Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Systems thinking and practice
Systems thinking and practice

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3.8 Summary

There are many different ways of thinking. Logic alone is inadequate to deal with complex situations because it deals with simple, timeless cause and effect links between statements. Causal thinking underlies much of science where the tendency is to look at simple cause and effects by isolating components or parts of a whole. Systems thinking tries to look at the complicated pattern of multiple causes that make up a whole, and to simplify by taking multiple partial views or perspectives. Reductionist and holistic thinking can be complementary.

You should now further your understanding of the main concepts covered in this section by tackling the SAQs below.


Which of the following describes a person stuck in a trap through the way they think or act?

  1. Sally and Jim spent hours with holiday brochures each year; the problem was finding the right summer holiday for themselves and their three teenage daughters. Partly it was a problem of timing. In the summer, all three daughters had different activities, one was in an orchestra, one rode horses and one spent a couple of weeks with her grandparents. It was also a question of money. If all three daughters came they couldn't afford as expensive a holiday as if only one came, and there was the added complication that two of the daughters might bring boyfriends, and what they could afford had to be considered. Finally, it was never easy to find a place they all wanted to go to. Much to Sally and Jim's regret, they hadn't had a family holiday together for three years.

  2. Helen was the director of a small charity for which she needed to raise money each year. It was always an effort. It took a long time filling in grant application forms which always needed a lot of detail about past achievements and future plans. It was also difficult to dovetail the end of one grant with the start of another, especially as the funders made decisions at different times of the year. Although she had managed the juggling trick, as she called it, for the past five years, she was becoming increasingly frustrated at the amount of time it took.

  3. David and Penny were genuinely fond of David's widowed mother, who had helped them a lot in the early years of their marriage, and were glad when she came to stay; it gave them the opportunity to repay her generosity. They took her out to dinner, to the theatre and to visit gardens, and invited old friends of hers to join them. However, in spite of this, the visits always ended with a strained and difficult atmosphere between them all, and the gaps between visits was growing noticeably longer. David and Penny decided that they would make more of an effort the next time she came, and organise a party for her.


No clear-cut answer here but numbers 1 and 3 certainly look like traps. In both cases the people concerned care a good deal about the issue, they keep on trying to get what they want, but it doesn't seem to work. Sally and Jim are defining their problem in a way that makes it impossible to solve. David and Penny are trying to solve their problem by doing more of the same – ignoring the fact that what they are already doing may well be the source of the problem.

Number 2 doesn't look like a trap; at least not yet. Although Helen is getting frustrated, what she is doing works well. If she never managed to decide that her real abilities were in campaigning, for example, but she never managed to find time to do that, then she might be in a trap.


Which of the following statements about holistic thinking are true, and which are false?

  1. It separates causes and effects.

  2. It always considers the motives of the people involved.

  3. It simplifies the ideas and information in a given situation.

  4. It takes wholes as its unit of analysis.

  5. It examines each aspect of a problem separately


  1. False – this is a feature of casual thinking.

  2. False – it may do so, but not always. It can be applied to mechanical or natural systems.

  3. True – as do all ways of thinking.

  4. True – this is its key feature.

  5. False – without the word 'separately' the statement would be true. Certainly, holistic thinking can look separately at different aspects of a problem, but it doesn't stop there. It always seeks to put them together and to see the interconnections between things.


Identify, in the following story, examples of logical, causal and holistic thinking:

Sophie Hunting desperately wanted to pass her driving test. She lived in the country and there was no bus service which would take her into the local town in the evening and get her back after a film or a party. But she wasn't learning fast. When she had lessons with her father, most of the time was taken up with lectures on how the car worked. If she kangarooed forwards, he would explain the clutch mechanism and the principle of gearing. When she went out with her mother and stalled at junctions her mother said it was peculiar because her elder brother was less well co-ordinated than Sophie and he had learned easily, so Sophie ought to be able to do it

In some despair, Sophie phoned her brother for advice. He pointed out that their mother, who had always been very protective about Sophie, was probably reluctant to see Sophie going to town alone in the car at night. As for their father, he had always been protective about his car, and was bound to be nervous that Sophie would scrape or bump it when she was learning. He pointed out too that Sophie had never taken kindly to being told what to do by her parents. He suggested that she ask a friend to teach her, in the friend's car, and spend some time reassuring her mother that in the evenings she would only go to town with a friend.


Sophie's father is using casual thinking, her mother's logical thinking and her brother's holistic thinking; her bother is taking multiple partial views of the situation as a whole.


What are the three different ways of gaining new perspectives of a system?


One is by reconsidering our own perspective, another is by adopting the perspective of another person and the third is by looking for the unintended consequences of the system's operation.


Identify four perspectives in the following story:

A voluntary organisation used to hold an annual meeting for all of its workers to keep them informed of what it was doing. It noticed that most of the staff who worked at head office turned up, but very few of the local representatives who organised events in the regions and distributed information to members. Concerned about this, the Management Committee decided to hold a one-day meeting especially for the local representatives, and set up an ad hoc group to plan the day. It had a lively debate.

The Chairperson of the ad hoc group started the meeting by suggesting that they should draw up an agenda for the day focused on local issues. This raised a storm of objections. Some people said that what was needed was a speech from the Chairman and reports on future plans from senior staff. Others felt that any agenda would be a strait-jacket and would prevent local representatives talking to head office staff about what was important to them. There followed a debate about the state of communications with local reps, which somehow got diverted into whether or not they should pay for their own lunches.

Some argued that the free lunch was a way of showing the reps that their work was appreciated, and that was the real point of the day. Others thought funds shouldn't be spent on free lunches, and insisted that the real point was to integrate the reps more closely by telling them about future plans; in the past they had been the last to hear of changes of policy and direction.

This prompted a more radical idea. In the morning, any rep who wanted to could write a topic on a piece of paper, stick it on the wall, and wait to see if others wanted to discuss it. If they did, a group would gather and discuss it: if not that rep would simply join another group. The three or four topics which had attracted most interest in the morning would be debated fully with head office staff in the afternoon. This idea gained a lot of support, but was just defeated in a vote. In another vote, it was decided, again by a small majority, that the meeting would have a formal agenda of speeches by head office staff.

News that the more radical idea for the day had been defeated leaked out to the local reps who took this as confirmation that head office wasn't interested in what they had to say. Hence, most of them refused the invitation to attend the day, and it was cancelled.


There are, at least the following aspects – some of which may overlap. You may well have expressed them differently; that doesn't matter as log as you are able to recognise a multiplicity of perspectives:

  1. That there should be a formal agenda of speeches and reports – designed to integrate the reps more closely in the organisation.

  2. That there should be no agenda for the day – its purpose was for head office staff to listen to the reps.

  3. That the point was to show appreciation of the work of the reps – the 'free lunchers'.

  4. That the agenda should be drawn up by the reps themselves – by the radical procedure in the morning.

  5. That the head office didn't care about the reps – the unintended consequence of the meeting to design the day.