If systems thinking is the answer, what is the question?

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May seem a little odd asking this question now, but it strikes me that this is part of that ongoing quest to ‘market’ systems thinking – as per previous posts on the Elevator pitch issue.

But it struck me recently that it is possible – and helpful – to apply the thinking that Ison (2010, 187) uses in relation to the idea of managing….. what is the system to which doing X is the answer (the how)?

So, considering what I have covered as a student of Systems on TU811 and TU812, these are the question (along with linked concepts) to which I think systems thinking offers an answer:

  • How do I (we) understand all these interrelationships and interdependencies? (avoid trap of reductionism)
  • How do I (we) work in a way that engages with different perspectives? (avoid trap of dogmatism)
  • How do I (we) responsibly question my judgements on interrelationships and perspectives? (boundary critique, ethics)
  • How do I (we) influence change in a positive way? (avoid unintended consequences, enable social learning)
  • How do I do what I do with awareness? (understand your understanding, theory informed action, praxis, reflective practice)

I used these as part of a presentation to some colleagues just recently. The beginning of a short session on ‘Systems thinking’ during which I ended up focussing on Purpose definition techniques using PQR.  It was enough to stir their interest and I am now lined up to do future sessions helping them apply systems ideas and tools to our real life shared concerns.


Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

One thought on “If systems thinking is the answer, what is the question?

  1. Pingback: Just Practicing − If ‘research’ is the answer, what is the question?

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