What do I have to experience to claim that someone is a systems thinker?

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I am really clear now about my research project and what it is about.

In short – just in case you have not been following the last couple of months of blogs – I would like to analyse samples of the ‘talk’ of people in leadership roles to see whether or not they are systems thinkers.  But there’s the rub…….

Whilst Ison (2010, 28) states that many peoplehave some form of systemic awareness” (though they themselves may not recognise it as such or associate it with an academic and practical field of endeavour). He also claims that systems thinking arises out of a social dynamic – if someone’s experience of what another says or does, leads to the claim that they are thinking or acting systemically then this dynamic is what makes it systems thinking (page 19).

Such a dynamic poses a challenge for those seeking to study systems thinking capabilities. If – to coin a phrase – systems thinking is in the eye of the beholder, then the judgements of the ‘beholder’ need to be open to scrutiny.

Drawing on Open University materials for TU811 and TU812 and what I think I do when do what I do – I use the following rationale for making such a claim.

The person talks or acts in a way that demonstrates capabilities of one or more of the following:

  • an awareness of interrelationships and interdependencies (avoiding trap of reductionism)
  • an appreciation of and engagement with different perspectives (avoiding trap of dogmatism)
  • a responsible questioning of judgements on interrelationships and perspectives (avoiding corollary trap of holism and pluralism)
  • recognition of the dynamic nature of situations and actions that influence change in a positive way (minimising the likelihood of unintended consequences and systemic failure)
  • an appreciation of the value of social learning (promotes dialogue, learns-through-interaction)
  • awareness of what they do when they do what they do (reflective practice; praxis; theory informed action)
  • thinking and acting systemically, as well as systematically (Ison 2010, Table 8.1, p.192)

In doing so, they may also:

  • use concepts and ideas linked to the discipline of Systems
  • refer to or use systems approaches and tools
  • explicitly connect with the history of Systems scholarship

That seems practical enough to be able to use as a ‘coding’ framework for analysing transcribed ‘talk’.  And, I guess the important thing is to write up the analysis in a way that others can see if my claims resonate with them or not.



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

2 thoughts on “What do I have to experience to claim that someone is a systems thinker?

  1. Hi Helen

    Greetings fromourdistant past inTU8121 Just dipping in so see what you are up to and to stimulate my Systems brain and am very interested in your research project. Sounds facinating ! A couple of things spring to mind, one of which is your extensive reflection in another blog post on the nature of research, but is it not also true that the characteristics or “definition” of a Systems thinker” or need to set parameters on same can produce another ontological entity that then needs to be desconstructed? Would it be fair to assume that there is some gradient of awareness of systems thinking, rather than qualiify people has having reached some bar or other? Set by subjective criteria? I agree that the syno[psis that Ison presents is very succinent and captures systems thinking in is broad sweep, I would caution, myself against creating exclusivity criteria, that could potientially exclude someone whose higher level of thinking goes beyond our imaginations who might for example have reached Meados notion of pure awareness, abandoned paradigms etc on the one hand as much as a fledgling systems thinker who may have that cpaacity and just needs exposure to the right type of thinking….

    I dont mean to confound, and look forward to hearing more aobut how your work unfolds!

    Systems greetings

  2. Hi Joan
    How great to hear from you – hope all is going well. Thanks for the opportunity to think about this some more. I think you have helped me put shape to a tension I have been experiencing – which goes back to Ison’s final chapter in his book about evaluation. On a day to day basis I am always making ‘judgements’ about whether what someone else says or does is systems thinking but doing the research means I have to be clearer about the things that make me ‘judge’ that way – but bringing it all to the fore makes it feel more like evaluation – me ‘evaluating’ the skills of people more senior to myself. It seems like a bit of a vicious circle – to conduct ‘research’ that others will judge as valid I have to be clear about why I am making the claims I am making BUT to be clear I have make explicit what I am looking for – and whether I like it or not, these look like evaluation criteria. Yet another way in which more ‘modernist’ ways of working intrude into systemic practice.
    So thanks for setting off this train of thought – will definitely be worth including as part of my ‘reflexivity’ in my project.

    lots of love


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