Systemic Change, Systematic Change, Systems Change (Reynolds, 2011)

It’s been challenging to find sources that specifically define two-word phrases — i.e. “systemic change”, “systematic change”, “systems change” — as opposed to loosely inferring reductively from one-word definitions in recombination. MartinReynolds @OpenUniversity clarifies uses of the phrases, with a critical eye into motives for choosing a specific label, as well as associated risks and traps.

Working from the end of the paper towards the beginning, the conclusion points “towards a critical systems literacy”.

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4.2 Towards a critical systems literacy

[….] Using our own form of systems literacy, systems boundaries (the domain of systems change) are subject to systematic changes invoked by the designers and users of systems, and systemic changes invoked by those subject to the use of systems. There is here a triadic interplay between three perpetual factors –

  • systems with their boundaries,
  • people and their values, and
  • real world entities and events in the factual domain.

The relationship between them can be expressed in terms of either an entrapped vicious circle or a liberating virtuous cycle.

The three types of trap noted above represent responses to particular types of well- founded anxiety and fear with managing complex issues. There is

  • the continual fear of systemic uncertainty in unforeseen events and unintended consequences,
  • the fear of losing or even reinforcing excessive systematic control, and
  • the fear of change in systems; an undue ultimate optimism in old or new systems.

Table 4 summarises these traps in terms of contributing towards a critical literacy of systems thinking in practice.

Type of
Location of
Risks or
Some key
realities or
Make simple &
manageable the
complex web of
realities for
Seeing a mess as simple
problem-solving i.e.,
reductionist thinking
rather than as
improvement resolution.
SystematicStakeholdersDeveloping mutual
understanding and
shared practice
Fixing people as objects
for purposive endeavours
rather than as purposeful
Improvement of
and emancipation
through reflective
Complacency and
obsession with ‘systems’
e.g., as holistic devices,
rather than as temporary
pragmatic constructs
Table 4. Features of a critical systems literacy

A key intent of systems thinking associated with systems change is to continually question boundaries of our conceptual constructs with a primary focus on improving the situation. That is, with a focus on steering good systemic change.

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Comment: Backing up through the paper gives us some stronger definitions and understanding, gained through applying systems thinking in field research. A challenge with espoused systems thinkers, though, is recognizing those with critical eye, as distinct from those with a hammer looking for a nail.

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4. Implications of a ‘Critical’ Systems Thinking in Practice

[….] If systems thinking in practice provides such a potentially powerful agent of change, what is that may inhibit such change? In the practical domain of engaging with different perspectives, the fear for change is manifest in the traps of uncritical thinking that pervade our everyday practices. Aligned with these traps is an unclear use of language around systems thinking. What precisely is meant by the terms systemic, systematic and system and how might such terms be more meaningfully incorporated in to a critical systems literacy?

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Comment: Firstly, let’s understand what’s usually behind systemic change.

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Trap 1: Silo Problem-Solving: Towards Anticipating Systemic Change

[….] The conventional functionalist systems idea of organisation – a whole consisting of related parts contributing to a particular function – has contributed considerably to a reification of this type of silo thinking. Organisations are typically organised with departmental terms of reference carrying clearly defined remits for employees. The idea is neat, easy to work with in terms of providing some assurance of certainty, or at least lack of ambiguity, and most importantly, as suggested above, comfortable. Comfort is conventionally drawn from some basic (mis)understanding about organisations working as self-contained functional systems, the output of which is unquestionably some ‘good’ for the wider community. It pervades many impressions of organisations whether small and simple or large and complex. [….]

A systemic issue comprises complexity, uncertainty, interdependencies and controversy involving a wide range of variables requiring resolution. A technical problem on the other hand bounded by a fixed bounded silo occupies the more comfortable domain, amenable to a solution, usually provided by a traditional ‘expert’. Characteristics of issues are troublesome! They can sometimes distract from getting things done. But can they be ignored?

The trap of silo thinking is based upon the idea that such issues can be ignored. It is associated with reductionism. A critical perspective on systems acknowledges that, to use a famous systems adage, a system is merely a map of a situation or territory, not to be confused with the actual territory. Real world complexities represent something that exists outside of any one conceptualisation of context. The real world complexity provides the site for systemic change. In terms of a systems literacy, the tension between system and situation might be appreciated in terms of a conversation. The distinction between thinking about systems and systems thinking is helpful in clearing ground between systems thinking and related disciplines associated with systems sciences (e.g., complexity and chaos theory). It respects rather than struggles against two different perceptions of ‘systems’: one, as with systems thinking, an epistemological construct; the other, as with systems sciences, more an ontological entity.

A key underplayed intent of systems thinking associated with systemic change is to make simple the complex web of interrelationships and interdependencies in a transparent (and thereby questionable) manner. In short, systems thinking about systemic change involves a continual conversation between ‘systems’ and ‘situations’; a tension expressed through the act of making simple the complex – a tension that invites more an artistic rather than scientific literacy. This is not to deny the importance of a scientific literacy promoting more detailed understanding in terms of, say, evolutionary science, chaos theory and complexity sciences, but the craft of systems thinking is primarily geared towards making manageable the complex. The task involves using a language that is accessible to all stakeholders.

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Comment: The the above view on systemic change uses human organization as the system of interest. Is is possible that systemic change might apply to some other types of system? Well, given that it’s human beings that frame the systems of interest, if the system isn’t anthropocentric, we could argue that systems don’t exist in reality. It’s just trying to make sense of ourselves, and nature. (Having nature make sense of nature seems strange, philosophically).

Comment: Secondly, the article turns to systematic change.

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Trap 2: Fixing People: Towards Purposeful Systematic Change

The trap of ‘fixing people’ into pre-designed purposes – ‘purposive management’ – is based upon the misguided behaviourist idea that different purposes from different perspectives can be moulded into a consensual purpose. The story of failure in organizational change projects, […], in contrast, suggests alternative strategies based upon working with people/ stakeholders rather than working on them. The trap here is related to the trap of dogmatism. Systemic failure in many situations can often be associated with the dogmatic disregard of other perspectives that inform the situation.

The literacy called for requires not just simplifying realities for individual comprehension but making sense of realities for mutual understanding amongst stakeholders involved in a situation in order to foster shared practice. This second aspect of a systems literacy speaks to the human dimension of intervention. As such it speaks of systematic change; change directed by human agents. The term ‘systematic’ relates to an inevitable requirement of orderliness. Our means of communication through language and discourse requires levels of systematisation to a greater or lesser extent so as to generate some sense of mutual understanding. [….]

Social learning, like Theory Y, invokes a proactive engagement amongst stakeholders in systematically managing change. The idea moves away from implementation modelled on hierarchical notions of working on people – restructuring, reconfiguring, re-engineering – and then dealing with inevitable subsequent resistance amongst stakeholders, towards a more collective notion of working with people – stakeholding development. [….]

Conventional systematic change is purposive. This involves a linear application of tools to serve a prescribed purpose. In contrast, purposeful systematic change involves use of language, amongst other tools, for iterating on better revised goals based on improved understanding and better practice.

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Comment: Systematic change is related to working hierarchically on people/stakeholders rather than socially working with people/stakeholders who might (or might not) otherwise learn by themselves. Orderliness suggests more of a mechanistic view of organizations of human beings, when self-organization is not left to chance.

Comment: The distinction between purposive and purposeful dates back to Russell Ackoff, all the way to his dissertation research. Here’s a brief summary. A group can be purposive, sharing a goal over a planning period (e.g. until a project is done). If the group is purposive, they share an ideal beyond a planing period (e.g. an aesthetic, moral or ethical pursuit).

Comment: In the third of three parts, systems change is seen as a moving to a “new” system, as an alternative to maintaining the old system. This leads to questions about holism (i.e. what is the whole?) as well as pluralism (i.e. who, or how many, get to decide what is real and what isn’t), that leads to boundary critique (i.e. what and who are inside/outside a system).

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Trap 3: Maintaining Systems or ‘Systems’ Obsession: Toward Meaningful Systems Change

[….] Continually adopting ‘new’ systems runs the risk of elevating the notion of ‘system’ to a fetish status; celebrating the very notion of system as being the panacea for crises. Systems are often referred to in association with new developments – miraculous ways of doing things.

The trap of systems maintenance, or being obsessive with the tools we construct, lies in reifying and privileging the ‘system’ – whether it’s old or new – as though it has some existence and worth outside of the user and some status beyond its context of use in enabling change. […]

There are many … ‘systems’ that … entrap our understanding and practice. A generic term for these is ‘business as usual’ (BAU). Examples include the annual cycles of organisational planning, target setting, budgeting, the development of performance indicators and performance related pay incentives etc. BAU models maintain existing ‘systems’ principally because of a fear for change. But the fear is not evenly distributed amongst all stakeholders. Some fear change more than others simply because the system works in a partial manner. The system works for some and not for others.

All systems are partial. They are necessarily partial – or selective – in the dual sense of (i) representing only a section rather than the whole of the total universe of considerations, and (ii) serving some parties – or interests – better than others (Ulrich 2002 p. 41). In other words, no proposal, no decision, no action, no methodology, no approach, no system can get a
total grip on the situation (as a framework for understanding) nor get it right for everyone (as a framework for practice) (Reynolds, 2008a).

[….] the two dimensions of partiality respond to the two transitions implicit in systems thinking about systems change; one, towards holism, and another towards pluralism. Given the partiality of systems a third critical dimension is required where systems boundaries inevitably need to be made and questioned on the inevitable limitations of being holistic and pluralistic.

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Comment: Referring to Table 4, the primary intent of systems change can include emancipation, surfacing voices that aren’t heard in the way the current system operates. The risk or trap with systems change could then be potentially “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”, by introducing a “new” system that replaces an “old” systems that may have been dysfunctional (to a greater or lesser degree), but not broken.

Comment: Now having covered most of the article backwards, readers who are unfamiliar with the Critical Systems Thinking literature may want to start from the beginning of the paper for an orientation and summary.

Figure 2. Critical systems framework illustrating systems thinking in practice activities.

The Open University group for Applied Systems Thinking in Practice is one of the most venerable in the systems movement. The resources available online are foundational in their teaching.


Reynolds, Martin. 2011. “Critical Thinking and Systems Thinking: Towards a Critical Literacy for Systems Thinking in Practice.” In Critical Thinking, edited by Christopher P. Horvath and James M. Forte, 37–68. New York, USA: Nova Science Publishers. Released on Open Research Online at

#systematic-change, #systemic-change, #systems-change, #systems-thinking