The Role of Systems Thinking in Critical Thinking

The Role of Systems Thinking in Critical Thinking

Systems thinking considers a problem from a more integrated approach. It's not just focused on one thing, it considers everything in the environment that is potentially interacting with the subject under consideration.

A systems approach to problem investigation is a search for interrelationships among various other entities and activities that may be affecting a current or future situation.

To understand systems thinking requires that you understand what is meant by the term "system" and the best way is by using an example.

The human body is a system made up of many parts … eyes, hands, heart, ears, legs, brain, etc. Other systems within the human body system contribute and control the activities of the parts. Within the human body system, these include the Cardiovascular System, Neurological System, Renal System, Digestive System, and others. More examples of systems not related to the human body include: organizations such as companies, governmental units, universities, automobiles, airplanes, and computers.

All systems have hierarchical structures, specialized functions and parts, and subordinate systems such as departments, schools, and interconnected processes, et cetera that make the larger system function.

The interconnected nature of subordinate systems, processes, and functions are the key focus of systems thinking techniques.

Using this mode of thinking, the Critical Thinker is looking for contributing factors that affect a system's performance. In system thinking vernacular these contributing factors are reinforcing or counteracting loops.

Visually, I always think about a system and its activity loops as a gearbox.

The sprockets of the individual processes connect, and each gear's size and rotation direction show its effect on the overall system.

Diagrams with notated loops and circles work much better than liner lists when documenting the various interconnected processes and functions of a system. They visually display the positive or negative affect a specific process is having on the system overall.


Documentation tools that work well in system thinking related problem-solving activities include:

Causal Loop Diagram

A non-liner approach to documenting the cause and effect of various components or elements in a process. Loops shown are either reinforcing (positive) or counteracting (negative).

Mind Mapping

A lightly structured tool for capturing large amounts of information in a very short period. Creation of these diagrams can be individually or in small groups. Often used as a first step to creating a Causal Loop Diagram.

Fish Bone Diagram

This is a structured cause and effect diagramming tool used by one or more people in a brainstorming session. Use it to isolate and find major factors contributing to a situation. Some people prefer its more structured representation versus a Mind Map.

Force Field Analysis

Usually shown as a 2-column chart with the 1st column holding positive factors (influencing forces) that are driving and motivating the defined subject in one direction and negative influencing factors listed in the 2nd column. As with a Mind Map or Fish Bone Diagram, a Force Field Analysis captures a preliminary charting of reinforcing and counteracting forces.


Proforma Profiling

Psychological profiles are helpful in investigative analysis's when isolating the effects of contributing human behavior. Often used in criminal investigations, although it is also helpful in less ominous inquiries of human conduct with tools such as the Myers-Briggs type indicator and the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument.

I call it "Proforma" because more than likely you don't know for sure what this individual's actual thinking profile is … but based on all the input you have seen, you believe your profile analysis is correct.


Due to the holistic and visual nature of systems thinking tools and techniques, if you are a subscriber to brain theory research, it would be correct to say that the Systems Thinking role in Critical Thinking is primarily a right brain exercise activity of your mind.

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