Systems Thinking: An introduction

The major development and humanitarian challenges of the twenty-first century are highly complex and inter-related. Climate change, globalized markets and financial systems, and the evolution of networked forms of conflict are all examples of complex systems that underlie development problems. They are made up of a complex myriad of human and natural processes, institutions and relationships. ‘Systems thinking’ tries to take into account the interactions between different parts of a system and understand how together they are effecting change rather than simply trying to understand specific components in isolation. In doing so, systems thinking can be an important part of developing truly sustainable and transformative change. The adoption of systems thinking in practice requires a number of behaviours and practices that together provide the means to operate effectively within complex systems such as the ones we deal with. They include: a shift away from fixed, long-term planning to more iterative and adaptive planning based on learning and experimentation; a focus on multi-stakeholder approaches and co-creation with local stakeholders; the search for context-specific solutions rather than generic ones based on good practice elsewhere; a recognition that our paradigms and pre-concieved ideas often limit our ability to understand local contexts; and increased work across organizational boundaries, reducing differences in power, bringing in different ideas and perspectives and resulting in a deeper, less biased understanding of the systems we engage in. This report introduces systems thinking for Oxfam staff and other development practitioners. It explains how a systems approach can be integrated within programmes and ways of working and provides tools and links to a range of useful resources for further learning. In doing so it builds on the experience and thought leadership on systems thinking that Oxfam and other organizations have already shown.


About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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