bryan lindsley

Systems Thinking Training: How to make more impact

Let me guess…you weren’t formally trained to be a systems scientist. But don’t worry. In this post, you’ll learn what systems thinking is and why it’s so important. You’ll also discover the top ten benefits of enrolling in a systems thinking training. Finally, I’ll tell you how you can start becoming a systems thinker today.

Why do you need systems thinking?

Simply put, you need systems thinking to make better decisions in our increasingly complex and interconnected world.

It seems to be a human tendency to see cause and effect in a predictable and linear way. In that common way of thinking, solving problems is as simple as top-down accountability for results. Of course, there have always been thinkers opposed to this simple mental model. Why? Because when linear thinking is used on complex problems, it’s very likely to result in errors.

Avoiding unintended consequences

And by missing the importance of feedback loops, actors may even be unwittingly contributing to the problems they are trying to solve. Here are three examples of what I’m talking about:

International food aid to developing countries

Although well-intentioned, the increase in local food supply can depress prices and hurt local farmers, which in turn discourages future local production.

international food aid
International food aid can hurt local farmers

Illegal drug policy

Policies that reduce the supply of illegal drugs often result in a dramatic increase in the cost of these substances, thereby unintentionally increasing drug-related crime.

illegal drugs
Reducing illegal drug supply can increase crime

Medicare’s “no fall” policy

In an attempt to reduce patient injury, Medicare said it would no longer reimburse hospitals for care related to patient falls. “No fall” interventions were subsequently increased dramatically despite evidence that they do not work. As a result, many elderly patients were essentially put on bed rest, making them weaker and reducing their mobility.

no-fall policy
Pursuing better outcomes can result in worse care

What is systems thinking?

Although its history can be traced back to classical thinkers like Heraclitus, systems thinking has been described by promoters like Peter Senge as “a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’.” These insights help people who work on or in systems to avoid reductionism and instead look for “wholes”.

Many of the most-pressing challenges we face are complex – they are systems of interrelated problems and variables whose trajectory is nearly impossible to predict.

Understanding the general properties of systems gives people the ability to simultaneously see the parts, the relationships between the parts, and the big picture. By developing a systems thinking mindset, you’ll have the right skills and tools to make better decisions despite the world’s uncertainty.

Top 10 benefits of a systems thinking training

#1. Solve Problems That Never Seem to Go Away

You know those social problems that never seem to go away? Issues like poverty, homelessness, and crime. So often, efforts to address these problems don’t work. And often, interventions end up having the opposite than intended effect.


An online course that teaches systems thinking can show the negative longer-term consequences of immediate “solutions.” With this kind of awareness about the system and our own role in it, system thinkers can more reliably solve complex problems.

#2. Gain Essential Skills

Becoming a system thinker requires learning new skills. There are many of them, but here are some examples of the most important skills for systems thinking:

  • Explore multiple perspectives
  • Recognize system context
  • Consider the parts, relationships between the parts, and the whole simultaneously
  • Use abstract mental models and concepts
  • Create simulation models with systems mapping
  • Characterize feedback loops
  • Recognize interconnections
  • Considering systems at different scales
  • Discern system dynamics and change over time
  • Identify leverage points

#3. Master Systems Thinking Tools

One key insight of systems thinking is that the tools we use need to match the job at hand. Just like you wouldn’t use a hammer to drive a screw or a screwdriver to pound a nail, systems thinkers use a range of new methods and processes that are tailored to complex problems. A training course may teach more conceptual tools like mental models and system archetypes. Or, a course may include a range of systems mapping tools that can help visualize systems.

#4. Improve Your Existing Efforts

It’s never too late to use systems thinking. Even if you’re mid-stream or just finishing a change initiative, such as a Collective Impact or systems change initiative, the insights of systems thinking can still by applied.

systems thinking training

The first step can be as simple as asking what the unintended consequences of a proposed action may be. Questions like this are simple, but they can lead to learning and new knowledge. They can also help identify how an organization or it’s management thinks about the big picture or long-term results.

#5. Gain Insights About Real World Problems

So many of the problems that surround us are complex phenomena. The have many variables and a range of interrelated relationships. Systems thinkers are about to focus on how each problem works as a system – it’s specifically phenomenology. By learning about the unique relationships that drive the behavior, systems thinkers become attuned to understanding system dynamics.

This provides humility, almost a kind of emotional intelligence that accepts human limitations. No matter how they might feel about the problem and wanting it to go away, system thinkers realize that controlling complex systems isn’t possible.

Instead, they apply systems thinking to analyze complex situations and gain deep understanding. By staying humble and considering potential unintended consequences, system thinkers often find leverage points other people miss.

#6. Learn Systems Leadership

Systems thinking isn’t just done by individuals. In fact, because most problems involve many stakeholders, each of whom may have a different opinion about what the problem is, and what to do about it, management is needed to bring people together and find agreement.

systems thinking training

Some of the most important systems leadership examples that an online course may teach include:

  • Bringing stakeholders together to engage in discussion and find shared goals
  • Helping others to engage in systems thinking, seeing their own role and the big picture
  • Driving change initiatives by empowering various actors to take action
  • Holding groups accountable for their shared goals, including measuring progress over time
  • Shaping large-scale change initiatives so that they can adapt to challenges in real-time

#7. Apply Critical Thinking to “Solutions”

People are often so excited to solve a problem that they skip over learning about it and instead try to immediately solve it. When that happens, there’s a common tendency to latch onto “solutions”. And anyone who doesn’t agree with your solution becomes the enemy.

A problem solver may try to avoid these kind of zero-sum debates. Rather than judging any potential action as “good” or “bad”, they apply systems thinking by seeing every action as a trade-off. In other words, they use critical thinking to weigh the pros and cons of every course of action. This is based on the insight that most problems reside in systems of interrelated problems, and that there is no perfect or optimal solution.

#8. Adopt a Systems Thinking Mindset

Adopting the systems perspective requires knowledge about systems theory, including system dynamics. It builds on a range of transdisciplinary concepts such as emergence, hierarchy, holism, and suboptimization.

But a systems thinking course is about more than just a collection of concepts. It’s about learning. When all its components are taken together – theories, concepts, processes, skills and tools – an online course can help make sense of our complex world without the limits of reductionism. By grasping the insight that the relationships between the parts are often more important than the parts themselves, the systems mindset helps people make good decisions and take effective action.

#9. Personal and Professional Advancement

An essential skill for the future

According to research by the World Economic Forum, complex problem solving – of which systems thinking is a major component – is one of the most important skills for the year 2020 and beyond. And that’s true because more than a third of jobs will require complex problem-solving as a core function.

A way to keep employees

And, according to a 2019 report by LinkedIn, “94 percent of employees say that they would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn.”

systems thinking training

An investment, not an expense

Despite the huge demand for these skills, many employers see an online course an just another expense rather than an investment. And many employees, despite having individual training funds which would fully cover the expenses of a systems thinking training course, don’t use them.

A way to get ahead

All this being said, learning more about systems thinking in an online course is a great way to get ahead in your personal and professional life. Most employers would love to have more employees with training in systems thinking.

#10. Quick, Fast and On-Demand

There are many options to gain systems thinking skills, and none are faster or easier than an online course.

If you want an advanced degree or need a professional certificate, there are online courses that from leading universities that cost several thousand dollars.

Other course options, like MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) are free, but the quality varies dramatically. Keep in mind that completion rates really speak for themselves: on average only between 5 and 15% complete this kind of course.

But there are other good options between expensive university certificates and free but not very good MOOCs.

systems thinking training

Learn systems thinking with my course

If you’re looking to gain new skills, my online course, Lasting Results For Complex Problems, teaches systems thinking.

bryan lindsley
Bryan demonstrates fuzzy cognitive mapping of homelessness to get a sense of problem dynamics and the effects of potential solutions.

It’s a systems thinking training designed for anyone who wants to better understand social problems and how to effectively influence them.

Whether you’re a nonprofit leader, director or program officer at a foundation, corporate social responsibility officer, legislator or policy maker, government agency worker, educator or organizer, activist, or just a concerned citizen who wants to strengthen the community, this course is for you.