Mar 10 2017 (a 8 minutes read)
Systems thinking 101
I promised my good friend Alberta Soranzo a list of the various books and resources I use for both teaching my students the fundaments of complexity and systems thinking and in my own research and projects as part of the theory and methods for investigating and addressing experiences in cross-channel ecosystems. This is the result so far. Just keep in mind this is not *The List*, nor it's meant to be. It reflects practical needs, personal quirks, likes and dislikes, and quite blatantly leaves out all of the many sources which discuss complexity and systems in connection with architecture and city planning. The reason being I really believe those deserve their own “Architecture 101” post.
There's a few classics in here (Senge, Werner, Meadows, Gharajedaghi), a really good exercise book (Booth Sweeney), many books sitting at the intersection of design and strategy, and books that more tangentially touch on systems thinking while focusing on complexity (Mitchell), emergence (Johnson), or networks (Barabasi). I also included some of the books that explicitly discuss or explain loops and archetypes, provided a few management- or project-oriented sources, and topped all of that with a couple of academic articles that look at the big picture. Whether or not these will prove to be useful depends on your goals.
The list is in alphabetic order by author, and all entries link back to their Amazon pages. Hope you'll find it useful. Anyone who wants to explore more or different, my advice is to simply point your browsers to Systems Thinker, the Pegasus Communication publication which has been supporting the conversation around systems thinking since the 1980s and that is now available online. With contributors that include Senge, Ballinger, Kim, Ponto, Stroh, Booth Sweeney, Sterman, and Aronson, your only problem will be, very appropriately, where you set your boundaries.
Ackoff, R. (2010)
Systems Thinking for Curious Managers. Triarchy Press.
A follow-up to Ackoff's rather famous “Management f-laws”, with an additional introduction going into general systems thinking. Must read for anyone interested in the application of systems thinking to organizational issues.
Armson, R. (2011).
Growing Wings on the Way. Triarchy Press.
If you need a soft but rigorous introduction to systems thinking with easy-to-follow examples drawn from day-to-day situations, this is probably your book. Also sports probably one of the best and thorough explanations of how to diagram systems.
Banathy, B. H. (1996)
Designing Social Systems in a Changing World. Springer.
This is a Springer book. It is a. expensive; b. academic in nature. This said, it's a very good book examining the overlap of design, systems thinking, and change management. I'd consider it a book to read (at least in part) if you are interested in service design and deployment.
Barabasi, A. L. (2003)
Linked. Plume / Penguin Books.
A run-away hit for Barabasi, and a captivating read that sits at the crossroads of network theory and complexity.
Bijker, W. E. (1997)
Of bicycles, bakelite, and bulbs. The MIT Press.
Socio-technical complexity narrated through the history of the bicycle, of bakelite, and the electric bulb. Not specifically a book on systems thinking, but a book that helps understand the often unseen interplay between technology and societal pushes and pulls and the role that systems logic has in there. An extremely enjoyable book if you are interested in the history of design as well.
Booth Sweeney, L. & Meadows, D. (2010)
The Systems Thinking Playbook. Chelsea Green Publishing.
A great resource if you need exercises, games, and plenty of reflection on their intended results, potential pitfalls. Comes complete with instructor do's and dont's for all activities, lentgh, and level of difficulty. Works in a class and in a more practice-oriented workshop for practitioners.
Davis, M. C., Challenger, R., Jayewardene D. N. W. & Clegg, C. W. (2014)
Advancing socio-technical systems thinking: A call for bravery. Applied Ergonomics 45, pp. 171-180.
This is an academic article. The attention here is on what needs improving and on possible developments and applications of systems thinking
Garajedaghi, J. (2011)
Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity. Morgan Kauffman.
A tough book to get through, but one I use extensively both in teaching and in projects that deal with cross-channel experience design. Gharajedaghi's model of searching, mapping the mess, telling the story is an invaluable practical approach to ecosystem inquiry.
Haines, S. G. (1999)
The Manager's Pocket Guide to Systems Thinking. Human Resources Development Press.
Title says it all. It's an unpretentious guide to what systems thinking can do for management processes. Read if interested in how systems thinking can be used to affect leadership and organizational change. Or buy a copy for your manager.
Haines, S. G. (2011)
The Complete Guide to Systems Thinking and Learning. Human Resources Development Press.
A partial redress of the pocket guide, this books goes larger and wider but still reintroduces some of the concepts from there while arguably expanding their scope. Read one or the other. Interesting bibliography at the end.
Hugos, M. (2013)
Enterprise Games. O'Reilly.
All of the chapters detailing feedback systems provide exercises that can be used to introduce systems thinking in organizational settings.
Institute of Play (2012)
Systems Thinking Design Pack.
A downloadable PDF guide on systems thinking and education. Contains plenty of useful insights for anyone in a position to teach systems thinking in class or in organizational contexts, from seminars to workshops.
Jackson, M. C. (2003)
Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. John Wiley & Sons.
This is a tough nut to crack, and a lot of it covers different territories in different disciplines making it a challenging read if you are specifically not interested in, say, critical systems practice or team syntegrity. I liked the initial chapters, totally gave up towards the end and only read what seemed interesting. Your mileage may vary.
Johnson, S. (2001)
Emergence. Penguin Books.
Your book of choice if you want to understand how emergence, complexity and systems fit together, but you want also a delightful read. This is one of those train or airplane books, the good ones, which will stick with you.
Jolly, R. (2015)
Systems Thinking for Business. Systems Solutions Press.
Another recent book especially targeting the business side of things (surprise). Jolly wrote an excelltent section on the dynamics of systems thinking where he also repurposes business-y serious games from a systems thinking angle. I've been successfully using these in workshops, both in class and with companies.
Kapsali, M. (2011).
Systems thinking in innovation project management: A match that works. International Journal of Project Management. Issue 29. Pp. 396 – 407.
Academic article. Discusses how systems thinking can be successfully used to solve some of the issues that traditionally plague project management. Especially targeting public efforts and not for the faint of heart.
Kim, D. H. (2010)
Introduction to systems thinking
This is a downloadable PDF and a very well-done introduction to systems thinking with a clear focus on its practical applications. Pair this with Kim's Systems Thinking Archetypes for balancing out a theoretical overview and very practical diagramming methods.
Kim, D. H. (2010)
Systems Thinking Archetypes
One of the best break-downs of archetypes. You'll find other good ones in a few of the books listed here (for example in Stroh's), but Kim's analytical approach really makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to really understand what the hell is the “Tragedy of the Commons”. This is basically a shorter version of Kim & Anderson's book “Systems Thinking: From Story to Structure”.
Kim, D. H. & Anderson, V. (1998)
System Archetypes: From Story to Structure
The best book on systems archetypes you can find, and it's a free PDF download thanks to Pegasus Communication and The Systems Thinker. If you only ever read one thing on systems, or if you are only interested in the practicalities of adopting a systemic approach, read this. Everything you need to know to apply archetypes to complex problem spaces can be found in here.
Kluger, J. (2008)
An interesting if uneven book that approaches complexity by trying to answer 11 questions confuse us and that deal with wicked problems brought along by scale, emotional involvement, fear, and flexibility among others.
Meadows, D. (2008)
Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
One of the foundational books on systems thinking. Enormously influential and a necessary read for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the field.
Mitchell, M. (2011)
Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford University Press.
Not an easy read, but a great introduction to the concept of complexity and its many ramifications. Only read if interested in genetics and computers, or you are really into it.
Seddon, J. (2008)
Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. Triarchy Press.
This book was pivotal in shifting the conversation around services in the UK. It's still a great read, especially for its very detailed case studies.
Senge, P. (1990)
The Fifth Discipline.
A milestone in the field and another must-read for anyone interested in design for change. Senge's fifth discipline is of course systems thinking, seen as the one that integrates the traditional organizational practices in the “learning organization”. His 11 laws should be learned by heart, especially the 1st one: “ Today's problems come from yesterday's solutions”
Sheffield, J., Sankaran, S. & Haslett, T. (2012)
Systems thinking: taming complexity in project management. On the Horizon. Vol. 20. No. 2. Pp. 126 - 136.
Academic paper, but a really good breakdown of the benefits of systems thinking for handling project complexity. Discusses in detail which techniques can be successfully adopted in the various phases of a traditional system development lifecycle.
Sherrer, J. A. (2010)
A Project Manager's Guide to Systems Thinking: Part I and II
A very practical down-to-earth article on systems thinking from a project management perspective, with some good (if not particularly mind-blowing) insights. Part II is linked from Part I.
Sherwood, D. (2002)
Seeing the Forest for the Trees: A Manager's Guide to Applying Systems Thinking. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
See “useful for anyone who wants to apply systems thinking to managerial problems”. I place it in the same basket as the Pocket Guide. Don't read both unless you explicitly want to investigate the intersection of systems and management.
Stroh, D. P. (2015)
Systems Thinking for Social Change. Chelsea Green Publishing.
One of the must-have books. Most cases described in here are from the USA, so plus points if you want to impress people at parties with your knowledge of public policing in Minnesota. And you'll love it: it's seriously that good.
Weinberg, G. M. (2001)
An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. Dorset House, 25th anniversary edition.
Another one of the must-have books, if you are serious about systems. Not always an easy read, also provides quite a bit of practical insights and exercises. I personally find it puzzling in places but incredibly inspirational.