If you’re looking to make a change in the world, then you need to read a systems thinking book. This field of study, along with the science of complexity, can help you understand how different parts of a complex system interact with one another, and how you can make better decisions. They can also be used to analyze everything from business to social movements.
In this blog post, I will share the 35 Greatest Systems Thinking and Complexity Books of All Time.
I’ll also provide a brief overview of each book so that you can decide which one is right for you!
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Categorized by 10 topic areas
I sorted these 35 books by topic area so you can jump to the section that’s just right for you. (The books are sequentially numbered 1-35, but this is not a ranking).
- Systems Thinking for Beginners (6 books)
- Introduction to Complexity and Complex Systems (7 books)
- General Systems Theory and Systems Dynamics (3 books)
- Systems for Organizations and Management (6 books)
- Strategy Based on Systems Thinking (3 books)
- Complexity for Cities (3 books)
- Complexity Economics (2 books)
- Psychology of System Thinking (2 books)
- Applied Complexity Tools for Practitioners (2 books)
- Fiction (yes, really!) (1 book)
You’ll probably want to read more than one book as there are many different perspectives on systems. In my online course based on systems thinking, we actively use about 8 of these books.
Let’s get started!
Systems Thinking for Beginners
Perhaps better known for her contribution to The Limits to Growth, a 1972 report warning of global catastrophe as a result of exponential economic and population growth, this short book has been the starting place for many systems thinkers. Published after her death in 2001, Meadows applies systems thinking to common system structures in everyday life (a reinforcing feedback loop is explained as a series of escalating pushes between brothers). Many of the examples are dated, but the systems insights are still perfectly applicable. Anyone turned off by an underlying environmental agenda will find a more neutral introduction to systems in one of the other books on this list
#2. Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera
This systems thinking book is based on the theory and method of DSRP, which was developed by Derek Cabrera. The authors posit that four simple rules are universal to all system thinking. As you might have guessed, these are based on the DSRP acronym: Distinction rule, Systems rule, Relationship rule, and Perspectives rule. While some may find the process oversimplified and commercialized, many have found the book a very practical guide. The main criticism of this book stems from its insistence on DSRP as universal. Most of the other books on this list take a much more methodologically pluralist approach in understanding systems.
#3. Systems Thinking For Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results by David Peter Stroh
This book is unique in that it applies system thinking specifically to pressing social issues like poverty, homelessness, and criminal justice. The book’s strength is in laying out a process that activists can use to distinguish between the symptoms and causes of these issues. Also, philanthropists and nonprofit leaders who read this book will be constructively challenged by Stroh to see how their own behaviour may be unwittingly contributing to the problems they are trying to solve. If the book has a limitation, it is the author’s insistence that his preferred policies (e.g. affordable housing) are not trade-offs, but rather true systems thinking compared to policies he finds lacking (e.g. temporary shelters).
#4. The Systems Thinking Playbook: Exercises to Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows
If you want systems thinking distilled to a level kids understand, this is the book for you. It contains 30 gaming exercises that are designed to teach the nuances of systems thinking to younger audiences. The games are classified by learning areas like team learning and shared vision. Many K-12 teachers have found this playbook and the accompanying DVD successfully introduces systems thinking to their students.
#5. The Great Mental Models Volume 3: Systems and Mathematics by Rhiannon Beaubien and Rosie Leizrowice
Shane Parrish and the folks at Farnam Street have been publishing blogs about systems thinking and mental models for years. This book, the third in a trilogy, focuses on systems such as feedback loops, bottlenecks, margin of safety, and algorithms. The strengths of this book is its applicability. Unlike most theory-based books, Beaubien and Leizrowice have done a great job framing system-based mental models for use in real life situations
There was great hope that the highly successful Systems Engineering approach developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1940s, which had worked brilliantly for technical problems in the military and business world, could be applied to more complex and real-world problems. However, as management scientists like Peter Checkland discovered, complex situations require modified approach. Over a career exploring ill-defined problems and how to solve them, Checkland and his colleagues developed soft systems methodology. This new edition of the 1981 book now includes Checkland’s reflections on his long career.
Introduction to Complexity and Complex Systems
This book provides an essential primer on systems science and how it explains complex behavior emerges from simple interactions. Mitchell, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, does an amazing job at introducing complexity topics for people without mathematical expertise or scientific training. The book uses many biological examples to illustrate complexity, including connections in the brain and the behavior of ants
This book uses the field of systems biology to explore the basics of systems thinking and complexity. Building on the idea that life is a self-regulating network of emergence, Capra and Luisi construct an integrated, systemic worldview of life on earth. Throughout the book they provide a useful history of systems thinking in science, as well commentary on the implications for social systems such as healthcare and business.
#9. Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up by David Colander and Roland Kupers
If you’ve ever wondered if complexity could be practically applied to real-world problems, this book provides an answer. Colander and Kupers show how “activist laissez-faire” policies, which mirror evolution and other complex adaptive systems, can develop effective solutions from the bottom up. It also provides helpful alternatives to the simplistic and not-very-useful market versus government debate.
#10. Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life by John H. Miller and Scott Page
This is the first book I came across that was specifically about complex adaptive social systems. It starts with a good introduction to complex adaptive systems, and how these apply to social life. The authors share an excellent, easy-to-understand definition of emergence, which is when “individual, localized behavior aggregates into global behavior that is, in some sense, disconnected from its origins.” The book then goes in-depth about modeling social systems with agent-based modeling. One of the book’s strengths is it’s head-on approach to addressing criticism of agent-based modeling
This book introduces the reader to the study of complexity by telling the story of the scientists who came together at the Sante Fe Institute to study it. Originally published in 1992, it recounts the how exciting mixing of disciplines – biology, economics, physics, mathematics – discovered a new science that can describe so much of life on earth.
A wide-ranging book from one of the discoverers of the quark (an elementary particle that combines to form protons and neutrons), this book explains how the laws of physics relate to complex adaptive systems. On the way you’ll hear all about foundational subjects like quantum physics and evolution, but also learn about how bacteria develop drug resistance and how children learn language.
Similar to Waldrop’s book, Gleick tells the story the of people whose ideas came together and invented chaos theory. This is a popular science book, so you’ll get a basic introduction to dynamic systems, but more time is spent on the scientists involved. This book is great for the non-technical reader interested in the human side of scientific discovery.
General Systems Theory and Systems Dynamics
This book contains ten essays by the creator of General Systems Theory. It is a somewhat more difficult read than the other books in this list (as is evidenced by the long bibliography that is frequently referenced), but the breadth of subjects covered – ranging from atomic science to Hopi language – is almost breathtaking. Despite its sometimes technical focus, Bertalanffy’s purpose in sharing this collection of writings he made over 30 years of his career is to rescue systems theory from becoming just another siloed discipline. His goal throughout the essays is to put systems back in their much broader – and more useful – context.
This is a great companion to Bertanlanffy’s General Systems Theory (see #14). Weinberg does an admirable job making technical content understandable for beginners. It should be noted that this book is less a discussion of systems thinking (as most of the other books in this section are), but more about the mathematical proofs that demonstrate how systems actually work.
One of the foundational texts on systems dynamics, this book shows the mathematics of systems in an understandable way. Published back in 1968, it is still used by managers and others interested in the technical dynamics of systems. The software it refers to has long been outdated, but the book still shines in how to analyze basics like stock and flows, boundaries and feedback loops.
Systems for Organizations and Management
This book is about the creative approach to business problems. It’s based on a set of real problems faced by real managers – Ackoff’s “fables” (a play the classic Aesop’s Fables). Ackoff helpfully shares step-by-step examples of how people can re-frame problems and question basic assumptions as a means to creatively solving them.
This classic work posits that in the long-run, the only sustainable competitive advantage for any corporation is to learn faster than the competition. Thus, while The Fifth Discipline is a great introduction to systems thinking, some of its biggest value is in helping people think about how to create learning organizations that constantly apply systems thinking. Although a bit dated and corporate-focused, anyone could benefit from Senge’s key systems thinking insight that learning is more than just an individual endeavor
Systems thinking requires a deep understanding of complexity. But as Jackson asserts, there are many different approaches to complexity. Thus, to be successful, one must become good at assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Jackson calls this critical systems thinking. The book provides over 25 case studies for how to apply critical systems thinking with real-world interventions.
#20. Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture by Jamshid Gharajedaghi
This book provides a high-level view of systems thinking specifically for senior executives who are responsible for systems management and process improvement. While this isn’t a “how to” book, it does a comprehensive job at covering the intersection between systems thinking, design thinking, and management. The newer editions are sprinkled with application to current events such as the financial system, the housing bubble, and environmental problems.
This book takes the insights from complexity science and applies them to organizational leadership in a personal way. While it is much less in-depth than some of the other books on this list, the book instills aspiring leaders to appreciate interconnectedness and how they can foster awareness of our collective interdependence.
#22. Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything by Charles Conn and Robert McLean
Complex problem solving is a skill based on systems thinking. In this book, the authors from McKinsey and Company provide a seven-step logic-tree method of dealing with problems based on consulting experience. The book’s methodology is touted in how it applies to 30 real-world examples. Those facilitating corporate change initiatives may love the straight-forward method that may prioritize analysis, while non-consultant system thinkers may balk at whether this can apply to ill-defined social problems.
Strategy Based on Systems Thinking and Complexity
The greatest strategy guide of all time, The Art of War is an ancient military treatise that was written in China during the 5th Century BC. Although focused on skills needed in warfare, the strategic approach is applicable to many other realms of life, including business, politics and sports. I include it on this systems thinking list because it is essentially a practical guide to keeping in mind the connections between ourselves, our problems, and our environment. As Sun Tzu said, “Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.”
This short but jam-packed history book is an amazing guide to strategy, but as the book shows, nearly all strategy is about systems thinking. It doesn’t matter whether Gaddis is talking about Hamlet, Machiavelli, or Lincoln, the approach he calls out is about mastering contradictions – holding two opposed ideas at the same time. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a sense of how the greatest systems thinkers of history succeeded.
Taleb is the author of The Black Swan, a bestselling book about how highly improbable events disproportionately shape our world. In this book, Taleb argues that the best strategy in a world full of disorder and volatility is to become “antifragile.” By this he means becoming not just robust to uncertainty and risk, but to actively gain from them. Every chapter is filled with counterintuitive arguments that will make you question conventional systems thinking.
Complexity for Cities
Jane Jacobs wrote this book as an indictment of urban planning, and in doing so she opened the door to thinking about cities as complex systems. Although she was outright in her critiques, she also was eloquent in researching and describing how cities actually work (as opposed to how planners think they should work). This included brilliant insights about seemingly unimportant minutia like the width of sidewalks and how they affect a neighborhood’s safety.
Strong Towns brings a systems thinking lens to how cities pursue economic growth. By showing how conventional responses to urban development creates cycles of budget shortfalls, Marohn brings focus to how bottom-up investments, rather than top-down management, can drive a sustainable quality of life.
#28. Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West
In this book, renowned complexity scientist Geoffrey West reveals the underlying simplicity that governs complex behavior in cities and companies. By examining cites as collections of networks, and then applying laws of scalability, the books explores why some cities and companies thrive while others don’t.
#29. The Origin of Wealth: The Radical Remaking of Economics and What it Means for Business and Society by Eric D. Beinhocker
I read this book back in 2009 and it completely changed how I saw the economy. Beinhocker introduces the idea that the economy is a complex adaptive system, and that wealth is the product of an evolution-like formula of “differentiate, select, and amplify.” But this isn’t just economic revisionism – it also covers early agent-based modeling of Sugarscape, and ideas about how government and markets can work together.
What if everything you knew about economics was wrong? After reading this short collection of essays, you might feel that way. Arthur is the economist credited with the modern theory of economic return, but this book is more about the implications of complexity in the economy. If the economy is complex, Arthur argues, it must tend toward disequilibrium, not equilibrium as Economics 101 taught most of us. The implications of this insight are far-reaching, and these essays show why.
Psychology of Systems Thinking
This best-selling book about cognitive biases focuses on the two systems of the mind. System 1, according to Kahneman, answers questions quickly using heuristics, while System 2 analyzes more deeply and uses more evidence. The book marches along through many psychological case studies, highlighting the work of Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Tversky (who passed away in 1996). Along the way, you’ll gain deeper insight into many cognitive biases we all have, including errors in systems thinking.
Berlin builds this essay on the ancient Greek aphorism: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Ostensibly about Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, it has become a landmark work exploring the cognitive differences between two types of people. There are foxes (who Berlin says have different strategies for different problems and embrace contradictions) and hedgehogs (who focus on the big picture and reduce everything to a single vision). Understanding both of these systems of thought is crucial for understanding systems thinking.
Applied Complexity Tools for Practitioners
#33. Systemic Decision Making: Fundamentals for Addressing Problems and Messes by Patrick T. Hester and Kevin MacG. Adams
Sure, this book is a textbook and some may get bogged down in its extensive bibliography and academic references. But dedicated readers will also discover a super practical handbook for dealing with ill-defined problems. The book also covers the basics of Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping and how it can be used as part of a “multimethodology” for complex problem-solving endeavors.
#34. Managing Complexity in Social Systems: Leverage Points for Policy and Strategy by Christoph E. Mandl
There’s lots of theory out there about systems and complexity, but how useful are they in tackling modern challenges of urgent interest like global warming? This book explores the potentials and limitations of various systems theories along with a range of useful diagnostic tools.
Berlin’s book about foxes and hedgehogs was about the two types of thinking required for systems thinking, but it was also a hint about what novel best exemplifies system thinking. Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace follows Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia. While the novel chronicles the big picture of the war, it also shows that history emerges from the peculiarities of individual behavior. Read it for the story alone, if you haven’t already, but pay attention to how often Tolstoy shows that characters need a contextually rich understanding of situations to make good decisions. And, appreciate Tolstoy’s systems thinking insight that history unfolds as one great interdependence of space, time and scale.
Which systems thinking book is right for you?
Whether you want to reform systems or avoid systems traps, you want to find that crucial book offering insight into our complex world.
One key insight to remember is that systems thinking is contextual. That means you need to find the systems thinking book that offers proactive and effective solutions to your unique problem.
For example, those focused on changing systems may want conceptual tools to help find a dozen leverage points. Check out Donella Meadows (#1).
Those trying to understand system structure of business dynamics may be in search of graphical tools like stock and flow diagrams. Check out Peter Senge (#18).
Those attempting to tackle global dilemmas by nurturing positive outcomes may need a damn good explanation of how the complex world works with a patterns library of common systems behaviour. Check out Peter Stroh (#3).
Our needs are completely dissimilar (my perennial favorites at the time of publishing this blog are Sun Tzu #23 and Taleb #25), so try to find the book that gives you the specific systems thinking skills you need right now.