What is systems thinking?

Abram El-Sabagh
2 min readOct 23, 2020

In your country, where do cars drive? On the right-hand side or the left? Have you ever thought about why the steering wheel is where it is? Please reply to me with your answer and read on to find out mine!

Systems thinking is often compared with analytical thinking. Analytical thinking focuses on breaking things down to understand a problem. For example, if your computer has a problem and you take it to a technician, they’ll first diagnose the problem to identify if it’s a software or hardware problem. If it seems like a hardware problem, they’ll pull the computer apart and try to identify which part is not working as it should.

Systems thinking is the opposite. It focuses on understanding the behaviour of the whole by looking at the relationships between different things. Russel Ackoff, who is commonly referred to as the father of systems thinking, says:

“A system is a whole that is defined by its role or function in the larger system by which it is a part.”

Here’s an example. Off the coast of Mexico, fishermen were using unsustainable fishing methods, leading to the degradation of marine life. When scientists wanted to protect marine life, they used systems thinking to identify what was happening. First, they looked at the relationship between kids and education. Second, they examined how fishermen were providing for feeding their families. So what did they do? They created a field for kids to play soccer. This helps the kids engage more with education, and give their parents more time to spend. Second, they started teaching fishermen to use organic farming to feed their families. Within three years, the marine life was restored. Notice how the scientists didn’t try to solve the problem by breaking things down. Instead, they looked at the system as a whole to try to understand what was happening.

So, have you figured out the answer to our first question? Please reply to me with your answer!

Here’s one. Cars that drive on the left-hand side have steering wheels on the right-hand side, and vice versa. Why? One of the reasons is because it maximises the visibility of oncoming traffic. Breaking the car down into pieces won’t help you identify this answer. Only by looking at how the car operates on the roads can you see this answer.

In the next lesson, we will explore how to understand and visualise complex systems, so we can start making change.



Abram El-Sabagh

Human-centred designer. ThinkPlace. Designing for positive outcomes.