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How systems thinking compliments behavioural approaches in solving complex problems

How systems thinking compliments behavioural approaches in solving complex problems

A holistic approach to examining problems and identifying patterns of behaviour

Throughout 2021 BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) is publishing a book to help policymakers and program managers use tools within our ‘Method’ to design and deliver better and more impactful behaviour change programs.

In Chapter 2, we discuss Systems Thinking and Behaviour; why it is important and how to use it.

In this short follow-up post, we explain how and why we combine systems thinking and behavioural approaches. We start by introducing the concepts of ‘systems’ and ‘systems thinking’ before explaining why systems thinking is useful to combine with a behavioural approach.

What is a system?

A system is any entity where the parts relate to each other in a repetitive pattern of interaction. A pile of metal, for example, is generally not considered to be a system, but the same metals would be considered a system if manufactured into a watch.

Everything from biological organisms to larger, ecological, social, legal and economic structures can therefore be regarded as a system. Systems also exist within a hierarchy. For example, a system will generally contain embedded sub-systems which, in turn, are embedded in larger super-systems.

Some systems are cybernetic; self-governing and self-correcting, based on feedback from their environment. A watch is not a cybernetic system because it requires someone to correct it. By contrast, many heating systems are cybernetic because they use a feedback process to maintain a constant temperature.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking attempts to study the behaviour and properties of systems. It considers patterns of relationships between elements over time using concepts such as influence, balance, feedback and delay. This contrasts with ‘non-systemic thinking’, which simply examines individual elements in isolation without considering reciprocal influences and their effects over time.

What does systems thinking look like?

As an example, Figure 1 (below) shows part of a systems map that summarises arguments for how Paris should address climate change.

This map shows many elements and relationships between them. To hone in on one set of relationships – the diagram visualises an argument that the use of public transport and bikes will influence relative attractiveness of car use; that having more public transport and bikes will make car use appear less attractive.

Similarly, the diagram illustrates an argument that the greater use of bikes will lead to bike lanes being used more, which will make bike use less attractive and influence the attractiveness of other forms of transport.

How do behaviour approaches fit into system thinking?

Behavioural approaches can change systems by influencing the patterns of relationships within them (i.e., between key actors). For instance, consider the ‘ways to change a systemmodel in Figure 2 (below).

The model suggests 12 leverage points for system’s change (based on Donella Meadows’ prior work). Do these ‘leverage points’ require changing behaviour? Yes, absolutely. To illustrate this, we can use a common behavioural approach, the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM), to show how these leverage points require behaviour change.

The FBM argues that behaviour requires awareness (i.e., a prompt), motivation and ability. From this perspective, the leverage point ‘Changing information flows and access’ is fundamentally about awareness (e.g., if people are not consistently aware of a tax discount for scrapping their car, they won’t change behaviour in response to this information).

Similarly, the leverage point ‘Changing rules’ is about awareness and motivations. If people become and stay aware that the new rules for Paris roads are that you cannot travel in a car with less than two people, then they won’t react. If they do know, they are likely to change behaviour, including potentially scrapping or selling their cars to avoid new frictions and risks in their commute.

Finally, ‘Changing goals within the system’ can be regarded as being about awareness and motivations, but at a more abstract, policymaking level of behaviour change. It suggests that if power-holders and policymakers decide that their primary goal is to reduce emissions or increase public transport use, then their motivations and behaviours (e.g., policies enacted) are likely to be much more aligned towards changing the state of the system to align with these desired goals.


In short, systems thinking and behavioural approaches are tightly interlinked. Systems Thinking involves understanding and influencing parts of a system, which usually includes people and behaviours.

Behavioural approaches involve understanding and changing people’s behaviours with a system.

Without using behavioural approaches, systems thinking cannot easily translate into systems change. Without systems thinking, behavioural approaches can still change behaviour within a system but in doing so run the risk of producing undesired outcomes.

Authored by Peter Slattery and Stefan Kaufman (one of our resident experts in Systems Thinking).

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