By Stephen Huddart

President & CEO

The McConnell Foundation

The Fundamentals of Systems Thinking

Let Me Introduce You to This Topic...

Systems thinking is holistic and considers the manner in which a system's components are connected and interdependent. It also considers the ways that a system evolves over time and its relationship to smaller and larger systems. It is a particularly useful means of understanding and formulating approaches to complex problems.

 

To illustrate the difference between simple, complicated, and complex problems, opening a tin can is simple, provided you have a can opener. Building an aircraft is complicated - involving many different parts, processes and subsystems. However complicated, doing it once means that you can do it again following the same blueprint. But raising a child is complex – doing it once successfully is not an assurance that it will be as easy the next time, as there are so many variables and changing contexts to consider.

 

Problems like climate change, chronic disease prevention, or homelessness are complex. They do not exist in isolation, but are interrelated with other problems. And yet, according to complexity theory, sometimes small changes in systems can produce big results. 

 

Thus, a common support for systems thinking is systems mapping. Put your problem on a page and ask – what problems are contiguous to this problem? What are its component parts and what relationships can be observed among them? What self-reinforcing patterns do you notice? Where are there blocks or bottlenecks? Do you see places where interventions might trigger a tipping point? 


Here is an example that illustrates this approach applied to the problem of how to grow the field of impacting investment.

Stephen's Reading List

The SiG Knowledge Hub

Social Innovation Generation

From 2007 to 2017, the University of Waterloo, MaRS Discovery District and the McConnell Foundation operated a program called Social Innovation Generation, or SiG. This website has extensive materials on systems thinking and related topics, organized along a continuum of intro, dip and dive. Well worth exploring.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Donella Meadows

This is a classic in the field by a systems thinking pioneer.

Social Innovation: How Societies Find the Power to Change

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan is the CEO of NESTA - the UK innovation foundation. His latest book is a masterful demonstration of systems thinking in action. My favourite book at the moment.

About the Author

Stephen Huddart is President and CEO of the McConnell Foundation, a national private foundation based in Montreal, with additional staff in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. The Foundation has played a leading role in developing social innovation and impact investing in Canada as a founding partner of Social Innovation Generation (SiG). Its core priority areas are: inclusive transition to an equitable, zero-carbon economy; Indigenous reconciliation; community wellbeing; and increasing society’s capacity for social innovation and social finance in support of systemic change. Stephen is a former board member of Pearson College UWC and currently serves on the board of the Transition Accelerator. He was a member of the Government of Canada's Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group. Stephen has worked as a social innovator and entrepreneur in the private, public and community sectors, and holds a Masters of Management degree from McGill University.

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