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Systems Thinking: More than Just a Buzz Word

If there is one term from Organizational Development (OD) that has managed to promulgate itself into the general business lexicon it is systems thinking. You won't find many organizations that don't throw out buzz words about how they take a systemic view of their ecosystem. The descriptor of systems thinker has almost caught up with people skills as a go-to categorization on resumes. What is surprising, however, is how many people who talk about the importance of systems thinking are not completely aware of what it really means and how it should be applied. Most of these folks would probably be much more effective in their efforts if they did know more about it.

While a lot of people have written about systems thinking, perhaps no one is more associated with this topic as it relates to OD than Peter Senge. His landmark work the Fifth Discipline was first published in 1990 (updated in 2006) and is seen by many as really starting the discussion about how organizations can solve problems by using systems thinking processes to become learning organizations. While others had discussed systems thinking before, this was the first time it had been applied in an organizational context. Some people who have only read summaries of Senge's work may cling to the notion that systems thinking is just seeing the 'big picture', but Senge's view is much more directive and specific. And in my opinion, it is much more useful.

In Senge's parlance, systems thinking is about looking at the full patterns and interconnectedness of our processes rather than just snapshots of isolated parts of the system (2006). This is very different than just "seeing the big picture" in that you can take a snapshot of the big picture at one point in time and not consider what it is like at another point in time. It is this temporal expansion of the process consideration that makes systems thinking so powerful. In our traditional ontologies we think primarily about how the organization is. In a systems thinking view, we also consider what it was, how it got to where it is, and how do we manage where it is going for the best possible results?

How does this come into play for organizations? The applications are endless. A review of organizations that Senge has worked with using this concept reads like a who's who of marquee organizations. Typing systems thinking into Google Scholar creates 3,400,000 results, and Peter Senge's name alone results in 33,800 results. I myself drew heavily from his work when I developed a new model of strategic planning that applies systems thinking to what has traditionally been a fairly finite activity (Brown, 2012). So to say that he has been a big influence on me is putting it lightly.

So what should one do if they want to learn more about Peter Senge and his work? Just go pick up a copy of the Fifth Disciple. Read it once. Then read it again. And I wouldn't recommend just browsing the Kindle version as we so often do these days. Purchase a hard copy and read it with a highlighter and a pen in hand. If you do it right you'll end up with a copy that is covered with notes and sticky tabs. Those notes and highlights will come in very handy when you start trying to apply systems thinking as more than just a buzz word.


Brown, J. (2012). Systems thinking strategy: The new way to understand your business and drive performance. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc.

Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Dobuleday.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd.