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Systems Thinking & Behavioural Psychology

Consider the forest, not only the trees.

Perceive interconnectionspatterns and dynamics shaping the ecosystem.

Understand the logic of human behaviour.

Effective tools for a changing context

Today's world is complex. Unprecedented superimposing dynamics – digitalisation, sustainability, COVID pandemic, etc. – increasingly produce unpredictable effects. But we still use our same conventional linear problem solving approaches. We break problems into sub-problems for which we seek solutions. The solutions make sense, but often problems persist or lead to other new problems that arise from the solutions in place. Systems Thinking is about, when we change a piece of the puzzle, ensuring that it fits into the whole by managing the interactions with and impact on the other parts of the system.

Also, systems are built and maintained by humans, that come with their beliefs and behaviours. A system is a collection of interactions or relationships, and changing a systems therefore require us to understand the implicit logic of human (mis)behaviour.


System thinking and behavioural science are complementary. Behavioural science provides micro-level insight into individual and group behaviour, while systems thinking offers a macro-level perspective on how these behaviours interact within a larger system. Together, they form a set of powerful tools for addressing complex challenges in an effective manner.

Without them we invest considerable ressources - in time, money - without sufficiently understanding the root-causes of a situation or problem at hand, which often leads us to waste ressources and damage motivation.

What is Systems Thinking?

The traditional way of embedding change involved silo working, generalised approaches, individual-based isolated interventions, top-down direction and a lineal view of what drives behaviours. Systems working, in comparison, involves collaboration across the system, tailored interventions, looking at how the system operates as a whole, embedding leadership at all levels and viewing behaviours as dynamic with feedback loops.


Indeed, a system refers to a complex, interconnected set of elements that work together to produce a certain outcome or behaviour. Systems thinking is an approach to understand and solve complex problems by examining the relationships and interactions between the dynamic, interconnected components within the system.

Simply put, System Thinking is simply a reading grid that consider problems from an overall point of view, considering context & observing interactions between the elements of the problem

The aim of system thinking is to understand opportunities and develop strategies to move a system from an undesirable to a more desirable state. Systems theory aims at solving problems that are determined by the interactions of components within the system. We need to understand and influence how these components operate to influence the wider system behaviour.

Behavioural scientists need to ‘see the system’. To identify leverage points where specific shifts in behaviour will produce wider system effects by triggering an overall tipping point. To recognise possible flaws of developing and implementing isolated interventions with narrowly defined goals. Behavioural scientists with a systems-thinking mindset, see the longer-term impact of the change in behaviour of a range of policies and/or practices with varying goals.

People embracing Systems Thinking look not only at people or elements within a system, but especially how these interact and therefore influence each other. Through discussions but most importantly through observations, they decode the implicit logic of interactions.

Indeed, to understand root-causes of problems, one must be able to explain rationally “why events happen", so mostly "why people behave as they do”. To do so, one must collect all pieces of information. Not only the explicits but also the "implicits", the ones that colleagues do not (dear to) talk about, that too often remain hidden "under the table". But then, even when one knows about them, one must understand "how" and "why" they contribute to the problem. There always is a logical explanation.

It feels like you having in-depth conversations with each of your colleagues, and (almost) fully understand what they think about and why. How would that enable you to work on performance?

Interactions are key in overall performance as research shows that “knowledge workers” spend more than 50% of their time interacting with others (colleagues, customers, suppliers) and that superior results stem from superior interactions. Any organisation can be considered as “a group of people interacting dynamically to organise themselves towards a common goal”. Therefore, if you can better read the logic of interpersonal interactions, then you can better analyse problems, understand how these developed and identify solutions that effectively and efficiently solve the problems.

As a consequence, Systems Thinking-based analysis provides better assessments of proposed action plans, deriving potential impact and consequences. And leads to and more effective actions than traditional thinking.

To illustrate

It is like the players of a football team who have a clear purpose: they want to win a maximum of matches in competition.


The performance of the team is favoured based on different elements of context. It has access to facilities, a training field, in good or bad shape. It has financial means to attract new talent. It has support from fans. The coach has a plan. Etc.

The behaviour and performance of players is influenced by a multitude of factors. One can e.g. currently have relational difficulties at home with wife or children, or encounter sleep problems, have different past experiences & beliefs. All these influence his game. The number and quality of interactions between coach and players, before a match – a clear plan, well-understood by each player, a positive vibe in the team before the match – and during the match – a team-attitude, a  constructive dialogue, etc. – will influence their ability to win the game and achieve their purpose.

An organisation can be defined as “a group of people interacting dynamically to organise themselves towards a common goal”. It is determined by:

  • Its purpose (its “why”, its objectives),

  • Its elements (available resources – people, material, immaterial, ...),

  • Interactions between elements and their environment.


“Reinventing Organizations” – Frederic Laloux – February 2014

"System problems require system-level solutions" - Marc Harris, PhD

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