What Is Systems Thinking?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how systems thinking helps you gain a more nuanced understanding of the world around you and how you can use systems thinking to solve problems in your career and personal life.

[Featured Image] An ecologist holes a vial of water and a laptop while working in the field using systems thinking skills.

Systems thinking is thinking about systems, or—more broadly—the practice of thinking about the systems that regulate our lives and looking for ways to improve those systems. You live in a complex world controlled by systems, in your home and with your family, at your place of employment, and when you are out of the house participating in the world in any regard. Understanding those systems helps you gain insight into the world and develop a creative, problem-solving mindset.

Discover systems thinking and why it’s essential for leaders and individuals while exploring some tips for developing your sense of systems thinking.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking describes a practice of looking for underlying systems in your life—how and why things work the way they do, how things relate to one another, and how changing the system could change the outcome. This process also involves looking at different parts of systems to understand their role in the system as a whole.

It may sound complex, but it’s actually a concept you’re probably already familiar with. Imagine an ecosystem where predators, prey, and plants live together in a single geographic area. The parts of the system include the individual predators, prey, and plants, which all have different needs from the environment. If something happens to the environment, it can affect another part of the system. In turn, it may cause one part of the system to suddenly increase or decrease in population, throwing the rest of the system off balance.

When you understand how the system works and what each of the individual parts contributes, you can look for ways to improve it or prevent damage. In our ecosystem systems thinking example, when an event occurs that could potentially knock the ecosystem off balance, you can take steps to stabilize the system because of your critical thinking skills.

Benefits of systems thinking

Practicing systems thinking will allow you to start noticing more patterns emerge in your life and give you a more nuanced understanding of what you can do to impact those patterns. Some significant benefits of systems thinking include:

  • Create better, more efficient solutions: When you understand the system as a whole, you can improve the system by removing parts that don’t serve the outcomes you want and making other changes. You also gain a holistic understanding of the system, so when something goes wrong, you can make informed decisions about what you should change or correct.

  • Improve communication: Systems thinking helps translate systems into diagrams and other visual materials, which can help you educate your team and increase their own systems thinking. Systems thinking also improves communication by giving your entire team a common vocabulary with which to discuss the system. This might sound like jargon at first—performance metrics, boundaries, hierarchies, et cetera—but these phrases act as a shorthand for more sophisticated concepts—the statistics used to measure whether a program is working, the bounds of the system, such as jurisdiction, and how ideas or people relate to one another.

  • Broadening thinking: Practicing systems thinking also helps you broaden your perspectives. By understanding how each part contributes to the system's outcome, you can brainstorm a broader range of potential solutions and find new ways to improve your system.

  • Manage risk: Systems thinking gives insight into what might happen when alterations are made to any system part. This allows you to avoid unnecessary risk by foreseeing potential problems before they occur. 

Examples of systems thinking

Before you understand how to use systems thinking in practice, it may be helpful to think about a few examples of systems. A few examples of systems, ranging from those impacting the globe to those on a personal level, include:

  • Population trends: A country's population changes based on various factors, including immigration and births and deaths of citizens. By understanding the system behind how population trends rise and fall, governments and organizations can help influence population trends.

  • Health care systems: While it may vary from place to place, if you need to receive health care, you will follow a particular system for accessing it—finding a doctor accepting new patients, making an appointment, and arriving when expected. The doctor also works for a health care system with different departments providing different types of care. The doctor will look at how your body's systems function and may prescribe treatment or medication to influence your body's systems.

  • Education: You can find other examples of systems in education. For example, children must attend school by a certain age and participate in a particular school system, such as public school or homeschooling. Within each subject, teachers use specific systems for educating their students, such as beginning with primary concepts and advancing to more technical work.

  • Working for pay: You probably anticipate receiving a paycheck when you go to work. This is because you are engaging with a system with your employer where you work for an agreed amount of time, and your employer compensates you accordingly.

Systems thinking examples

Now that you’ve had some practice with systems thinking, let’s look at how it has changed the world. Three examples of systems thinking in practice include smartphones, changes to our education systems, and cryptocurrency. 


Smartphones are an example of how society can make advancements by incrementally improving systems or completely reimagining how systems work. The first cell phone represented a giant technological leap and a complete rethinking of how telephones work and how people interact with them. The first smartphone represented another huge leap forward, merging computers with telephones. In between these huge advancements, engineers use systems thinking to incrementally improve the process so that, in theory, each phone released is better than the previous version.


The pandemic in 2020 caused a major shift in circumstances for educators around the world, who had to use system thinking to overcome lockdown challenges. Today, education professionals are using systems thinking to examine how advancements in technology can improve the process of teaching students. Some educators argue that society needs to modernize and rethink the underlying thought processes of education systems to represent goals that are more relevant for today’s students.


Technology advancements also influence how people think about and interact with money. Putting information digitally on plastic cards was a massive change in society’s financial system, which brought the convenience of not having to carry cash. Cryptocurrency represents another sizeable shift in thinking about money by involving blockchain technology to provide secure and transparent transactions.

Who uses systems thinking?

To some extent, everyone can benefit from systems thinking. The more you know about the systems around you, the more you can impact your environment for your benefit and the benefit of others. Regarding a career, systems thinking can help you navigate the job market, decide on the appropriate education to pursue, and what steps might help you toward your eventual career goal.

For professionals, systems thinking can benefit a wide range of careers. Careers in science often rely on systems thinking to navigate the natural world and the laws of matter. For example, a nurse or doctor relies on systems thinking to understand how and why the body functions. Careers that rely on competency in math benefit from systems thinking to process calculations. High-level leaders and company decision-makers use systems thinking to make informed business decisions.

Systems thinking can even help you manage tasks like grocery shopping or washing your laundry. For example, if you are grocery shopping, you might decide that you want to wait to go past the freezer section to grab your ice cream. That way, the ice cream has the shortest possible time between going out of the freezer at the store and getting into your freezer at home, helping keep it frozen. This example shows how systems thinking can directly help you influence the world around you.

How to develop systems thinking

You can strengthen your systems thinking ability by practicing the art of thinking about systems. Here are some tips:

  • Chart systems. One way to practice looking at systems is to physically chart them on a piece of paper. You can also look at systems around you or current events to gain inspiration.

  • Ask questions about the systems you see. When you notice systems, ask questions to understand why they work as they do. What would happen if something changed? This exercise can help you see potential improvements in the systems around you.

  • Seek understanding. As you ask questions, try to reserve your judgment until you can create a fuller picture of the entire system.

  • Challenge assumptions. Sometimes, systems function a certain way because they always have or because we make certain assumptions about how we should do things. If you learn to question these assumptions, you may find obvious potential improvements.

  • Think about the consequences. When you need to make a decision, train yourself to consider the long and short-term consequences that might occur due to your action (or inaction). Remember to look for consequences that you didn’t intend.

Learn more with Coursera.

Systems thinking offers a new way to think about and approach challenges in business and everyday life. To learn more about the systems thinking process, consider Systems Thinking In Public Health offered by Johns Hopkins University on Coursera. This course includes four modules and can help you learn how health care services use systems thinking to manage hospital systems. Yale’s Connected Leadership coursecan help you apply systems thinking to business for improved leadership skills. 

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