Systems Thinking Definition

I have struggled to put what is systems thinking into a succinct definition for a long time. I have also struggled to find a definition of systems thinking which makes most sense to me and captures the gist of systems thinking through that definition. My struggle began 10 years back, when systems thinking was first introduced in my post grad. Since then I have been giving long answers (and different versions every-time) to anyone who asks or writes to me “What is systems thinking?”.

Somewhere between 2015 and 2016 I decided to make a glossary of systems vocabulary, more for my personal use and then again came the question of what is systems thinking. So I decided to write down a definition which made most sense to me. The first version of it I shared with Gene Bellinger and after a brief exchange of emails with him I zeroed down on a definition that was acceptable to me.

Two days back I was taking a day long workshop cum lecture at Indian School of Development Management at Noida in NCR (National Capital Region of Delhi). After going through the slides explaining what is a system, what is not a system, how to identify systems, examples of systems, types of systems I came to the slide having my definition of systems thinking. Mr. Arun Maira, former member of Planning Commission of India, was there in the class, with whom I was doing team teaching. He expressed that it was one of the most refined definitions of systems thinking that he had seen or read. This motivated me and today I decided that I should publish the definition (via informal means like this for now) for gaining more feedback and to improve it further. Thus, I am posting the definition here for readers to evaluate it and provide feedback on how much sense does it make and how well it captures the essence of systems thinking. All views are welcome.

Systems Thinking Definition:

Systems thinking is the process of understanding relationships between variables within a system and between different systems and how they influence each other’s behavior over time.

The above definition is typed by me but I think many people, entities and their work has contributed to my learning which has lead me to this definition. I may not be able to remember them all and write down here, but let me try.

Sushil Bajpai, Rajinder Raina, MS Pillai, Rajesh Rajak, John Sterman, Donella Meadows, Khalid Saeed, Jay Forrester, Andrew Ford, Kenneth Boulding, Gene Bellinger, Arun Maira, Kabir Sharma, Pradnya Mathur, Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development (SCMLD), Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Sustainability Dynamics (my own unregistered consultancy), International System Dynamics Society, System Dynamics Society of India (IIT Kharagpur) and All my students at TISS and SCMLD.