Munch Club #4: What is Systems Thinking?

At our monthly Munch Club, the EmcArts staff gathers together at lunchtime to test out the tools used in our programs.

Systems thinking helps us identify interconnected patterns so that we can anticipate and adapt to complex challenges.
Systems thinking helps us identify interconnected behavioral patterns so that we can anticipate and adapt to complex challenges.

At our most recent Munch Club, the EmcArts staff explored systems thinking strategies. To prepare, we read an excerpt from Donella Meadows’s book, Thinking in Systems, and tried out an interactive exercise that helped us visualize how systems work.

What is systems thinking?

We began our reading discussion over a tasty homemade lunch, thinking first about how to define a system.

A system is: “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” – Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

We also identified the three things that systems must include:

  1. Elements: visible, tangible things that are easily noticed or identified
  2. Interconnections: the physical flows and reactions between elements that govern the processes within a system
  3. A function or purpose: what the system accomplishes – but not necessarily the same outcome as stated goals or mission

To help us understand these three components, we thought about working examples. In an arts organization, we might consider examples of each of these components:

  • Elements: Staff and board members, audience members and patrons, a physical facility or building, a collection of objects, set components, or materials used
  • Interconnections: Decision-making by the board, communications between fundraising and producing departments, facilitation of educational programming for audiences
  • A function or purpose: Production of engaging art experiences

A frustrating aspect of a system is that its purpose or function of the interrelated components within it can sometimes cause an overall behavior that is not necessarily intended or desired. Systems are complicated, and there can be systems within systems, too.

Why and when are systems thinking strategies useful?

While discussing our systems thinking reading, we ate our delicious homemade lunch, made by Chef Kurt.
While discussing our systems thinking reading, we ate our delicious homemade lunch, made by Chef Kurt.

Thinking in systems can help you see the big picture of organizational operations and behaviors. It is a disciplined approach to understanding the complex web of cause and effect that contributes to most organizational behavior.

Systems thinking processes help us think through big ideas, such as:

  • Influence: What kind of impact does or can an outside influence have on your organization? How can understanding your systemic behavior help prepare you for effectively reacting to outside influences? What kind of internal influences arise in your organization’s system, and how do they impact behavior?
  • Teamwork: What kind of relationships between you and your team members exist, and what role do those relationships play in your organizational behavior? How can you foster team relationships that allow your organization to be adaptable to outside influences and complex problems?
  • Leverage: Who in your organization is most impacted – or can create the most impact – when something from outside influences your system?
  • Leadership: Who are the high and low leverage points in your organization’s system? What should your organization’s leaders know about their own leverage?

A systems thinking perspective can help you and your team identify your organization’s behavioral patterns, and develop a game plan that helps you respond to those complex challenges most effectively. By using knowledge about key influential components in your system, you can adapt your behavior to your game plan and tackle those complex problems.

Activity: Triangles

In order to get a sense of how systems and their components work, we got up from the table and tried out an exercise for ourselves.

For a full explanation of this activity, visit this post:

Activity: Triangles


At the end of our Munch Club session, we had all thought more deeply about the intertwined patterns that govern the ways we get work done.

One specific takeaway I had from our discussion was thinking about how often we, in arts organizations, forget to take a moment and assess the interconnected components of our own systems and behaviors. It’s a little easier to identify the dynamics of our one-on-one relationships with teammates and across departments, but it’s more challenging to understand the significance of those relationships in the larger scheme of our organization’s system.

Systems thinking helps us take a step back to see the big picture, and understand the influences and impacts our behaviors have on an overall organizational effort.

Have you engaged with systems thinking activities at your organization? How do you think your organization would benefit from using a systems thinking perspective?

[Header image courtesy of Art of the Future.]

Kendra Danowski is the former ArtsFwd Editor & Engagement Coordinator at EmcArts.