Practicing systems thinking

A Two-Day Seminar

Learning Objectives

  • Gain a practical understanding of systems thinking principles, approaches and tools in order to integrate and use them in individual and team work.
  • Understand the complementary strengths of systems thinking and Continuous Quality Improvement.


  • Understanding of how systems thinking helps surface and challenge existing mental models and habitual ways of thinking.
  • Practice in applying causal loop diagrams to current issues and cases.
  • Understanding of the range of systems thinking applications.


  • Intact team or group of executives and middle managers.
  • Mixed group interested in exploring their growing sense of interdependency (e.g. administrators, nurses and physicians in healthcare).


Day One

  • Review of the objectives and agenda, introductions and expectations.
  • Introduction to systems thinking as the fifth discipline of learning organizations; characteristics of systems and implications for systems thinking; moving from and event to a structural view or reality.
  • Mental models as structures: exercises to identify individual and collective mental models.
  • Introduction to the basic building blocks of systems dynamics language: links and loops; examples of reinforcing loops and balancing loops. Introduction to a few basic archetypes (with appropriate examples) and practice on participants’ own cases in small groups: fixes that fail, accidental adversaries, shifting the burden and eroding goals.
  • Small group presentation of cases to the large group and dialogue on insights and questions.

Day Two

  • Introduction to other archetypes (with appropriate examples) and practice on participants’ own cases (in small groups): limits to success, tragedy of the commons, escalation, success to the successful.
  • Small group work: application of causal loop diagrams on a selected issue.
  • Small group presentation of cases to the large group.
  • Dialogue on opportunities and limits of applying causal lop diagrams to address complex issues; further steps in systems thinking.
  • Illustration of the complementary strengths of systems thinking and CQI.
  • Evaluation of the session and identification of possible next steps for the group.


  • Brief presentations of concepts and tools followed by individual reflection periods and interactive application in small groups and large group.
  • Optimal number of participants: from 12 to 24. Suggested maximum size: 30.
  • Preparation steps: advance reading on systems thinking and mental models; individual reflection on current issues that are problematic, long standing and resistant to change interventions.

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