Unlocking the Essentials

Navigating the Landscape of Systems Thinking

From Concepts to Movements: Exploring the Depths of Systems Thinking


Adaptive Systems Theory
Leaders/Contributors: John H. Holland
Active Dates: 1980s – 2000s
Adaptive systems theory refers to systems that can change their behavior based on interactions with the environment or internal dynamics. These systems are not fixed; they can learn, evolve, and adapt. This concept is prevalent in biology, computer science (like in machine learning algorithms), economics, and many other fields.
Boundary Critique
Leaders/Contributors: Werner Ulrich
Active Dates: 1980s – 2000s
Boundary Critique is a methodology and approach used in social research. one of its main focuses is the identification of boundaries. it is used to understand and critique the limits of systems thinking. 
Leaders/Contributors: Werner Ulrich 
Critical Systems Heuristics or CSH, is a Systems Thinking approach used to analyse and improve complex systems. CSH was developed by Werner Ulrich for the analysis and improvement of organisations and Complex Systems.
Chaos Theory
Leaders/Contributors: Edward Lorenz, Mitchell Feigenbaum, Benoît Mandelbrot, James Gleick
Active Dates: 1960’s – 1980’s
Chaos Theory is an approach to studying the complexity of systems and processes where there is no order. Chaos Theory aims to understand complex structures and systems through the analysis of mathematical models and system dynamics. 
Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS)
Leaders/Contributors: Murray Gell-Mann, John Holland
Active Dates: 1980s – 2000s
Complex Adaptive Systems is an approach to understanding the structure, behaviour and change of complex systems. A key feature of CAS is that it involves many interacting components and reveals the interactions between these components.
Complexity Theory
Leaders/Contributors: Stuart Kauffman, Ilya Prigonine, James Lovelock
Complexity Theory is an approach that examines and seeks to understand complexity. It is a Systems Thinking approach that encompasses studies aimed at explaining complexity and understanding the behaviors of complex systems.Complexity Theory aims to study the characteristics and behaviours of unpredictable systems.
Critical System Practice
Leaders/Contributors: Michael C. Jackson
Critical Systems Practice is a Systems Thinking approach developed and used to understand, analyse, and address impediments related to complex systems.
Critical Systems 
Leaders/Contributors: Robert Flood, Michael C. Jackson, Werner Ulrich, John Mingers, Paul Keys
Related Movements: Learning Systems, Later (2nd Order) Cybernetics 
Critical Systems is a Systems Thinking approach used to examine and understand complex problems. This approach is presented for the analysis of organisations as Complex Systems.
Leaders/Contributors: Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateeson, Warren Mculloch, W. Ross Ashby, Norbert Weiner
Active Dates: 1940’s – 1950’s
Related Movements: General Systems Theory (GST)
Cybernetics, also known as control theory, is an approach that focuses on the management and control of complex systems. It was coined by its pioneer Norbert Wiener, and its name is derived from the Greek word ‘kybernetes.’
Ecological Systems Theory
Leaders/Contributors: Urie Bronfenbrenner
Active Dates: 1970s – 2000s
Ecological Systems Theory is a Systems Thinking approach that considers the development of Complex Systems together with environmental factors. It addresses these interactions at 5 levels: Microsystem, Mesosystem, Ecosystem, Macrosystem and Chronosystem.
Fuller’s Synergetics 
Leaders/Contributors: Buckminster Fuller
Active Dates: 1960s – 1980s
Fuller’s Synergetics provides a perspective for understanding patterns and order in complex systems. It is a way of understanding nature. It focuses on how energy and information come together to form a co-operative order.
Leaders/Contributors: James Lovelock 
Gaia is a Systems Thinking approach that recognises systems as living entities. All systems have a complex structure, just like the earth and human beings. Gaia argues that systems have a consciousness.
General Systems Problem Solver (GSPS)
Leaders/Contributors: John N. Warfield
Active Dates: 1970s – 1990s
GSPS is based on a classification of systems based on epistemological and methodological criteria, and this classification provides a basis for defining types of systems. it is not mathematically designed like other conceptual approaches designed to characterize the full scope of systems. It was developed through an inductive process.
General Systems Theory (GST)
Leaders/Contributors: Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Geoffrey Vickers, Kenneth Boulding, Howard Odum, Margaret Mead 
Active Dates: 1940’s
Related Movements: Cybernetics, Soft Systems
General Systems Theory (GST) is an approach that analyses the structure and dynamics of Complex Systems. It forms the basis of systems thinking and aims to understand Complex Systems.
Haken’s Synergetics
Leaders/Contributors: Hermann Haken
Active Dates: 1970’s
Haken’s synergetics is a theory analyses the emergence of complex systems, especially order, and how these systems come together. It aims to explain how disorder evolves into order and how complex systems establish order.
Information Theory
Leaders/Contributors: Shannon
Active Dates: 1940s – 1960s
Information Theory focuses on the transfer, measurement and processing of information. In systems thinking, information theory is used to explain and optimise the interactions between components within a complex system.
Interactive Planning 
Leaders/Contributors: Russell Ackoff
Interactive Planning is an approach used to examine and solve complex problems. it emphasises the importance of the involvement of different stakeholders. It involves the process of understanding, analysing and solving the problem. Interactive Planning is effective in complex and multi-stakeholder problems.
Later (2nd Order) Cybernetics 
Leaders/Contributors: Heinz von Foerster, Stefford Beer, Niklas Luhmann, Paul Watzlawick
Active Dates: 1960’s
Related Movements: Cybernetics 
Later (2nd Order) Cybernetics is the successor to Cybernetics introduced in 1940. It signifies a shift in approach within the framework of Cybernetics and emphasizes the significance of the observer in understanding and modeling complex systems.
Learning Systems
Leaders/Contributors: Kurt Lewin, Mary Catherine Bateson, Eric Trist, Donald Schon, Chris Argyris
Active Dates: 1940’s – 2000’s
Related Movements: Critical Systems 
Learning Systems Theory addresses the processes of systems learning and adaptation. It explains these processes from a systems thinking perspective, offering a view that systems are in constant interaction with each other and their environments, learning new skills and behaviors through these interactions.
Living Systems Theory
Leaders/Contributors: James Grier Miller
Active Dates: 1970s – 1990s
Living Systems Theory views organisations as living organisms. It focuses on the basic characteristics and interactions of organisations. It identifies the common characteristics and basic functions of living systems and argues that they operate in an orderly fashion.
Multi Methodology 
Leaders/Contributors: John Mingers
Multi Methodology aims to combine different research methodologies in researching and examining organisations and to collect and analyse data from different perspectives. This approach aims to address complex problems and achieve more comprehensive outputs.
Operational Research
Leaders/Contributors: Russell Ackoff, C. West Churchman
Operational research is an interdisciplinary theory in which analytical and mathematical methods are applied to optimise an organisation’s decision-making processes, operation and the resources. Operational Research aims to enable organisations to handle complex problems and make better decisions.
Leaders/Contributors: C.S. Holling, Lance Gunderson
Active Dates: 1980s – 2000s
Panarchy is an approach developed to understand and explain the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. Panarchy is used in almost all areas where complex systems exist, and it is an approach used in particular to understand the evolution of systems and the transformations in these processes.
Pattern Dynamics
Leaders/Contributors: Tim Winton
Active Dates: 2000s – Present
Pattern Dynamics is an approach to understanding patterns and dynamics in complex systems. It is used to study and manage adaptive systems such as social systems and organisations.
Relational Systems Theory
Leaders/Contributors: Uri Wilensky
Active Dates: 1990s – 2000s
Relational Systems Theory is a theory used to understand systems, especially the interactions between people. It provides a framework used in the social sciences and in the management of organisations. It explains people’s relationships with each other and with their environment in terms of relational dynamics.
Leaders/Contributors: Brian Wilson, Peter Chechland
Soft Systems Methodology or SSM, is a Systems Thinking approach used to address complex and soft systems, particularly focusing on systems that are human-centered, such as organizations and interactions among people.
SocioTechnical Systems
Leaders/Contributors: Fred Emery, Eric Trist, A. Angyal 
Active Dates: 1970’s
SocioTechnical Systems examines the interactions of social and technical components. It focuses on the design and management of Complex Systems in which both technology and human beings are involved. It aims to understand how organisations, business processes and technology work together and interact.
Soft Systems
Leaders/Contributors: C. West Churchman, Russell Ackoff, Peter Chechland 
Related Movements: General Systems Theory (GST), Systems Engineering 
Soft systems is a systems thinking approach used to investigate and analyse complex problems, especially developed for examining systems that are complex and soft, such as people and social systems.
System Dynamics
Leaders/Contributors: Jay Forrester, Peter Senge, Donella Meadows
Active Dates: 1960’s – 1970’s
System Dynamics is an approach used in the analysis and modeling of complex systems.. This approach specifically aims to understand how systems change over time. It was first presented by Jay Forrester in the 1950s.
Systems Engineering 
Leaders/Contributors: Fransisco Valera, Humberto Maturana
Systems Engineering is an approach to improve the efficiency of designing, developing and managing complex projects. It addresses the lifecycle of systems. It analyses the processes of large and Complex Systems and projects.
Leaders/Contributors: Stefford Beer
Viable System Model (VSM) is used to understand the complexity and operational processes of organisations; to analyse and increase their efficiency. It aims to ensure the sustainability and adaptability of organisations.