System thinking can be summed up as a holistic approach to problem-solving. It emphasizes understanding the interconnectedness of all systems rather than focusing on just one part of a system.
Some examples of how these works are:
- Understanding how a change in one aspect, such as the availability of fuel or water, affects another part, like the state infrastructure.
- Taking an overview approach that could lead to identifying and addressing systemic problems before they become major crises.
- Assessing risks by considering how they may affect different groups in society simultaneously rather than separately.
In other words, we can utilize system thinking in corporate decision-making or our daily life how one thing can lead to another, creating a desirable butterfly effect.
Now I haven’t read every book about systems thinking out there. Still, by the nature of my job and personality ( I tend to trust my gut and feeling, how I can rationale them into a more structured, logical thinking? ), I dig every book I can find about system thinking, and here are my reviews so far what I’ve read.
This list is by no means in ranked order; just from what I’ve read, I structure what’s inside and let you decide if it applies to your cases.
- 1 Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business
- 2 Systemantics: The System Bible
- 3 Dynamic Systems for Everyone: Understanding How Our World Works
- 4 The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization
- 5 Thinking in System and Mental Models
- 6 The Art of Thinking in System
- 7 Thinking in Systems: A Primer
- 8 Other Books
Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business
Author: Gino Wickman
This book talks about Entrepreneurial Operation System, as described by the author’s first-hand experience for more than 20 years. Wickman tackles the organizational problems straight to the core and divides them into six major components.
After reading it for some time, it will hit the reader; why am I not implementing this before? It starts from organizational checkups to identify where it’s weak, why you don’t want to take the risk for growth, address the mental blockage that prevents you from surpassing the ceiling.
This is a must-read for every aspiring CEO and founder. The author gives breakdowns, diagrams, scorecards, and checkups for every component, so you know you are moving forward.
Systemantics: The System Bible
Author: John Gall
It starts from the fundamentals of system thinking and system-axioms. Explained from the very basics of the behavior of the system itself. I feel like to the point of getting philosophical and, to some people, mundane to over-extended.
However, as we read along, the priming is necessary, and I found many unseen, new perspectives of a system I’ve never noticed before. For instance, the author brings on the premise of Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The system can fail in an infinite number of ways, and this book dissects maybe every aspect of it from any possible angle.
I would recommend this book to people with architecting roles and who delve deep into system design. This is definitely one of the best books on systems thinking.
Dynamic Systems for Everyone: Understanding How Our World Works
Author: Asish Ghosh
The author treats the system as an entity having personalities. Ghosh’s background is in system engineering controlling various production processes. He discusses the basic concepts of various mechanical and electromechanical systems. After that, it guides the reader to understand how the same guidelines might apply to social, political, and economic systems and everyday life. It also explains how we can lower or eliminate many unintended repercussions of our actions by utilizing systems principles.
Any action to control a system might produce wanted outcomes but also might cause unintentional effects. He highlights this further in the book, along with system classification, natural and engineered. At the end of the book, you can find what makes a good system-savvy person, which concludes and assesses readers if they fully grasp the principles already.
I like reading it because of this concise approach in explaining with diagrams (this book has a lot of it), and the narrative is simple to explain complex topics. Like how you can stop something from happening in the system, create input to affect its behavior, how unintended consequences from modifying the system can be positive or negative. I had fun reading it.
This book is suitable for everyone, even more, a teenager trying to understand how the world works, perfect for them.
The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization
Author: Peter M. Senge
To make an idea gets mass-produced and consumed, it must undergo several tests after its incubation. The principle can also apply this to systems and organizations with micro-system and outer-systems that cannot be dismissed and work hand in hand, albeit undetected at first. Senge puts system thinking as the fifth discipline to glue all other disciplines.
This book is written for learners, in general, to understand the art of collective learning, as the author puts it. He provides an example to disassemble a problem from a competitor’s product. American manufacturers found that the Japanese can produce cheaper cars because of the efficiency of bolts used in the car engines. This type of system thinking was oblivious before the question (why Japanese automakers can produce cheaper cars with greater precision?) leads to the author’s means to incorporate all other involved systems.
I like this book because it explains gradual changes and how people anticipate them. Mostly they are not ready. Senge gives cases from “beer game” and “boiled frog” when the anticipation is futile. Part of the solution is to wait until the action takes effect, not by pressing the action button. It takes discipline and an understanding of the system.
Senge takes a different approach in explaining system thinking. He even masked it as “the fifth discipline,” even more so in the book, you will rarely find he discuss system thinking per se, and I’m OK with that. It’s refreshing and one of the best books on systems thinking.
Thinking in System and Mental Models
Author: Marcus P. Dawson
Released just last year in 2020, at a glimpse, it seems the author combines ideas from other system thinking books in general and added his own view. I didn’t have time to get deeper into the book, nor the ideas presented are sufficient to be applied, nor the author seems to speak from his own experience. The descriptions of the solutions in the book are generic and bland, for lack of a better word. (practice gratitude, set intentions–like, for real?).
However, we can still implement some points in the book, like decluttering your mind and plan ahead of time, and with careful and mindful reading, your success rate might be better. With that being said, this book is more suitable shelved in the self-help books section than management.
The Art of Thinking in System
Author: Steven Schuster
Schuster really knows what he’s put into the book. He explains system thinking in a parable manner but is easy to digest and close to home. Like the others book on system thinking, the ideas presented are nothing new at the central insight after reading several of them. But I want to highlight where this book shines. It is when the author suggests switching from linear thinking to lateral thinking and what could be hindering.
There are many ideas conveyed in this book that is applicable and true in real-world cases. Like a feedback loop, why the rich get richer, why competitions only eliminate competition is very well explained in this book, giving a fresher perspective on system thinking.
From an organizational perspective, Schuster also takes examples from relationships, how mistrust can build up to divorce or break up. More importantly, Schuster offers solutions in system thinking by seeing the problem with a wider lens because they’re all interconnected. This is precisely also what’s stated in the other books above.
If you want light reading about system thinking, this book is for you. Only a few hundred pages long, and the author writes engagingly and narratively makes the book even more enjoyable.
Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Author: Donella A. Meadows
Meadows has drawn inspiration from thinkers from various disciplines, as she states in the book. Namely Albert Einstein, Václav Havel, corporate executives, among others. It’s interesting how this book explains system thinking from an environmentalist scientist’s perspective, complementary to the above-mentioned books.
The truth is, I think more recent books about systems thinking drew inspiration heavily from this book. For me, this is like a college textbook about systems thinking, with you can’t understand through it all with a single sit. One of the premises worth mentioning in this book is that even the most complex systems begin with a few simple organizing principles.
Read this book if you are really want to go deep with systems thinking, definitely one of the best books.
If you want to go even deeper with systems thinking, I suggest reading Business Dynamics Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World by John D. Sterman. This book defines a thorough explanation of systems dynamics and systems thinking with almost 1,000 pages long!
This concludes our post about the best books on systems thinking. We hope you find it’s useful for your system thinking journey.