Systems Thinking

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This Knowledge Area (KA) provides a guide to knowledge about systems and systems thinking , which together form the foundations for all applications of a systems approach and applications of systems engineering (SE). This knowledge is not specific to SE, but is part of a wider systems body of knowledge. The SEBoK does not capture all of the system knowledge here; rather, it identifies those aspects relevant to the SEBoK.

To download a PDF of all of Part 2 (including this knowledge area), please click here.


The topics contained within this knowledge area include the following:


systems thinking is concerned with understanding or intervening in systems, based on the principles and concepts of systems. This KA offers some basic definitions of systems thinking.

general system theory (GST) (von Bertalanffy, 1968) considers the similarities between systems from different domains as a set of common systems principles and concepts.

  • A principle is a rule of conduct or behavior. To take this further, a principle is a “basic generalization that is accepted as true and that can be used as a basis for reasoning or conduct” ( A principle can also be thought of as a “basic truth or law or assumption” (ibid).
  • A concept is an abstraction, or a general idea inferred or derived from specific instances. For example, by viewing a pet dog, one can infer that there are other dogs of that “type.” Hence, from this observation (or perhaps a set of observations) the concept of a dog is developed in one's mind. Concepts are bearers of meaning, as opposed to agents of meaning, and can only be thought about, or designated, by means of a name.

Principles depend on concepts in order to state a “truth.” Hence, principles and concepts go hand in hand; principles cannot exist without concepts and concepts are not very useful without principles to help guide the proper way to act (Lawson and Martin 2008).

GST tends to concentrate on the principles and philosophy behind the aforementioned idea. “Despite the importance of system concepts … we do not yet have a unified or integrated set (i.e., a system) of such concepts” (Ackoff, 1971).

Ackoff proposes a system of "system-concepts" to bring together the wide variety of concepts which have been proposed. His 30 distinct concepts are grouped under four headings, or principles, “How Systems are formed,” “How Systems Change,” “How Systems Behave,” and “How Systems Adapt and Learn.”

Lawson describes a system of "system concepts" (Lawson 2010) where systems are categorized according to Fundamental Concepts, Types, Topologies, Focus, Complexity, and Roles. Hitchins defines a similar set of principles which also consider some of the issues of hierarchy and complexity of particular relevance to a system approach (Hitchins 2009).

This KA provides an overview of the most important aspects of this system of systems concepts .


Works Cited

Ackoff, R.L. 1971. "Towards a System of Systems Concepts". Management Science. 17(11).

Bertalanffy, L. von. 1968. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, Revised ed. New York, NY, USA: Braziller.

Hitchins, D. 2009. "What Are the General Principles Applicable to Systems?" Insight 12(4).

Lawson, H. 2010. A Journey Through the Systems Landscape. London, UK: College Publications, Kings College.

Lawson, H., and J.N. Martin. 2008. "On the Use of Concepts and Principles for Improving Systems Engineering Practice". Proceedings of the 18th Annual International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) International Symposium, 5-19 June 2008, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Primary References

Bertalanffy, L. von. 1968. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. Revised ed. New York, NY: Braziller.

Checkland, P. 1999. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, New York, NY, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Churchman, C. W. 1968. The Systems Approach and its Enemies. New York, NY, USA: Dell Publishing.

Flood, R. L. 1999. Rethinking the Fifth Discipline: Learning Within The Unknowable. London UK: Routledge.

INCOSE. 2011. INCOSE Systems Engineering Handbook: A Guide for System Life Cycle Processes and Activities, version 3.2.1. San Diego, CA, USA: International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), INCOSE-TP-2003-002-03.2.1.

Additional References

No additional references have been identified for version 0.75. Please provide any recommendations on additional references in your review.

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Comments from SEBok 0.5 Wiki

Please note that in version 0.5, this article was titled “Systems Overview”.

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SEBoK v. 1.9.1 released 30 September 2018

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