The Handbook of Systems Thinking

This Handbook details the theory and practice of Systems Thinking in the areas of social systems, management, and policy. The contributing chapters from numerous authors show the diversity of the field, and this first chapter seeks to identify patterns in that diversity to demonstrate an underlying unity among the plurality of methods, approaches and interventions throughout the field.

Collection details

It is widely held that Systems Thinking has undergone three somewhat distinct “waves” (or paradigms) of development: (1) “hard systems” in the 1950s to the 1970s, focused primarily on expert, quantitative modelling, (2) “soft systems” in the 1970s and 1980s, switching attention to qualitative modelling in the context of participative practice, and (3) “critical Systems Thinking”, from the 1990s to the present day, which emphasizes the need to take power relationships into account in systems practice. Critical Systems thinking also explains the value of methodological pluralism. This came to be important in the 1990s because, previously, a paradigm war had broken out between first and second wave systems thinkers, with the systems community splitting into two competing camps. Critical systems thinkers demonstrated that the ideas of both camps were valuable for different purposes, and are therefore complementary.
These three waves represent the rich diversity of concepts, methods, and approaches that are available to systems thinkers. Critical systems thinkers were largely successful in convincing academics and practitioners to welcome the plurality of methodologies and methods as contributions to a highly flexible and responsive ‘tool kit’ for systems practice. This plurality, and its value for practice, is the strength of contemporary Systems Thinking. However, 25 years since the arrival of the third wave, a new weakness became apparent that is a direct side-effect of welcoming a diversity of methodologies, methods and concepts —it became virtually impossible to say, in a one minute introduction, what Systems Thinking actually was.
Many of the different methodologies presented in this volume embody different understandings of both ‘systems’ and ‘thinking,’ and as a result, defining what systems thinking is requires an explanation of multiple paradigms. This is problematic, as systems approaches for addressing complex problems are in greater demand from managers and policy makers, yet we are not able to provide a cohesive solution for those who look to systems thinking as an answer.
The field of systems thinking is undergoing major change, brought about by a number of forces, including: (1) the continuing proliferation of methodologies and methods, resulting in an even greater plurality of systems ideas; (2) a fragmentation of the systems research community into multiple, smaller communities focused on subdomains of practice, resulting in more and more diversity of systems terminologies; (3) the resultant problem of the lack of accessibility to newcomers to Systems Thinking has become acute; and (4) a new theory of Systems Thinking has been proposed as the fourth wave, which carries the potential to reunite the field. The theory, known as DSRP identifies four essential skills that underlie Systems Thinking: making distinctions (D); organizing systems (S); recognizing relationships (R); and taking multiple perspectives (P). Notably, methodologies and methods from the three waves of Systems Thinking involve the practice of these four essential skills, yet the foundational nature of these skills remained unarticulated until now. This Handbook builds on the first three waves to lay the foundation for an emerging fourth wave: the use of DSRP, both to bring unity to the diversity of Systems Thinking, and to offer an understanding of what Systems Thinking is that can be easily grasped by newcomers to the field. It therefore addresses the problems of accessibility and theoretical coherence without sweeping away the diversity of methods and practices that are useful resources to practitioners, decision makers, and others.
The Handbook offers chapters from the major authors associated with each of the three waves (or their successors when the original authors have passed away) on the theoretical and methodological contributions to the field. These authors explain the ideas as they were first introduced into the literature, and also contemporary developments and examples from practice. Every chapter adds value to the existing literature, making this Handbook a cutting edge resource rather than just a compilation of existing ideas that can be found elsewhere.
The Handbook also presents chapters elucidating and applying DSRP theory (categorized as the “fourth wave”). It will also point to potential future developments in the field of Systems Thinking, including the formation of composite methods. It is hoped that this Handbook will provide a simple entry point for people coming to the field for the first time. It will provide insights into the first, second and third waves, ending with methodological pluralism before presenting the patterns that connect all Systems Thinking methods and approaches in the fourth wave.
Attempting to put some structure on the history of the Systems Thinking field allows people to get their head around something unwieldy and large in hopes of applying this new knowledge to a real issue, concern, or problem. It also prevents misleading (and at worst), incorrect statements about the field, leading to the misunderstanding of Systems Thinking’s primary ideas, and application.
Prominent scholars in the field accept that the history and development of systems thinking has occurred in "waves" as originated by Flood, Jackson, and Keyes and built on by Midgley, et. al. This metaphor was extended with Cabrera and Midgley and the suggestion of a 4th Wave. The “waves” have proven to be a useful and powerful conceptual, historical, and pedagogical model. Systems Thinking (ST) evolved incrementally with punctuated "paradigm shifts" demarcating discrete and important changes. One issue is that the wave metaphor suggests that the waves came and went. But they did not. They still exist today. In other words, this metaphor suggests that the subsequent wave "replaces" the one before it rather than the reality that each subsequent wave expanded upon the prior wave. Although scholars who write about the waves generally accept that the waves do not replace each other, the metaphor itself miscommunicates this fact. Most notably, people new to the field assume (based on the metaphor) that each wave is the current state of the field. This is problematic as it is not how the field sees itself nor how things play out on reality. We must see that what we perceive to be "new" waves are not replacements of the prior - but historical additions and paradigmatic shifts that also coexist in the present time. This means that the important work that came before is subsumed into the new wave , not rejected, ignored, supplanted, or "washed away."


The editors would like to thank the following members of our International Advisory Board who contributed to this volume by sharing their views on what should be included within it. We were able to commission chapters on most, but not all, of the specialisms that were recommended.


  1. Peter Allen, Cranfield University, UK

  2. Gabriele Bammer, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, , Australian National University, Australia 

  3. Richard Bawden, Western Sydney University, Australia 

  4. Stefan Blachfellner, Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science, Austria

  5. Linda Booth Sweeney, Toggle Labs, USA

  6. Danny Burns, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK 

  7. Jake Chapman, Enlightenment Intensive, UK

  8. Aleco Christakis, the Mediterranean Graduate School of Applied Social Cognition, Cyprus

  9. José-Rodrigo Córdoba-Pachon, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

  10. Veronica De Raadt, Melbourne Centre for Community Development, Australia 

  11. Amber Elkins, Virginia Commonwealth University, USA

  12. Angela Espinosa, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK 

  13. Jeff Foote, University of Otago, New Zealand

  14. Joyce Fortune, Open University, UK 

  15. Charles Francois, Grupo de Estudio de Sistemas Integrados, Argentina

  16. Huaizhu Oliver Gao, Cornell University, USA 

  17. Ariella Helfgott, Adelaide University and Collaborative Futures, Australia 

  18. Cathy Hobbs, Northumbria University, UK

  19. Tony Hodgson, Decision Integrity Ltd., UK

  20. Ray Ison, Open University, UK

  21. Mike Jackson, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK

  22. Robert Kewley, United States Military Academy West Point, USA 

  23. Eugene Lesinski, United States Military Academy West Point, USA 

  24. Ellen Lewis, Ethos of Engagement, USA, and Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK

  25. Eric Lindhult, Malardalen University, Sweden 

  26. Delia MacNamara, Federal Government of Australia and Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK

  27. Yasmin Merali, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK

  28. John Mingers, Kent Business School, University of Kent, UK

  29. Cynthia Mitchell, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, Australia  

  30. Vikram Mittal, United States Military Academy West Point, USA

  31. Alejandro Ochoa-Arias, Universidad Austral de Chile, Chile

  32. Harley Pope, University of Reading, UK

  33. John Pourdehand, Thomas Jefferson University, USA

  34. Martin Reynolds, Open University, UK

  35. Shankar Sankaran, University of Technology Sydney, Australia 

  36. John Seddon, Vanguard, UK

  37. Sri Sriskandarajah, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

  38. Steve Waddell, GOLDEN Ecosystems Labs and Global Action Network Net, USA

  39. Mike Walsh, University of Stirling, UK

  40. Jennifer Wilby, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK

  41. Susan Yoon, University of Pennsylvania, USA

  42. Zhichang Zhu, Xiamen University, China and Malaysia

Collection Information