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Systems Thinking


Systems thinking is a way of looking at organizations that emphasizes the interconnections between parts of an organization and external environments. It is also a method for solving organizational problems and helping organizations change. Systems thinking is especially appropriate in the field of public health because public health managers and leaders work in large, complex organizations whose success depends upon the cooperation of other organizations and institutions. As applied to organizations, systems thinking was made popular by Peter Senge's 1994 book, The Fifth Discipline ; but a systems approach is also the basis of theories in many fields, from biology to psychology.

The central concepts in systems thinking are interconnections, feedback, and time delays. Systems thinking encourages managers to identify the larger pattern of interconnections, or causal links, of which problems are a part. Thus, a problem to solve is seen as a symptom of an underlying pattern. Feedback refers to the kind of cause-and-effect relationship found among system elements. Systems thinking proponents identify two types of cause-and-effect relationships, reinforcing and balancing relations. An example of a reinforcing relationship is when, as staff workload increases, so also does job dissatisfaction, which leads to absenteeism, which in turn leads to even higher workloads. An example of a balancing relation is the shortterm solution of rewarding individual high performers on the staff. The effect seems to be that morale improves and absenteeism goes down. The concept of time delays must be factored in, however, for in the long run, individual rewards pit staff members against each other, lowering morale and aggravating the underlying problem, which in this case might be excessive workloads and lack of team development.

Interorganizational relations also exhibit system properties. For example, public health managers often rely on coalitions of citizens and local organizations to achieve community health goals. Systems thinking directs the public health manager's attention to the pattern of interconnections between organizations and citizen groups that lead to the success, or failure, of initiatives.

John C. Lammers

(see also: Community Organization; Leadership; Planning for Public Health )


Kauffman, D. L. (1980). Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Minneapolis, MN: S. A. Carlton.

Senge, P. M. et al. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

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