Systems Thinking Resources

Concepts and Frameworks

The Five Learning Disciplines

Developed by renowned systems thinker Peter Senge, these five disciplines each enhance the ability of a person or organization to use learning effectively. Leveraged together, they contribute heavily to the success of learning organizations, defined by Senge as, “…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

The five learning disciplines are

  1. Personal Mastery
  2. Mental Models
  3. Shared Vision
  4. Team Learning
  5. Systems Thinking

For descriptions of each of these disciplines, visit the Society for Organizational Learning’s website. To read a more in-depth discussion of Senge’s ideas, we recommend this article from Infed.

 

U Process

U Process, also know as Theory U, is a useful methodology for collectively approaching difficult problems and developing innovative, appropriate solutions. This process, pictured below, guides participants through a series of steps. It begins by observing reality as it is, retreating and reflecting on those observations, and then enacting a new reality.

For more information about U Process, visit the Presencing Institute. This presentation by Dr. C. Otto Scharmer of the Presencing Institute is especially helpful in understanding the theory.

Visual diagram of the U Process model of problemsolving

 

Biomimicry

Biomimicry is the concept of using natural forms, materials, and processes as models to drive human innovation. Because it has been evolving and perfecting its systems for millions of years, nature can provide powerful examples of sustainable solutions. For instance, an oyster’s mechanisms for filtering water might be used to inform man-made filtration systems, or a a forest ecosystem that breaks down and reuses its own detritus might inform the design of a waste-treatment facility.

The Biomimicry Guild has a great introduction to this approach to problem solving. More helpful resources can be found at Biomimicry 3.8.

 

Double Loop Learning

Double loop learning is a learning process that goes beyond surface level goals, techniques, and responses to target the  assumptions and values underlying the system. The idea is to enable solutions to problems that are complex and ill-structured. Argyris and Schön, who developed and elaborated the double loop theory, describe different types of learning as follows:

When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its presents objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives.

If we continue the example of the thermostat above, a double loop thermostat would ask why before altering the temperature–are there people here to enjoy the heat? Are the people dressed appropriately? Could we open or close a window instead? The double loop thermometer takes into account its current environment and situation when making decisions.To learn more about this learning tool, try reading Infed’s article on Chris Argyris or visiting Instructional Design’s Double Loop Learning page.

diagram describing the process of double loop learning

Image courtesy of Don Clark and his OODA and Double-Loop Learning Activity page

 

Tools

The Bathtub Theorem

This simple theorem is easily visualized by imagining a bathtub: water enters the tub via the faucet and it exits through the drain, through leaks, or by overflowing the sides. These two flows of water–the inflow and the outflow–together determine the water level and stability of the bathtub. To maintain a constant level, the inflow must equal the outflow.

The bathtub theorem is a useful mental model when thinking about issues like economics and climate change. This simulation from Climate Interactive is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the theorem while simultaneously learning about the relationship between carbon emissions and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

bathtub

 

Stock and Flow Diagramming

These diagrams are an important way to visualize and understand how a system of different elements is working together. As Donella Meadows wrote in Thinking in Systems,”If you understand the dynamics (behavior over time) of stocks and flows, you understand a good deal about the behavior of complex systems.” In describing stocks and flows, Donella Meadows stated, “A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity of material or information that has built up over time.  It may be a population, an inventory, the wood in a tree, the water in a well, the money in a bank…Stocks change over time through the actions of flows, usually actual physical flows into or out of a stock–filling, draining, births, deaths, production, consumption, growth, decay, spending, saving.  Stocks, then, are accumulations, or integrals, of flows.”

Below is a more complex example of a stock and flow diagram that illustrates the volume of living wood in a forest. For more information on stocks and flows and this diagram, read this excerpt from Thinking in Systems.

stock and flow diagram of a forest

 

Open Space

Open Space is a technique for organizing meetings, conferences, symposiums, and community events. Open Space meetings are focused around a particular topic or purpose, but they begin without a formal agenda. Participants are asked to create the agenda themselves by proposing topics that feel important to them, and in this way Open Space events are tailored to the needs and interests of participants. For more information about Open Space principles and hot to use them, read this primer or visit openspaceworld.org.

 

World Café

World Café is a tool that facilitates dialogue amongst large groups. It’s simple, flexible approach is based on seven design principles:

  1. Set the Context
  2. Create Hospitable Space
  3. Explore Questions that Matter
  4. Encourage Everyone’s Contribution
  5. Connect Diverse Perspectives
  6. Listen Together for Patterns and Insights
  7. Share Collective Discoveries

Events hosted using the World Café process are broken into multiple short discussion sessions. During each session, participants meet around tables in small groups to discuss a question posed at the beginning of that round, and then move to a new table with different people before the next round of discussions. At the end of the meeting, insights from the many discussions are shared with the entire group.

If you’d like to learn more, the World Café website is a great source of information about this dialogue process.

 

Natural Leadership Training

Sandra Geisler and her company LIGHTHORSE offer natural leadership coaching and training sessions, workshops, and consultancy services for businesses and individuals. These trainings focus on the areas of leadership, team and organizational development, and sustainability, and they use horses as partners in the process because of their mirroring and social skills. Participants learn how to act with trust, respect, and understanding; how to communicate openly and transparently; how to lead with vision and intention; and how to reach personal goals in concert with the world around them. It is a leadership approach based on being present and receptive.

For more information about Natural Leadership Training and LIGHTHORSE, watch the video below or visit the LIGHTHORSE website.

 

Graphic Facilitation

Graphic facilitation is the process of translating complex concepts into a visual language of words and pictures and recording them in real time. This strategy can be a very effective way to summarize and communicate complex ideas and to allow participants to see and internalize the big picture of a discussion or presentation.

The following example by graphic facilitator Brandy Agerbeck helps to explain the graphic facilitation process and how it can help clarify and synthesize ideas. For more information, the Center for Graphic Facilitation is a great resource, as is Stine Arensbach’s Graphic Facilitation website.

Diagram of the graphic facilitation process--listening, thinking, organizing, drawing

Image courtesy of Brandy Agerbeck

 

Organizations and Online Tools

The Waters Foundation

The Waters Foundation is dedicated to promoting the use of systems thinking concepts, habits, and tools in K-12 schools. They have developed a variety of resources for teachers, students, and individuals interested in increasing their systems literacy. These many resources include a detailed page explaining 13 habits of a systems thinker, as well as their free WebEd course with nine modules that help users develop the systems thinking skills. Teachers can find lesson ideas and even entire lesson plans in their resources section.

 

Creative Learning Exchange

Creative Learning Exchange is another organization that promotes systems dynamics and systems thinking education in schools. Led by a group of systems thinking leaders, including MIT Professor Emeritus Jay Forrester, the organization offers lessons for K-12 students as well as opportunities for educators to explore systems concepts on their own. In addition, the Creative Learning Exchange hosts a biennial conference on systems thinking in education.

 

Linda Booth Sweeney’s Website

As an educator and author, Linda Booth Sweeney has a wealth of experience helping others to understand and work within living systems. Her website provides visitors with accessible materials that help communicate complex systems concepts. It features an extensive list of books and resources about systems thinking, as well as Talking About Systems, Linda’s own blog about systems-related issues.

 

About DMI

Since its founding in 1996 by environmental leader Donella Meadows, our Institute has been at the forefront of sustainability thinking and training. Our initiatives have addressed economic, environmental, and social challenges from a range of angles and at many levels. In everything we do, the disciplines of systems thinking and organizational learning inform and shape our work. It is this focus on whole-system analysis, combined with careful listening, truth telling, and visioning, that make the Donella Meadows Institute unique among sustainability organizations.  Read More

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