How to put system thinking into action

March 27th, 2020

What is a system?

We hear and use the word system in many different contexts around us. By a system' nature we also interact with a dozens of systems, such as the organisation we work for, political parties we vote for, tools reporting the amount of bugs encountered in a software application, etcetera. This means that a system is a set of things interconnected in such a way that they create behaviour. The system may be triggered by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is what defines the system. Donella Meadows explains the simplest form of a system with a Slinky.

Imagine holding a Slinky between two hands. One hand above the other. Pull away your lower hand. What made the Slinky bounce up and down like that? My first instinct told me to react with “the lower hand made it bounce”. Now imagine grabbing the box the Slinky came in, put the Slinky back in and assume the same position with your hands. One hand above the other with the Slinky in between. Pull away your lower hand. Now nothing happens. What made the Slinky bounce up and down? The answer must lie in the Slinky itself.

The hands that manipulate it suppress or release some behaviour that is latent within the structure of the spring. That is a central insight of systems theory.

When it comes to Slinkies, this idea of interconnected things creating behaviour is easy enough to understand.

What is System Thinking?

System thinking is a methodology of critical thinking by which one can analyse relationships between things to understand a situation for better decision making. Rather than isolating a problem and then fixing it, the systems thinking approach broadens the view to look at the scope surrounding the problem. When we deal with bugs in software our first reaction is often to fix the problem but we tend to forget to determine why this bug happens.

I recently had an issue where I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what had changed in our systems causing failures in our automated test suites. After deep diving into change logs of a variety of tools I contacted their support and was helped within the hour. I assumed something we’ve done caused the failures even though the facts proved we didn’t change anything, yet we continued to spend time researching as if we were to have changed something.

Some characteristics of system thinking

  • Shifting perspective from the part to whole: Properties of the system cannot be reduced to the properties of a part; likewise, systematic properties are properties of the whole which none of the parts have.
  • Shifting perspective from the characters to relationships: A system is a collection of characters that interact with each other and build a relationship.

The Iceberg Model: How to put system thinking into action

The Iceberg Model is a practical way to put systems thinking into action.

I borrowed the following example from the people at

Picture an iceberg. The tip sticking out of the water represents the event level. Problems observed at the event level are often easy to understand and maybe even easy to fix: you wake up one morning with a cold, so you take an ibuprofen to readjust. However, the model pushes us not to assume at this level can be quickly resolved by treating the symptom.

Just below the event level is the pattern level. This is where you detect patterns. Similar events taking place over time. You catch more colds when you skip valuable hours of sleep.

Below the pattern level is the structure level. If you ask, “What’s causing this pattern?” the answer is likely to be structural. You catch more colds when you skip hours of sleep, and you skip sleep when you’re under pressure at work.

The mental model level is where you find behaviour that allows structures to continue functioning as they are. This behaviour is often learned subconsciously from society, family, colleagues. Mental models that involve catching a cold could be: a belief that career is important to our identity or sharing a “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality at work.

The Iceberg Model should assist you to stop putting out fires and address the deeper issue. With the model you should be able to take your first steps into system thinking.

To me, the core concepts of systems thinking are only just emerging. But I think the added value is already there in when I contest my own decisions. For example the change log, I only realised what actually happened when I was reflecting upon the chain of events during a walk. In my head I tried figuring out the feedback loops and what they meant.

But more on that in a later article.


Edwin Kortman

Software Developer

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