Systems Thinking in the Resolution of Complex Social Problems


In speaking and participating in a panel discussion at the WA State Government Leadership & Partnership Forum recently, I reflected on the importance of systems thinking being fundamental to understanding and addressing complex problems. A complex system is defined as one where each element in the environment is connected to every other element. It’s a bit like life really: each action you take as an individual will have intended and unintended consequences on others. A single action usually has more than one outcome and affects others in ways that are desirable, but also in ways that might be undesirable or unexpected.

The WA Leadership & Partnership Forum was created to deal with complex social problems in an integrated manner within the State. Robyn Kruk, Chair of the Forum, commented that Western Australia is now a leader, along with New Zealand, in addressing societal issues in this manner. But even Robyn would say we have a long way to go.

The considerable efforts to date by the government and NGO sector have resulted in variable outcomes being achieved due to what might be called ‘policy resistance’, where sound ideas are delayed, compromised or quashed due to the unexpected and often unseen reactions of others. In a complex system, just as in strategy generally, everything is connected to everything else. There is a “joined upedness”. In his excellent, if technical, text on systems theory, John Sterman[1]argues that if people had a holistic world view they would act in consonance with the best interests of the system as a whole, identify the high leverage points and avoid policy resistance. But this is, of course, easier said than done.

The challenge is to first understand that we are not remote from the system – we are embedded in the system. Each and every action we take provides feedback to us, the initiator. As a result we may alter our actions. But so does everyone else in the system.

Initiatives falter when we fail to recognise the full range of feedback that is being generated from all players. If we carry on regardless, blind to what is really happening across the system, our efforts will have less and less impact over time. We often call unintended impacts ‘side effects’, but in fact they are not off to one side at all; they are an integral part of the overall dynamic. If we don’t think in an integrated manner, we may blame side effects for a lack of results. Taking a dynamic systems approach allows us to map out and address those unintended consequences before they occur.

Sterman describes it as akin to being a passenger on an aircraft we must not only fly, but redesign in-flight.

As strategists, we need our own flight simulators to think across the entire spectrum of a system such as housing in order to address seemingly intractable problems like homelessness.

For more information, please feel free to email me at

[1]Sterman, JD Business Dynamics-Systems Thinking and Modelling for a Complex World, Irwin McGroy Hill 2000

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