Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice
Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice

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Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice

1 Thinking strategically in practice

There are several ways of classifying different systems approaches. Some like to classify them according to the particular situation which they are deemed to be appropriate. So, for example, according to some, soft systems approaches are seen as relevant to situations of multiple perspectives whereas, say, critical systems heuristics is deemed more relevant to situations of conflict. Others have classified approaches according to particular communities of practice to which practitioners of the systems approaches align themselves (e.g. cybernetics, learning systems, complexity theory etc.). In this part of the course, we appreciate more the actual and potentially adaptive use of systems tools from different approaches depending on the users’ experience as part of the context of use.

Activity 1 The practice of systems thinking

Read section 1.2.7 (‘Our own perspective’) from Introducing Systems Approaches [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , along with a quick recap on sections 1.2.8 and 1.2.9 (from the first part of this course, which briefly describe the five systems approaches). Make notes on the three practical dimensions of using systems thinking and their alignment with three core ideas of systems thinking in practice:

  1. understanding inter-relationships
  2. engaging with multiple perspectives
  3. reflecting on boundary judgements.

With respect to Figure 1.4 in the reading, describe a key feature of importance in using any systems approach with respect to addressing the three dimensions? How might this differ with the conventional idea that some systems approaches are suited to only some situations?


The dimensions outlined by Checkland include methodology, situation, and users. These can be re-ordered in terms of

  1. understanding inter-relationships (‘situation’)
  2. engaging with multiple perspectives (‘users’)
  3. reflecting on boundary judgements (‘methodology’).

Figure 1.4 illustrates the importance of addressing all three dimensions in any practical application of systems thinking tools.This challenges the conventional idea of ‘contingency’ – that particular approaches are suited only for particular situations.

Systems practice challenges the practitioner to be inventive with the use of any set of tools associated with any particular approach in order to ensure that inter-relationships are understood, multiple perspectives are engaged, and that the limitations of being holistic (inclusive of all inter-relationships) and being pluralistic (engaging with all perspectives impartially) are properly taken in to account. The emphasis is not on the tools (systems tools or other tools) being ‘used’, but rather the ‘user’ of the tools.

Activity 2 The systems practitioner

Read the Systems Approaches Epilogue up until (and not including) 7.2.4 ‘Recognising the Possibility of Entrapment’. Make notes on different practitioner communities and their role and significance in developing systems practice. To what extent might these communities relate to your understanding of disciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity?


The notes that you write can vary in relation to what you find particularly insightful. Generally, the idea is promoted that systems approaches ought not to be regarded as fetishised or reified (concrete) tools (e.g. like a ‘hammer’ or ‘computer’) but rather as conceptual constructs open to continual adaptation and development according to the practitioner. A key way of ensuring such development is through conversations or interactions with other practitioners. These may be practitioners belonging to one particular discipline (e.g. defined as either a specialist discipline of, say, the viable systems model (VSM) users, or wider discipline of Systems thinking). They may alternatively be practitioners from different disciplines or traditions of practice (e.g. other systems traditions or other academic disciplines altogether like economics, engineering or performing arts). These two ideas fit in with ideas of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity respectively. The notion of ‘transdisciplinarity’ is not really dealt with in the chapter. My notion of transdisciplinarity is an interaction with wider society. This can be interpreted in terms of ‘other communities of practice’ as described in the third level of interaction, but it might also involve more general public or civic society – individuals in a capacity not recognised as a ‘community of practice’.

Any process of thinking strategically, whether formalised through schools of approaches or otherwise manifest through personal experience and practice, comprises valuable skills and competences. Such value should not be ignored or denied. Rather, systems thinking in practice must be seen as a complementary skill to existing skill sets, including your own. Moreover, it is a skill increasingly acknowledged among professional strategists themselves (see Box 1).

Box 1 Systems and strategic skills

Extracts from a guide on strategy skills presented by the UK government's Strategy Unit.

A key component of thinking strategically is recognising that issues do not exist in isolation. Holding a mechanistic view of policies as levers that have a focused and direct impact on a situation, without considering the wider implications of an intervention, can be short sighted and potentially disastrous. Strategic thinking requires the interrelated nature of circumstances to be recognised up front rather than relying on a post hoc screening to identify unintended consequences and impacts.

Systems thinking is both a mindset and particular set of tools for identifying and mapping the interrelated nature and complexity of real world situations. It encourages explicit recognition of causes and effects, drivers and impacts, and in so doing helps anticipate the effect a policy intervention is likely to have on variables or issues of interest. Furthermore, the processes of applying systems thinking to a situation is a way of bringing to light the different assumptions held by stakeholders or team members about the way the world works.

Systems thinking is particularly powerful for understanding dynamic complexity, which stems from the relationships between factors in a system. A dynamically complex system cannot simply be broken down into pieces in the same way as a structurally complex system, which derives its complexity simply from the sheer number of factors involved. Where structural complexity can be modelled and managed using databases and spreadsheets, dynamic complexity needs a more organic approach to understand the complex web of influences that often results in various forms of feedback loops. Such loops add a time dimension to system complexity and often magnify or dampen the intended effect of an action in a non-obvious manner.

(Source: Cabinet Office, 2004)

Jeanne Liedtka, a leading academic in the field of strategic thinking, identifies a number of attributes or competencies of strategic thinking in practice. First and foremost in her view is the attribute of having a systems perspective that she describes as follows:

A strategic thinker has a mental model of the complete end-to-end system of value creation, his or her own role in it, and an understanding of the competencies it contains.

(Liedtka, 1998, p. 32)

Taking a systems perspective is a distinctive competence in itself, which is a competence that I refer to as systems practice.

Liedtka’s description of a systems perspective for strategic thinking suggests three features of systems practice:

  1. a core exercise in modelling involving a process of value creation
  2. reflection on practitioner's role in the situation
  3. appreciation of relevant competencies.

I'll expand on each of these in relation to strategy making.

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