Habits of a Systems Thinker

The Waters Center’s Habits of a Systems Thinker help learners understand how systems work and how actions taken can impact results seen over time.

The Habits encompass a spectrum of strategies that foster problem-solving and thoughtful reflection about systems of interest.

Though “habit” is defined as a usual way of doing things, the Habits of a Systems Thinker do not limit ways of thinking. Instead, they encourage flexible thinking and appreciation of new, emerging insights and multiple perspectives.

The Habits of a Systems Thinker presented here are designed to help you learn the Habits by way of explanation and examples.

There are 14 Habits of a Systems Thinker; be sure to take your time reading through each one. We hope you enjoy learning the Habits of a Systems Thinker!

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Habit #1: Makes Meaningful Connections Within and Between Systems

This Habit will help you identify important connections in systems, allowing you to deepen your understanding of systems as a whole and the parts within them. You will also learn how different systems connect to one another and practical ways to use this knowledge to produce new ideas and thoughts.

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Habit #2: A Systems Thinker Seeks to Understand the Big Picture

This Habit helps us understand what it means to see the “big picture” of a system. You will begin to understand how this view, in conjunction with attention to detail, can bring about a broader perspective and understanding of systems as a whole, goals, actions, boundaries of influence and more.

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Habit #3: A Systems Thinker Changes Perspectives to Increase Understanding

This Habit explains how systems thinkers aim to see situations, experiences, viewpoints, and more, through the eyes of others. By doing so, we can see beyond our own deeply-held viewpoints and increase our understanding.

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Habit #4: A Systems Thinker Considers How Mental Models Affect Current Reality and the Future

Where do our viewpoints come from? Why do we place more or less value on certain things compared to others? This Habit will help you learn about mental models and how they shape our views and actions, in addition to how surfacing our own mental models and those of others can deepen our understanding of system structure.

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Habit #5: A Systems Thinker Observes How Elements Within Systems Change Over Time, Generating Patterns and Trends

Systems thinkers pay close attention to patterns and trends — even when they may not be immediately obvious. This Habit will help you measure change and identify patterns and trends. By doing so, you can better understand your system of interest and get closer to your goals and desired outcomes.

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Habit #6: A Systems Thinker Surfaces and Tests Assumptions

We all have beliefs and opinions — but what do we do when those beliefs are met with conflicting evidence? This Habit will help you learn how to use listening strategies and visual tools to test your assumptions and weigh them against other viewpoints.

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Habit #7: A Systems Thinker Recognizes that a System’s Structure Generates its Behavior

This Habit asks us to take an in-depth look at the design of systems and to learn to recognize structures. You will learn how to alter the design of systems to produce desirable outcomes, getting you closer to reaching your goals.

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Habit #8: A Systems Thinker Identifies the Circular Nature of Complex Cause and Effect Relationships

This Habit allows us to take a deep-dive into the causal nature of systems. You will learn the role of feedback in cause and effect relationships, and how this can create either a balancing or reinforcing scenario. You will also learn how to use causal loop diagrams to identify relationships within systems.

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Habit #9: A Systems Thinker Recognizes the Impact of Time Delays When Exploring Cause and Effect Relationships

Have you ever made a quick decision based on wanting instant gratification, only to experience unwanted consequences at a later time? This Habit helps us understand why and how systems thinkers explore cause and effect relationships while recognizing the impact time can have on their decisions and actions.

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Habit #10: A Systems Thinker Considers Short and Long-term Unintended Consequences of Actions

How do you handle decision-making? Do you consider the short and long-term consequences of decisions? What happens when you make a decision for an immediate pay-off, but there are unintended consequences? This Habit helps to ensure decisions and actions are carefully thought through to produce desired results.

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Habit #11: A Systems Thinker Considers an Issue Fully and Resists the Urge to Come to a Quick Conclusion

This Habit will help you understand the process systems thinkers integrate for fully considering an issue. By taking the time to think things through, the more likely a high-quality outcome will be achieved.

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Habit #12: A Systems Thinker Pays Attention to Accumulations and Their Rates of Change

This Habit will help you become familiar with elements in systems that change over time and how you can affect these elements by taking (or avoiding) certain actions.

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Habit #13: A Systems Thinker Uses Understanding of System Structure to Identify Possible Leverage Actions

This Habit is all about using knowledge of system structure to identify points of leverage and how manipulating system structure can create desired change.

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Habit #14: A Systems Thinker Checks Results and Changes Actions If Needed: “Successive Approximation”

We’re all on a journey of continuous improvement — whether it’s for our work, personal life, or the pursuit of acquiring a new skill, the act of improvement is a process. This Habit will help you learn about successive approximation and the steps systems thinkers take when establishing a goal.