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Applied Systems Thinking: A Self-Study Guide

Many people ask me how they can take a next step in their learning about applied systems thinking. In this post, I’ll offer a few resources for those next steps. The resources for learning systems thinking are excellent and abundant!! They include: books, articles, online courses, online videos and podcasts, and project-based capacity building. Many of the resources are free, and the books are quite inexpensive. The only other costs are for online courses, reasonably priced considering the depth of the material, and project coaching.

Here are a few books that I consider basic as you deepen your knowledge in the field.
  • Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems. Her book is a classic. She introduces systems dynamics concepts as well as systems thinking tools. She also presents her widely recognized twelve points of leverage and offers her perspective on how to live in a world of systems.
  • Peter Senge et al, many titles in The Fifth Discipline series. The Fifth Discipline was chosen as one of the best business books of the twentieth century by the Harvard Business Review, and it popularized the principles and tools of systems thinking. Subsequent books in the series have applied systems thinking and the other learning disciplines to such arenas as K-12 education, sustainability, and organizational change management.
  • David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change. I have taken the basic concepts of systems thinking and shown how you can apply them to guide social change. It’s considered very readable and useful for leaders who are interested in any kind of social change. Additional contributions to the literature include distinguishing the case for the status quo from the case for change, developing systemic (or circular) vs. linear theories of change, and systems thinking as a spiritual, emotional, and behavioral – as well as cognitive – process.
There are a wide range of excellent articles.
Podcasts and Videos (free)

Podcasts and video presentations explain the basics of systems thinking in interviews and presentations ranging from 30-90 minutes each. Places to start include an interview with David Peter Stroh summarizing his book and a video series of eight 5-minute segments from David’s Council on Foundations keynote “Systems Thinking: Help Your Giving Create Greater Change.”

Courses

ISEE Systems offers the following online courses. They can be purchased individually at prices ranging from $199 to $249.

In addition, The Omidyar Group in collaboration with +Acumen offers a free Systems Practice course for 5 hours per week over 11 weeks. Check the website for further information and upcoming dates.

Project Coaching

The best way to learn applied systems thinking is by using its principles and tools to help people achieve sustainable breakthroughs around a chronic, complex problem they have tried to solve before with little success. We recommend following the four-stage change process in Systems Thinking for Social Change on your own if you can, or with coaching at various stages along the way. To learn more about project-based capacity building, click here.

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