Just another ‘religion’…or something much more?

I feel like the phrase ‘Systems Thinking’ is, unfortunately, regularly abused/ misused/ confused and I wanted to write a post that causes me to set this out.

Further, I’ve read several articles online that attempt to define systems thinking and many of them (I think) fall into the same hole.

It’s a tricky area (no one ‘owns’ language) …so you’ll have to judge how I do…and where it can be refined and matured.


There have been a couple of triggers for me to write this post:

  • I heard about a conversation whereby a member of staff asked a senior manager if their organisation would continue its ‘systems thinking’ journey and the response was “well, there are many religions” and then referred to Agile, Design Thinking etc. as if these were competing and it was a matter of choosing which one to concentrate on (“because we can’t do them all”)
  • I regularly read blog posts comparing ‘systems thinking’ with various approaches (such as Agile, Design Thinking…), often in some sort of ‘battle of methods’

I don’t think the phrase systems thinking is being used well. It might even be the wrong phrase1. My point is (I believe) that the ‘many religions’ response shows a big problem (in understanding, and in enabling meaningful systemic change).

I’d like to set out the important difference between the words ‘theory’ and ‘method’…and then re-examine the ‘systems thinking thing’.


Beginning with the word ‘theory’: It’s used a fair bit, and in different senses, so what do I mean when I use it within this post?

In everyday parlance, the word ‘theory’ might be used to mean a hunch/ guess/ feeling/ intuition [ref. a hypothesis].

“I’ve got a theory that the dog did it whilst we weren’t looking!”

However, for a scientist, the word theory means virtually the opposite. A theory refers to something that has a clearly substantiated explanation, and thus can be relied upon to understand, explain, and predict (albeit within the limits of a theory’s boundaries).

The theory of gravity can be used to explain why the apple falls to the ground…and can be used to reliably predict how other objects will behave.

And so we get the distinction between a hypothesis (I think that this explains it…which I could go on to explore) and a theory2 (this really does explain it…so I’d be wise to act accordingly).

Perhaps the most important point about theory is that I can use it to intervene and bring about change.

By understanding the theory of gravity, I can make use of it to handily move objects from one place to another (e.g. down a chute).

Conversely, if I try to go against the theory of gravity, I could make life extremely hard for myself. I could find myself stuck…or going in the opposite direction!

Note that the words ‘principle’ and ‘law’ fit in a similar space with, and are relatable to, the word ‘theory’.


Turning to the word ‘method’: which means a way of doing something, hopefully with the aim of achieving something useful.

The words ‘technique’ and ‘approach’ fit with the word ‘method’.

Putting the two together:

  • If you consistently act in accordance with the theory (which probably requires you to understand it at some level), then lots of different methods could provide value to you3. You might even be able to ‘mix and match’ methods
  • However, if you fall foul of the theory, then it won’t matter which method you use or how meticulously you attempt to follow it4. Your failure to conform with the theory will hinder, and perhaps prevent, you from achieving the desired outcome

…and so to the phrase ‘Systems Thinking:

Put simply: When people write/ talk about this thing called ‘systems thinking’ there is often confusion as to whether they are referring to theory or method.

When I refer to systems thinking, I’m thinking about theory, and I realise that there are many methods out there that can assist.

In respect of theory: there are some fundamentals that we would do well to understand5.

The work of Mike Jackson

I’ve got a rather nice book on my shelf by Prof. Mike Jackson titled ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’.

Mike’s book brilliantly demonstrates the point: He catalogues, organises, sets out and critiques a compilation of ‘systems thinking’ approaches6.

Just to give you a flavour of what I mean, here’s the set of approaches that Mike’s book covers:

Type of Approach Example Approaches (with a note on their origin in brackets)
For Technical complexity Operational Research

Systems Analysis

Systems Engineering

For Process Complexity The Vanguard Method (Seddon)
For Structural Complexity System Dynamics (Forrester)
For Organisational Complexity Social-Technical Systems Thinking (Tavistock Institute)

Organisational Cybernetics & The Viable Systems Model (Beer)

For People Complexity Strategic Assumption Surfacing & Testing (Churchman inspired)

Interactive Planning (Ackoff)

Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland)

For Coercive Complexity Team Syntegrity (Beer)

Critical Systems Heuristics (Ulrich)

In addition to these approaches, there are lots of other methods out there that, whilst not formally attached to systems science, are ostensibly aimed at making our work systems7 ‘better’ (such as Agile, Design Thinking,…). Whether they do or not, well, that would depend on how their usage fits with the theory…

A side note on the ‘religion’ thing:

With reference to the trigger for writing this post, I was struck when the senior manager used the ‘many religions’ analogy as this (to me) reflects an ancient homo sapiens mess:

  • Each religion is (I think) a method/ approach for how a community might live together. If you have a darker view of the world, you might see them as a method by which to control the masses
  • Underlying each religion is likely some fundamental truths (theory) of how a group of people can best live together (probably learned through an evolutionary process)…which is perhaps why so many of the basics are the ‘same but different’ across the world’s religions

…and so, we get to the same underlying point: Don’t get stuck on ‘which religion to adopt’ or in arguing that “my religion is better than yours!”. Rather, ponder what any social grouping is trying to achieve…and move forwards accordingly8.

Going back to the beginning:

For anyone and everyone in management: Rather than trying to juggle the selection and implementation of (supposed) competing methods, go beneath them, to a principled level. Then use appropriate methods, grounded in the theory, to help you.


1. Re. might be the wrong phrase: I often find myself saying ‘systemic thinking’ because, for me, it conveys my message better.

2. For those deep philosophers out there: I recognise that I am barely scratching the surface of what the word ‘theory’ means, that there are different types of theories, and that there is whole body of knowledge around theory. My intent is simply to make the clear distinction between theory and method.

3. Re. Theory: I’ve seen people ‘do amazing things’ because they intuitively understood about people, about inter-relationships, about purpose. They had great success, often without having any idea about specific methods.

4. Re. Method: I’ve observed loads of (as an example) ‘Lean Six Sigma’ initiatives over the years, trying to push a method whilst falling foul of basic principles about systems and people. They (told themselves that they had) delivered lots of little ‘projects’ and yet transformed nothing.

5. Fundamentals: I’ve recently enjoyed reading an interesting book by Patrick Hoverstadt called ‘The Grammar of Systems’, in which he usefully sets out a core set of nine systems principles (from Emergence, through Holism…right through to Complexity and Uncertainty)

6. Mike Jackson’s compilation: I expect that others more knowledgeable than me might critique Mike’s selection of approaches and his considered opinion on how to usefully label/ structure them. My point is not that Mike has a perfect answer, but that he nicely demonstrates that there is a huge difference between the theoretical ideas within systems thinking, and that different approaches may be chosen (and perhaps partnered together) depending on the context.

I’ve also stuck with Mike’s use of the word ‘approach’ in the table rather than substituting the word ‘method’…as I didn’t want to take up words discussing the difference between a method and a methodology. If you are interested, then Checkland had much to say on this.

7. Systems: I ‘get’ that, in the tradition of hard vs. soft vs critical vs complexity vs…, we could discuss what’s a system anyway. I’ve got a post half written on the importance of this question (but then I’ve got lots of half written posts!)

8. Just as an FYI (if you are wondering): I’m not religious. In fact, quite the reverse. I simply make the observation about ‘any given religion’ vs. ‘the rationale for religions’ (or any approach to living, such as humanism).

2 thoughts on “Just another ‘religion’…or something much more?

  1. I read a Twitter thread the other day that expressed some notions that critiqued systems thinking because they it couldn’t really be explained easily (amongst other criticisms). Whilst I don’t think your post addresses their thoughts directly it does illustrate the importance of understanding the difference between theory and method.


  2. I find that many people are very confused, and they are often those what are the recipients of this. They do not need to be on the receiving end of words that are new or do not mean anything to them in their context. So a good timely article.
    What about Systemic approach?
    I tend to use the term that fits that particular group of people. Using systems thinking far less and more systemic redesign. I then sometimes explain some systems thinking concepts, if and when appropriate.


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