Systems Thinking Exercises


Date: Sun, 12 Feb 2006 18:12:13 -0400

From: Sharon Almerigi <salmerigi@CARIBSURF.COM>


Subject: Re: [GF] Systems-thinking exercises


Thanks to all who responded to my query for systems-thinking exercises.

Following is a slightly edited version of what was shared. If you would like

me to send you a copy as an attacment please let me know.


Thanks again,



Sharon Almerigi

People Dynamics Associates, 48 Sunset Crest

St. James, Barbados 24045

Website -


Systems thinking in natural systems


I participate in an Engineering Leadership Program that the Boeing Company

does for it's chief engineering staff, where "system" thinking and causal

loop diagramming is an integral part of the program.


Just having people stop, put their hand on their heart and listen to their

breathing - noting that in this one action you are observing 2 major, but

separate components of the human cardio-vascular system interacting with

each other often does the trick.  This is a "micro-level" view of a system.

I support the "macro" view of systems with a large drawing showing a chunk

of the earth, where above the surface, you see the hydrologic cycle at work

(where water evaporates from the sea, is blown inland in the form of

"weather" and falls in the mountains - very much like our own west winds

deposit pacific ocean rain on our Washington Cascade Mountains...


But the drawing also shows the "below the surface" or "geologic" cycle,

where magma rises, and where it breaks through to the surface-creating the

fast cooling basalting/andisitic rock of the volcano, and where it doesn't,

it forms the more slowly cooling granitic rocks, (the sort of rock that

allows mineralization).  The business of erosion of these rocks, by the

weather and the resulting sorting of minerals in the streams affect the life

forms that populate the surface-and the oceans....


The drawing is pretty complicated, and by looking at it for very long, one

can get a strong sense of the "wheels within wheels" personality of



While that particular drawing is owned by Boeing (my employer) I could

suggest you dive into the National Geographic Magazine archives and come up

with some of their "visual explanations" that accompany nearly every issue,

to present "systems thinking" in a very practical and earth bound way.


In a book - "Inside Out - the best of the National Geographic Diagrams and

Cutaways" copyright-1998, ISBN 0-7922-7371-0 there are a number of "cool"

diagrams ranging from page 42 where "life in the tall grass" shows the hard

life of a prairie dog - in full ecological interaction (very systemic if you

think about it), or page 48 - where the human body is displayed and

described as "the system of the self".  There is also page 58 where the

interior of the earth is shown and a description of how the earths core

creates the magnetosphere...

So there's 3 examples from one book - there's more there.


Systems thinking isn't so mysterious once a person can be shown we are

immersed in it every day.  Once natural systems or body systems are

"noticed" one can then begin to get a grip on the business, or

organizational systems we also create-participate in.

- Michael Erickson




I am currently delivering a series of workshops in Toronto on applying

systems thinking in outdoor education to education staff of the Toronto and

Region Conservation Authority.


I suggest that you look at The Systems Thinking Playbook - Exercises to

Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities by Linda Booth

Sweeney and Dennis Meadows (ISBN 0-966127-7-9).  I have used a number of the

exercises in this binder and they are well thought out. The 3 part binder

contains about 30 different activities to help people understand systems. I

ordered mine through

- David Green


Peter Senge explains system diagrams in "The Fifth Discipline." "The Fifth

Discipline Fieldbook" provides additional examples and explanation.


Another useful source is "From Concepts to Causal Loops" by Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson.


Physical activity demonstrates systems-thinking


Systems Activity(source unknown).:

A group from anywhere from about 10 up to 100 people all stand up, with room

enough to move around.  Ask each person to silently choose two people in the

room as their points of reference.


Then ask everyone to stand in a place which is equidistant from their 2

points of reference people (note: no one will ever let the other people know

who their points of reference are.)  It doesn't make any difference how far

apart they are from the others as long as they are equidistant from both of

their points of reference.


Typically, after a lot of initial movement, the group will start to settle

down a bit and then more movement will get triggered, and it just keeps

going.  There are some good lessons about the complexity of systems and the

interdependency of various elements within a system, the delays inherent in

reactions, etc.

- Doug OLoughlin


Response to Doug


I first experienced this exercise as led by Glenda Eoyang, PhD, Executive

Director of Human Systems Dynamics Institute, complexity theorist, author

and founder of the field of human systems dynamics (which integrates

complexity theory and social sciences). A really marvelous woman to learn

with and from.  It is possible that she originated the exercise...

- Lisa


Move gradually to more complex models of systems thinking


My experience showing "fully formed" system models to groups  suggests that

this works only when the group is already familiar with the symbols and

sytax of system diagrams. If not, the

diagram is largely unintelligible and then, not only do I have to explain

the symbols and syntax and the substantive aspects of the model, I have to

overcome the confusion I created in the first

place by putting too much information in front of them.


Even when presenting system models to groups who are familiar with systems

thinking and modeling, we typically start off with a simplified overview of

the model and then reveal the complexity.

- Sandy Shuman


Using board games, etc.


While I have used the board game called Mousetrap more to teach process

diagramming, it would work very well as a fun way to build & demonstrate a

system.  You wouldn't actually play the game, just use it's parts. Then you

can brainstorm other possible systems that interact with that one.  Other

Rube Goldberg inventions that are fun to take apart or to demonstrate a

"system" can be found at


These types of exercises are also great for stimulating creativity or

innovative thinking.


- (Unknown submission)


Another physical game:


An exercise/game similar to the one mentioned by Douglas OLoughlin is in "99

of the Best Experiential Games we know" by Simon Priest, Sam Sikes and Faith

Evans.The exercise is called "Known Unknown" (Page 138).

The way it works is that people select someone they know well (Known) and

someone they don't know well "Unknown" and the objective is to keep the

known person between you and the unknown person.

I played this at IAF Minneapolis with Sam Sikes Facilitating - I think we

had 80 people in the room and it was the best demonstration of a

completely chaotic system I have seen.

- Allan


Diagram of why meetings start late:


I ask the group, "why do meetings start late," and draw a systems diagram to

capture their responses. You can see an illustration at:


"Word and arrow" diagrams are also referred to as "influence" and "cause and

effect" diagrams, with little consistent differentiation between these uses.

So a simple way to read a diagram is to replace the arrow with "influences,"

"informs," or "causes."


For example, the diagram on the second page of my "Why do meetings start

late" diagram could be read as: "The expected-start-time-of-next-meeting is

influenced by the announced-start-time (of the previous meeting) and the

actual-start-time (of the previous meeting).


An additional piece of information can be conveyed by the plus and minus

signs, which indicate the direction of the influence. A plus sign indicates

that more of the preceding thing results in

*more* of the next thing; a minus sign indicates that more of the preceding

thing results in *less* of the next thing.


I neglected to make an important point regarding the "why do meetings start

late" diagrams.

This series of diagrams shows the *development* of a system diagram, not a

"finished" model. (Even in the last diagram there is a "thought cloud" that

raises a question about the completeness of the model.)


For a group that is learning about systems thinking, it is intended to show

that it's "OK" (indeed, necessary) to start out small, sloppy, and poorly

thought out, and then make changes, rethink the elements, rearrange the

appearance, and so on.


- Sandy Schuman


Response to Sandy,

Like many others I imagine, I found your systems diagram regarding the late

starts of meetings, fascinating.  However, as noted in your and others

following posts,  it is quite hard to follow and debate these diagrams

without an established "syntax and grammar" for them.  Whilst I think that I

understand the diagrams you posted would it be possible to briefly give the

basic rules for composing such diagrams?  I have some questions in mind

regarding the evolution of your diagrams but would like to be sure I've

understood them properly before asking!


In additon to the syntax and grammar, are there any simple Do's and Don'ts

that you or others would suggest for composing systems diagrams?  For

instance in the choice of "activities".

- Robin


Reading and building diagrams


There are some great resources online that I have used to assist in getting

people to read and build Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs).  The links below are

two of the best I have found.

A good overview of CLDs from Pegasus Communications

A step by step process for building CLD's from The Portland Learning


- David Green