Systems thinking in public policy: Making space to think differently

By Catherine Hobbs

Catherine Hobbs (biography)

Why does public policy go wrong? How can researchers who are systems thinkers begin to create the conditions in which those involved in public policy may flourish within their possible spheres of ‘horizontal’ influence?

The public policy context and why it goes wrong

Jake Chapman’s System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently (2002; 2004) remains a much-quoted report. In his second (2004) edition, however, Chapman reflects that, despite an enthusiastic reception, there had been “very little substantive shift in either policy or management styles within government” (2004: p.10). Chapman identified a number of difficulties, including:

  • Mechanistic thinking and reductionist thinking as the dominant approaches to policy-making.
  • A presumption of control and predictability.
  • Describing policy and public service issues in terms of ‘delivery,’ rather than co-production of outcomes (such as education and healthcare initiatives) with citizens. Thus, the culture remains focused on delivery and control.
  • Misguided presumptions of the ‘evidence-based’ approach, namely that:
    • Evidence collected in one place will apply in another.
    • There is a linear, or unproblematic, relationship between cause and effect, ignoring non-linear behaviour in complex systems.
    • Quantitative and statistical evidence conceal as much as they reveal, systematically ignoring unintended consequences and many other changing variables.
  • Failure to recognise that context is critical.
  • A presumption of ‘knowing best’, rather than being open to learning, which is the key way to handle complexity.

Instead, what is required is practice and reflection about one’s own experience, and to be willing to work jointly with other perspectives. Most important of all is to be able to reflect on outcomes of actions and to modify behaviours, beliefs and interventions on the basis of that reflection. This is a continuous on-the-job process. Finally, Chapman emphasised the need to establish a systemic learning system at the personal level.

Six steps to create the space to think differently

My steps are based on the experience of part of my doctoral research, undertaken in UK local government. I worked with an English shire local authority to jointly negotiate a 3-month project that could form a general introduction to a variety of systems thinking and similar approaches.

STEP 1: Create a shared brief linked with a topical subject

Start by securing buy-in from senior management for a general introduction to systems thinking, rather than promising an applied systems thinking project; the latter is perhaps more likely to be the expectation. Create a shared brief, and link systems thinking with an issue that is topical, so the project is relevant to the organisation. In my case, the topical subject was innovation. The focus was to be about discussing the potential of systems thinking and innovation, rather than applying systems thinking to a project branded as an innovation project.

STEP 2: Gather a small, unusual group

Gathering an unusual group takes people out of their routine, puts them with different people, and helps break the habit of behaving in a way that limits their own creative thinking. This helps cultivate a realisation that their own professional opinion is important and valued. If possible, find a way to get a mix of levels of seniority and from different departments, but keep it small (ten in my case), so that full and thoughtful conversations can be enabled.

STEP 3: Select a short stimulus pre-reading as a basis for an open discussion

A piece of pre-reading that will act as a stimulus for discussion will have the characteristics of being short, and be suitable for a multi-disciplinary group of people from different levels of the organisation’s hierarchy.

The executive summary of Chapman’s (2004) paper proved to be a good basis for a discussion. It was not subject-specific for the members of the group (avoiding the confines of disciplinary cultures and language), and yet much of it resonated with their experience as professionals.

STEP 4: Find out about each participant’s knowledge of systems thinking prior to the meeting

A pre-meeting one-to-one interview will help informally find out each participant’s knowledge of systems thinking, and also give an opportunity to provide a broad overview of contrasting mechanistic and systemic thinking.

Each participant was shown the diagram below, which contrasts the more usual mechanistic thinking (single perspective, reductionist), with systemic thinking (many perspectives, holism). This diagram provided a good basis for a one-to-one discussion about these different modes of thinking.

Contrasting mechanistic with systemic thinking (source: Chapman, no date, p.7)

STEP 5: Aim for a natural conversation

Conduct the meeting as openly as possible, with limited facilitation/structuring, so that a natural conversation may ensue.

Allowing a group to share their views about problems and challenges may then lead to a realisation that it is in their own gift to do something about some of the problems and challenges identified. Such a natural process allows themes to be identified of ‘enablers’ and ‘constraints’ that are directly relevant to the group.

Following this open discussion about the pre-reading, I provided the group with short summaries of a variety of systems thinking and similar approaches to help explore which approaches might be of interest, such as Causal Loop Mapping, Critical Systems Heuristics, Lean/Vanguard, Soft Systems Methodology, Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, and Viable System Model.

I devised these summaries by referring to an amalgam of resources, including Williams and Hummelbrunner (2011).

STEP 6: Design follow-through

Be prepared to let the participants make their own discoveries and suggestions, and let the research follow through their wishes.

Participants may be drawn to a particular approach which can be followed through as a form of inquiry. In my case, the participants wanted to know more about all the approaches, identifying that a signposting tool would be helpful, which I then moved on to develop as the next stage of the research.

Conclusion: Small-scale collaborative learning in the context of place

An exercise such as the one described provides somewhere to start, working from where people are.

Localised collaborative learning on a small scale can help to overcome the feeling of learned helplessness that can predominate in situations of complexity. It can motivate and energise people to think and work differently through whatever approach from systems thinking they find appropriate and effective for their needs. It can develop contemporary versions of systemic practice that help to create the energy, motivation and practical skills to address complex priorities, constraints and opportunities.

Have you adopted a similar tactic of ‘meeting differently’ as a simple starting point? What effects did it have on ingrained habits of thinking and working? Did it help participants decide what could be within their own remit to make a positive difference?


Chapman, J. (2004). System Failure: Why Governments Must Learn to Think Differently. 2nd edn. (1st edition in 2002.) Demos: London, United Kingdom. (Online – open access): (PDF 466KB)

Chapman, J. (no date). Introducing Systems Thinking. Downloaded from: ‘Accelerating and Amplifying Change: Transforming Consumption and Production Towards Sustainability’, 8 September 2022. (Online – open access): (PDF 267KB)

Williams, B. and Hummelbrunner, R. (2011). Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner’s Toolkit. Stanford University Press: California, United States of America.

Biography: Catherine Hobbs PhD is an independent researcher located in North Cumbria, as well as being a Visiting Fellow at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She is a social scientist with experience of working in academia and local government, with a focus on developing multi-agency strategies in transport and health. She is interested in developing better links between the practice of local governance and scholarly expertise in order to increase capacity to address issues of complexity through knowledge synthesis. She is also interested in the potential of applying and developing a variety of systems thinking approaches (in the tradition of critical systems thinking), with the innovation and design movements in public policy.

11 thoughts on “Systems thinking in public policy: Making space to think differently”

  1. Hi, Cathy, I really enjoyed your post, especially the part about holding space for “unusual groups”. Like you, I deeply believe in the transformative power of social groups. I term my work in this area “adaptive space”, which is a term coined in complexity leadership theory.

    My question is about the relationship between systems thinking and complexity. Do you find systems thinking helpful for working in complex adaptive systems? Are there specific branches of systems thinking you find particularly effective? I have found the assumptions behind systems thinking lean more towards stability, while the assumptions behind complexity definitely lean towards change. Curious to get your take on this.

  2. Really interesting contribution, thank you. I am actually planning a workshop where an evaluation of 4 years of implementing a long-term dialogue platform (between researchers, administration, farmers, non-governmental organization and policy makers) will be presented to its participants. After we discuss theses results I want them to discuss the future of this platform and plan the activities for next year. I will definitely use some of your recommendations. If you have any other suggestion, I will be glad to read them.

    • Thank you Helena, I’m pleased you found my recommendations useful. Your feedback workshop sounds very interesting, along with the prospect of discussing the future of the dialogue platform, and action planning for the coming year.

      You may find another i2S blog I wrote of interest: Adaptive Social Learning for Systemic Leadership which presents in a summary table that thinking differently matters (the subject of the current blog), assumptions matter, wider contexts matter, people matter, and systemic effectiveness matters. In the summary table, each of these five stages has an operational principle, draws out a different facet of systemic leadership, and a selection of systems thinking and similar resources are highlighted which could be of help.

      My natural tendency is to emphasise the need for continuous learning and adaptability through dialogue, from which the actions evolve and are fine-tuned in practice, rather than a fixed expectation of ‘delivering solutions’ and seeking out ‘proof’ that these have somehow happened.

      I hope you find points of interest/relevance in the above, and the best of luck with your workshop planning.

  3. Dear Catherine. thank you for your insights.
    I wonder how did you manage to gather such a diverse group? In my experience in Sweden, local authorities are booked months ahead. And very often we end up with the same people at the table, even if the invitation was communicated in various ways (written, personal, calls) long ahead. What was your experience like?
    thank you.

    • Thank you Varvara for your response and question. In more detail, my initial approach was to the Chief Executive of the local authority by a deliberately short e-mail. Perhaps luckily, he was conducive to the idea and referred me to a face to face meeting with the Deputy Chief Executive. It all unfolded from that meeting, as to what current topic the introduction to systems thinking could be linked with, and who would best be involved in a small internal project planning team. A discussion with the project planning team then led to the development of the shared brief. All in all, this meant that we were able to discuss how we could do things in a different way to what is the expected routine. It helped that the local selected topic was innovation! Yet we still operated through the hierarchy. The project was raised at the Corporate Management Team, and each Director was asked to select someone from their department to take part in the project. So, (at least) one person from each department was part of the project design, as was a desire to have a mix of people together from within the hierarchy, rather than one layer. We were thus setting up something entirely new, rather than tapping into existing formal ways of meeting within the organisation.

      I have to admit that, at the time, I expected to get much further on with the introduction than proved to be possible. I had moved from all of the intensive doctoral research design planning that takes place, and was ‘parachuted into reality.’ This helped me to realise that satisfactorily opening up the space for a broad introduction to systems thinking is, in itself, a hugely important subject for research.

      I hope this is helpful, and I wish you all the best with your work in Sweden.

  4. Cathy’s process seems really feasible and human to me. It opens the space well – as long as enough time can be found. I really like the idea of an ‘unusual’ group … it adds a sense of dynamic expectation. Endless references to ‘stakeholder input’ sound like a burden in contrast. I’m going to borrow some of her ideas.

    Over the years I’ve shifted a little bit away from hoping that people will learn one or more of the established systems methods; after all it’s taken most of us half a lifetime to learn how to do one of them with any skill. Where in their busy lives will they get time to learn one well in a few weeks? Instead I’ve drawn on my own knowledge of those approaches to develop questions and prompts that allow people to use in a more systemic way the methods and methodologies from their own areas of specialism that they know well. I also have some fairly consistent advice to those who want to grab the opportunity and run with it:

    Be committed.  Start with an aspect of the systems field that interests you
    Be careful. Using systems ideas could change your relationship with key colleagues and stakeholders
    Be safe.  Seek low risk, medium reward first.
    Be useful.  Use systems ideas when you think they would add something extra
    Be creative.  Don’t be a purist; adapt, invent, modify but stick to the core principles

    And have some fun doing it.

    • Thanks, Bob. Opening space despite severe time constraints is a real challenge. I’m very pleased that you like some of my ideas. Others are already on to the ‘unusual group’ idea e.g.

      I like your consistent and straightforward advice, as sometimes the move towards systems thinking approaches can seem overwhelming, even impossible, for people and organisations. So these sensible, practical introductions and advice are important.

      Different established systems methodologies will appeal to different people and can be adapted in use, or some can learn how to, or be permitted to, work more systemically without the use of an established approach: I think perhaps the main thing is to do all we possibly can to cater for a mix of systems thinking needs as those needs arise, whether aspirations are for the short, medium or longer-term.


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