What is Systems Thinking? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 How Do You Think?
  • 0:26 Problem Solving &…
  • 1:44 Examples
  • 2:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Olga Bugajenko

Olga is a registered PRINCE2 Practitioner and has a master's degree in project management.

What is more effective: breaking a problem down into bite-sized pieces or taking a helicopter view? Learn about the systems thinking approach and the best situations in which to apply it.

How Do You Think?

If you have ever participated in a classroom discussion or a corporate meeting, you must have noticed that different people approach a problem presented to them in very different ways. This is because everyone's thinking patterns are different. Nevertheless, there are some common patterns or approaches. Some people will focus on small details, while others prefect to take a holistic view.

Problem Solving & Systems Thinking

The traditional problem solving approach usually breaks down an object or problem into smaller components and analyzes each of the parts individually. As a result, it can ignore crucial relationships between the studied object and its environment. The elements from the surrounding environment that are connected to and interact with the object in question are known as a system.

The systems-thinking approach takes into consideration the surrounding system. By taking into account the dependencies within the system, this approach is able to effectively solve complex problems with a lot of interrelated components. For effective application of systems thinking, it's important to understand the design of the studied system. A system with defined boundaries is called closed, while one without clear boundaries is called open and is far more common in the real world. Each system will have defined inputs and outputs, along with a process for transforming inputs into outputs. The systems can be further classified based on the techniques used to manage and analyze them:

  • Hard: using computer analysis for quantifiable problems
  • Soft: often including people and focus on their interactions
  • Evolutionary: which are able to change over time

Finally, a system is never fully isolated. It exists in space, and it can be overlapping or nested within another system.


The systems thinking approach produces best results in situations that:

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