System thinking is not a new discipline – throughout time it has been widely discussed. However it is still an interesting way of thinking – especially in the field of management but definitely also in front-end innovation. The whole idea about system thinking is a holistic approach to analysis, whereby everything is considered as part of a larger system. It is a way of understanding structures, forces and connections that shape the behaviour of systems, which obviously can be a great source for development and improvement. System thinking has been applied in many research areas – medical, environmental, political, economic etc. – and you might be able to benefit from key elements of this way of thinking as well!

But how so? The first thing that pops into mind is the question of the combination of the two words “system” and “innovation”. Could and should those worlds be connected?

Work with idea management usually takes place in the stage-gate model shown below, which consists of five stages: scope, get ideas, develop, test, launch.

The first stage, the scope, is the phase in which you are getting and collecting insight: what are the challenges in your organisation and which spaces have room for improvement? Which needs are we addressing, and what are our levers to do so? The scope is the problem area where you want to develop and explore new strengths and opportunities and focus your innovation action, which makes it an essential building block for the rest of your innovation process. I would suggest that system thinking could be a great inspiration when creating this scope.

System thinking in my organisation?

When you think in systems in a business matter, you have an understanding of the dependence and connection between people, structures, events, processes etc. in your organisation. By recognising this connection, every business becomes a complex system in which each component can better be understood in relation to the whole system than as a single event.

That is abstract, I know… But think of it this way: When you are analysing in a normal analytical way, you are breaking problem areas down into small components, and hence tend to lose sight of the interplay between them. When you are thinking in systems, all parts are important, sure… but actually it is the interplay that matters the most. Human beings have a tendency to think in a linear and analytical way, that is, A causes B which causes C.

Systems thinking is about circular feedback – that is, what if C can cause A? What if a combination of B and C can cause A? To give you an example of this, we would have to zoom in: Imagine that your sales unit doesn’t run smoothly. Instead of thinking about how you could fix this problem – hire new sales people, lower the sales goals, train the sales force etc. – you would look for the root of the problem, the underlying patterns, and zoom out again. This could be: How are management decisions influencing the rest of your business? How is the communication and information flow among business units – are sales giving and receiving the right information? How are the rules and norms in the company affecting the business units? And so on…

Points of power

…..Or what some people call the ‘leverage points’ in a system. These are the places within your business where a small shift in one thing can produce a big chain of changes in your organisation. It sounds like magic but it makes sense if you think in systems; every part of the organisation is strongly connected, which makes dramatic changes possible if you hit the right spot. Boiled down, the leverage points of your business are the places in which the change potential is greatest and it makes these points very attractive for intervention. Meadows have identified 12 general places to intervene in a system– read it for inspiration.

Practical steps

Thinking in systems is a very broad and complex idea – just like the problems it is trying to solve. But still it is an interesting way of forcing yourself to see things differently and to understand events and behaviours better in your organisation. Maybe some simplification of the key principles could be adopted to get an indication of how you should shape your scope.

And why should you consider this? Because an holistic and systematic approach forces you to look for comprehensiveness and include all the invisible patterns as well as the ones you can see. It is a way to understand complexity and a way to find the critical spots that you want to explore further in the rest of this innovation process.

Now to the fun part of it. This is what you could do, if you want to form your scope with inspiration from system thinking. I’m not saying that this is the holy grail of anything – leverage points are not as straightforward as I make it sound. However these steps might be helpful, if you feel like exploring this a little further:

Gather information

This first point is almost a given in advance. But due to the importance of information gathering, I think it should be highlighted anyway. If you are aiming to draw a bigger picture of your business or your business unit, you would have to know what is going on. Not just in the section you and your closest co-workers are in, but in every corner – as much knowledge as possible makes for a better understanding of how every employee and every process influences the whole. Observe, ask and research!  


Yes, making maps is pretty geeky. Nonetheless it is a good way to visualise complex relationships. The good thing is: you don’t need fancy computer programs for this! It is meant as a tool for you, and that makes a pen and a piece of paper good enough. Be creative and map the elements in the way you feel is the most representative. Start by mapping the things you see: The people, the units, the concrete results and work etc.

Look for the invisible

…. and this is actually one of the most crucial points. Add to your map the things you don’t see – the intangible things that you know are there: the different motives and interests, the interplay between co-workers and units, the culture, the strategy and how the employees are working together. Try to capture the flow and mechanisms of information, rules and processes – both the formal and the informal.

See your system as part of a system

Great! It’s getting complicated. But still. This is a cool exercise. Imagine your business as part of a larger system. Which system would that be and how is your environment reacting to the things you are doing – and the other way round? If you are aiming for product innovation etc. this is step is very important.

Search for leverage points

I told you those leverage points were important. When you have drawn the bigger picture it is time to look for the points of power. You could start by looking for critical relationships and information flows. Again I would recommend Meadows 12 general places to intervene in a system if you need somewhere to start. There is no easy way of doing this, but a general rule of thumb is that the more structural change, the greater result.

Choose your scope

Once you’ve identified your leverage points, you could use them to determine your scope on a very reflected basis. The scope could be the beginning of an idea management process, where you include external ideas, internal ideas or both depending how you defined your scope.

This is a very quick overview of a very complex subject. If you find this interesting, I would recommend a couple of readings for a deeper understanding.

Recommended readings:

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