Why few organizations adopt systems thinking

February 3, 2015

Read time 2 min

If systems thinking is a such a good thing, why do so few organizations adopt it?

This is not a new concern. Russell Ackoff, a pioneer in systems thinking, wrote a paper on this very topic in 2006. He lists two reasons, a general reason and a specific one.

The general reason is an inherent characteristic of traditional organizations: an incapability to adopt anything new. An organization solely focused on achieving short-term performance targets will weed out any deviations. In traditional organizations it’s safer to not try anything new so you can’t be blamed for failing.


The other reason why organizations don’t adopt systems thinking is more specific to systems thinking itself. Systems thinking is simply not approachable. It’s abstract, vague and hard to grasp.

“We are an introverted profession. We do most of our writing and speaking to each other”, writes Ackoff. The things systems thinkers discuss amongst themselves bear no resemblance of applicability or usefulness to those outside the circle.

Why couldn’t systems thinking simply be a little more concrete? Because the solutions are always context-specific. They can not be applied in other domains directly without understanding the systems of the new domain. Doling out concrete actions for a complex system you haven’t studied would be unprofessional.

Someone sharing “best practices of systems thinking” either has not understood a single thing about systems thinking or is so advanced others should just stop trying.

We can, of course, bring out examples of context-specific solutions. They can’t be copied, but they can be learned from.

We can help people start to see systems. As most systems thinkers know, once you start seeing them, you can’t stop seeing them.

We can help people get started with experimentation. It’s not just systems thinking, but systems acting.

These are the kind of things we’re also trying to solve within the Systems Thinking Applied Community, which has its first open space event coming up on the 7th of March in Helsinki.

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