What do we mean when we say “systems thinking”?


Most people operate with an “everyday” understanding of the terms “system” or “systems thinking”, and by referring to something as “systemic” they imply personal organization, diligence, and a desire to foresee every detail. That “systemic” approach that people bring into their work is shown through “forethought”, discipline in execution, and adherence to some kind of plan. However, as a result of such “forethought” of plans and discipline of their implementation, some especially diligent leaders and employees can be left with an even greater mess in both their minds and business.

“Systemic” is often confused with “systematic”. Despite the fact that many dictionaries define “systemic” and “systematic” as synonyms, we will try and separate them from each other. Now let’s understand the difference between these terms. “Systematic” is an important property of self-ownership, self collectedness competence (you need to be able to play a role without distractions, separate yourself from the role, be able to quickly learn new roles, have emotional stability, keep working capacity for hours, freely own a healthy body, be able to combine personal and work life, and take responsibility for choosing personal and work goals). “Systemic” is an important property of mental competence. Approaching something systematically, in a disciplined manner would be when a person repeatedly does something on a schedule. Whereas a systemic approach is when a person understands that there are different points of view in the world. As a result, that person is able to view the world as a series of systems and knows how to work within these systems.

Let’s put it this way, “systemic” defines “what to do”, and “systematic” means that it needs to be done regularly and orderly. One can never replace the other. It is necessary to be both systemic and systematic.

Systemic approach uses attention management to highlight systems levels. Systemic means that it is necessary to think of the world as a set of dolls nested inside each other, moreover, each nesting doll contains not just one, but several nesting dolls. For example, the following systems levels can be distinguished: the national football championship, which consists of several football clubs, stadiums, fans, TV broadcasts, etc .; on the next level we can consider what football clubs, stadiums, etc. include in them. For example, football clubs consist of a football team, a coaching staff, training courts, children’s schools, etc. Accordingly, we can highlight parts of stadiums, fans, TV broadcasts, etc .; further, we can also consider the teams of football players of each football club, club coaching staff, etc.


Levels within a system are defined for a reason, they introduce an important principle of physical nesting of one’s systems inside the others. Training systems thinking includes the ability to divide the world into different systems and systems’ levels. It is however impossible to learn this unconsciously, without studying concepts and models of systems thinking. You could spend years unconsciously forming experience in one professional field of activity, but it is unlikely that it would be quickly and easily transitioned to other fields of activity. (Although many experts who worked with different systems or in different areas of activity, may unconsciously develop a certain level of skill similar in quality to systems thinking).

Hence, the everyday understanding of systems thinking can be confused with gaining a lot of experience or getting a good technical university education. Gaining that experience may help to enhance intelligence, but it certainly will not upload concepts and systems thinking models in your brain.

In this regard, it is highly likely that when people say words like “systemic”, “systems approach” or “systems thinking”, they mean systematic approach, logic, a great amount of experience, and good education. So don’t confuse systemic and systematic, as well as pay attention to people, when they are talking about the system and try to find out what exactly they have in mind.