Great New Guide to ‘Systems Thinking and Practice’

February 8, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

I’m always on the lookout for good guides to the practical implications of systems thinking, so got very excited when I came across Systems Thinking and Practice: A guide to concepts, principles and tools for FCDO and partners, by Jim Woodhill and Juliet Millican. Its 38 pages are stuffed full of crisp summaries of the main ideas, case studies applying them to the practical business of aid and development, and enough reading to keep you busy for a year. Bravo.

It’s also interesting to see that the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is taking the issue so seriously – in the intro, two Whitehall mandarins stress the importance of a ‘systems approach to development and diplomacy’. 400 FCDO civil servants took the course on which the guide is based. Blimey.

Do please read it for yourselves, but here’s a couple of sections that stood out for me:

Organisational behaviours for putting systems thinking into practice

How do you know if systems thinking is being applied?

1 Viewing situations holistically – The starting point for systems thinking is to step back and take a ‘helicopter’ view of the situation you are dealing with. Try to explore, examine and tackle underlying causes of problems not just symptoms. This means working across different sectors and disciplines, and paying attention to the wider context in which your specific concerns or responsibilities are set. Given the types of issues and contexts in which FCDO engages, developing a good political economic understanding is usually a critical starting point.

2 Bringing multiple perspectives to the table – By definition, we are all limited by our experiences, training, interests and mindsets. A key to systems thinking is opening dialogue between people with different perspectives and insights. How do they see the issues they face? What are their views on how systems are functioning or not? What would constitute an improvement for them? Such dialogue includes bringing in people with different disciplinary and sector expertise, and enabling engagement between players from across government, business, civil society and science.

3 Considering alternative future scenarios – Explore how trends, uncertainties and shocks might create radically different futures, and what the implications would be for different stakeholders’ interests. Engage stakeholders in assessing what would be effective strategies for their interests, and for the system as a whole in different future scenarios. Scenario approaches are valuable in helping to understand the resilience of systems to future pressures and shocks.

4 Strengthening networks, feedback and relationships – Systems evolve and adapt based on networks and feedback between system components. A basic principle of systems practice is to increase communication and understanding between actors. Think about how relationships between different parts of a system can be improved, including through building trust between actors.

5 Designing interventions around system dynamics – ‘Engineering’ top-down change in human systems is largely impossible – so don’t try! Instead, explore how systems can be ‘nudged’ towards more desirable states. Look at how desirable behaviours can be amplified and less desirable ones can be dampened, and the roles that normative and punitive incentives might play. Accept that change often requires many contributing factors to align. How and when this will occur can’t be easily predicted, so patience is often needed while working on enabling conditions. Systems have stability and tipping points – try to understand these and how they can be used to support rather than block desired changes.

6 Experimenting, valuing failure and learning – Fundamental to bringing about change in complex systems is experimentation and rapid learning. This requires an appetite for risk and valuing the learning that can come from failure. As with investments, this implies that development organisations need to take risks and assess performance across the whole portfolio, rather than expecting every project or intervention to succeed.

7 Managing adaptively – Ultimately, responding to the complexity and uncertainty of how complex systems behave requires a highly adaptive approach to management and decision-making. This calls for good communication up and down management hierarchies, decentralised responsibility, and empowering those on the ‘front line’ to be responsive and questioning as situations change.’

And some new-ish stuff (for me) on ‘transitions’

Thinking about socio-technical transitions

Throughout human history we see a constant transitioning from one socio-technical dynamic to another. Think of the transition from horse and cart to the internal combustion engine, the ending of slavery, the current transition from fossil fuels to renewables or changing gender roles. Understanding how transition processes occur and integrating this with systems thinking offers the potential to intervene in ways that can direct and speed up desirable transitions, and dampen less desirable ones.

As illustrated above, transition theory describes how a regime of markets, science, culture, technology, policy and industry becomes ‘locked in’, with particular groups benefiting from this regime and using their power to maintain it. However, over time this regime will start to become incoherent, amid a changing landscape of environmental and social factors (e.g., it is becoming clear that the fossil fuel energy sector is incoherent with a stable climate; this incoherence is increasingly being acknowledged and triggering change). At the same time, niche innovations are always occurring, which over time can coalesce and scale, resulting in disruption of the existing regime. This two-way pressure on the regime, from a changing context and niche innovations, causes the regime to evolve and a new configuration to emerge.

From a policy, advocacy or activist perspective there are four key ways to think about intervening to nudge change:

1 Help to make apparent and explicit to a wide range of actors the emerging disconnect between the existing regime and the social and environmental landscape. This includes making clear how this disconnect threatens the longer-term interests of particular groups and society at large. This occurs, for example, through focused research, public education, effective use of media or processes of stakeholder dialogue. Foresight and scenario analyses can be a valuable way of enabling stakeholders to understand the long-term consequences of the negative features of the current system or regime for their interests.

2 Invest in and support a diverse range of innovations (hedging), even though the success of any single innovation cannot be guaranteed. Accepting failure is necessary!

3 Support processes that identify, coalesce and scale innovations that can help to demonstrate desirable and feasible alternatives to the existing regime, and contribute to disrupting it.

4 Foster processes explicitly designed to disrupt the existing regime and shift power balances such as coalitions for change, active civil society groups, critical journalism, or co-opt leaders of different groups who can be respected champions for change.’

The final section is a really handy annotated guide to the bewildering number of systems-related ‘toolkits’. Great stuff. Alas, just too late for last week’s systems thinking lecture to my LSE activism class, but definitely going on the reading list for next year.

February 8, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Pity this guide was too late for your LSE activism class. But it is well in time for my assessment of what this may imply for South Africa’s Just Energy Transition plan (from coal to renewables) and the partnership with among others the UK and the EU who committed to support it. As always, thanks.

  2. This is quite an interesting read and will take out time to read the updated System Thinking guide by the duo of authors. Gleaning from your summary of the Guide, it sets me thinking about the applicability of such a result oriented practice in the way aid is conducted in Africa and how even when time and the push to get things done by donor and clients do not allow for evidence of System thinking to manifest; yet, there is the understanding that existing structures are far from sustaining and applying best practices in so much a flawed system. So, it works perfectly fine for contexts where the organizational culture, also to add, the governance culture allows for it to benefit “thinking systemically” in order to cope with the various disruptions the entire globe witnesses now and the future. It gets so confusing sometimes, and this is my opinion anyway!

  3. Ah, the sweet irony of FCDO publishing a text on valuing failure and learning while hiring private sector accountancy companies to impose the strictest command and control management of their global funds. Please tell what you have learned from your failures while we apply Management by Results …

    1. Good point John. What struck me in working within FCDO was the level of awareness about exactly this sort of contradiction. It is immensely hard to get any of our big bureaucratic institutions oriented to the implications of a systems approach. However, having individuals in such organisations coming together to explore the boundaries of what they can push can hopefully make at least some valuable difference.

  4. As one of the people in FCDO who supported and worked with Jim and Juliet to make this happen I am pleased to see this write up from Duncan who was central to one of our earlier sessions. I hope people find it useful.

  5. Thanks Duncan for the nice review.

    It seems to me that extreme turbulence and uncertainty are the new normal for development. While far from easy, embedding more systems-oriented approaches into development programmes is vital to avoiding lurching from crisis to crisis. Deep thinking, concerted action, and investment is needed to increase the resilience of systems. We see escalating demands for emergency and crisis response, putting at risk the investment needed for a deeper transformation of systems.

    On the FCDO side, the “Systems Thinking and Practice Learning Journey” was not so much a training as an ongoing internal dialogue between staff sharing their thoughts on the why and how of systems thinking, along with their own experiences of trying to make it happen. It was indeed very encouraging that so many were keen to engage with their peers on the challenges and opportunities for taking a more systemic approach to development and diplomacy.

  6. A lot of people in the systems thinking domain would not be happy about systems dynamics(all terribly causal) informing and dominating the guide. If you create a systems thinking guide then CST, Cybernetics and soft systems deserve a place.

    It doesn’t both me that much as I think complexity science has more utility than ST, & the current EU Field guide offers some complementary methods to what you advocate, and some which would challenge it.

  7. As an FCDO employee who hasn’t heard of this process at all but think it looks useful and important, please can someone share where it is being led from and what the plans are for it to be taken forward?

  8. For nearly twenty years (since 2004) DfID, along with other donors such as SDC and Sida, led the way in applying systems thinking and practice to sustainable livelihoods and economic development.
    Their significant investment in ‘market systems development’ is acknowledged by Jim & Juliet in Box 7 of their Guide – and a compelling summary of some of the best examples of this work can be found here:
    However, readers may also find it useful to know that a great body of evidence about impact, and practical guidance, not least about how to measure systemic change is now also available on the BEAM Exchange. This body of knowledge represents the collective wisdom of hundreds of ‘system practitioners’ in the MSD field who have found creative ways to navigate the inevitable constraints created by bureaucratic aid institutions.
    One resource I would particularly recommend, since it has wider resonance for systems practitioners is ‘A pragmatic approach to assessing system change’

  9. Very interesting, thanks for sharing! I certainly recognize key elements from the global Oxfam strategy process in 2019/20 – and the challenge of making systems thinking and intersectional approaches stick as a continuous practice (versus being a one-off, scenario-focused activity). A luta continua, as we like to say…

  10. Unmanageable Inflation & the fiat monetary systems that perpetuate it belongs at the center of all of this.

    But then again, I wouldn’t expect a ‘study’ funded by a UK gov’t office ‘via taxpayer money’ to uncover that.

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