What Is Systems Thinking? – Peter Senge Explains Systems Thinking Approach And Principles


What Is Systems Thinking?

Whenever I’m trying to help people understand what this word ‘system’ means, I usually start by asking: ‘Are you a part of a family?’ Everybody is a part of a family. ‘Have you ever seen in a family, people producing consequences in the family, how people act, how people feel, that aren’t what anybody intends?’ Yes. ‘How does that happen?’ Well… then people tell their stories and think about it. But that then grounds people in not the jargon of ‘system’ or ‘systems thinking’ but the reality – that we live in webs of interdependence.”

What Is The Fundamental Rationale Of Systems Thinking?

[The fundamental rationale of systems thinking] is to understand how it is that the problems that we all deal with, which are the most vexing, difficult and intransigent, come about, and to give us some perspective on those problems [in order to] give us some leverage and insight as to what we might do differently.”

3 Characteristics Of A Systems Thinking Approach

  1. A very deep and persistent commitment to ‘real learning.’
  2. I have to be prepared to be wrong. If it was pretty obvious what we ought to be doing, then we’d be already doing it. So I’m part of the problem, my own way of seeing things, my own sense of where there’s leverage, is probably part of the problem. This is the domain we’ve always called ‘mental models.’ If I’m not prepared to challenge my own mental models, then the likelihood of finding non-obvious areas of leverage are very low.
  3. The need to triangulate. You need to get different people, from different points of view, who are seeing different parts of the system to come together and collectively start to see something that individually none of them see.”

A Fundamental Principle Of Systems Thinking: Smart Individuals Are No Longer Needed, Collective Intelligence Is

We all have probably spent too much time thinking about ‘smart individuals.’ That’s one of the problems with schools. They are very individualistic, very much about ‘the smart kids and the dumb kids.’ That’s not the kind of smartness we need.

The smartness we need is collective. We need cities that work differently. We need industrial sectors that work differently. We need value change and supply change that are managed from the beginning until the end to purely produce social, ecological and economic well-being. That is the concept of intelligence we need, and it will never be achieved by a handful of smart individuals.

It’s not about ‘the smartest guys in the room.’ It’s about what we can do collectively. So the intelligence that matters is collective intelligence, and that’s the concept of ‘smart’ that I think will really tell the tale.”

All quotes in this post are by Peter Senge, scientist and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, taken from the video “Navigating Webs of Interdependence.”


  1. I applied system thinking within a secondary level history class I was teaching. The main focus for the year was to get the students to examine the larger-picture. Many students that had struggled with previous history classes seemed to focus on the difficulty of remembering all the tiny information, or the individual events. My focus was on getting them to see that all those separate events were not actually separate, but that they were all important elements within the system, and that each one affected some type of change within the system.

    To further help my students, I broke the curse into a group of themes: geography, culture, economics, government, and religion/belief systems. I wanted them to see how each of these themes affected the other themes. For example, let’s say we were studying the severe dust storms that hit parts of the US during the 1930s. This would fall within the geography theme, but it would touch on the other themes, such as economics since the storms put many farmers out-of-work.

    Systems thinking greatly helped my class, and I can see how it would be beneficial on a school-wide level, and not just within the context of a history class.

  2. If you can get it through to people on this level, further individual developments will occur in the varied directions of the interested parties, It is a wonderful new worldview, the birth of sanity I would say. What are the strongest reactionary groups or pressures which are resisting this new paradigm for the health of organism and environment, is it deemed ungodly.

  3. One interesting phrase that Peter said that caught my “minds eye” was the idea of collectiveness. This collecting of what others perceive, which requires LISTENING TO, WHAT ALL, in a particular group ARE SAYING regarding a specific subject, issue or problem would lead to those in the group being able to 1. learn from each other 2. foster harmony amongst its members which WOULD LEAD, possible over time, encourage EACH OTHER TO CARE ABOUT WHAT OR HOW THE OTHER IS FEELING, then MUTUAL RESPONSIBILITY would begin to grow on us all, over time. I think this is how mother nature works, right?

    If this kind of activity became the standard practice within society at all levels then NO CHILD “woodbe” LEFT BEHIND, and spelling wood not B the issue, that many have used to separate people from the real issues. I personally was not a good speller, however I am working on being a better speller though. LOL


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