larger scale. If you’re a believer too (or think you might be), take a look at the Guide to Systems Thinking on SUMUS and accompanying animation (below). The guide is intended to help people understand what is meant by systems thinking. You may be surprised -- it certainly is not rocket science and a lot of you are probably doing it already! We hope to stimulate people to want to learn more and to encourage teams across the organisation to support Oxfam in developing a culture that incorporates the greater application of systems thinking.


Enjoy the read and the animation and I would love to hear any feedback.


Oxfam staff can access the guide and the animation on this SUMUS page. 


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