What is System Thinking?


Scrum, Kanban, and all the other Agile frameworks are based on the empirical process. Successful empirical processes define a hypothesis, run experiments, and validate the hypothesis based on real data. In Agile, we then use these real data and observations to adjust or Inspect and Adapt our processes to optimize the system. Many Agile teams have refined the retrospective to quickly adjust the team’s process to optimize the work completed. However, many teams fail to think of the larger picture. They fail to realistically account for the impact the change will have on other teams, processes with Agile at Scale.

System Thinking is about thinking in the larger context, thinking “whole”. By implementing System Thinking, an advanced Agile team can begin to predict the positive or negative impact that local changes will have on the large-scale organization. System Thinking is understanding the simple rules of how thinking works and applying those rules to solve complex problems.

A few things that most teams fail to observe about System Thinking:

  • Most Agile projects are complex projects. Meaning, they fail to recognize that one small part of the project cannot be separated from the project or the system as a whole.
  • Improving the performance of one project or sub-project will not necessarily improve the performance of the whole system. In fact, it is likely to worsen the overall performance.
  • High performing Agile teams are adept at creating transparency within the team, but using a Systems Thinking approach can more effectively create transparency in terms of how the Agile team interacts with the system. In this way, it becomes easier to highlight where these interactions are ineffective or damaging, and how these poor interactions manifest themselves as anti-patterns.

Agile teams should seek to classify problems and solutions along the following lines:

  •  An analysis of the system conditions and depiction of those which affect the Agile team and its work.
  • Does the problem emanate from the team or from the wider system?
  • What internal experiments can the team conduct where the ongoing effects may be felt outside the team and within the wider system?
  • Can/Do we address the systemic cause, rather than the symptom felt by the team?
  • Which problems that we are now surfacing started as solutions?
  • Will this solution be felt elsewhere within the team?
  • What /where are the feedback loops between the Agile team and the wider system and can they be improved?

At Web Age, we have added System Thinking to many of our Advanced Course including:

Advanced Scrum Master

Advanced Product Owner



How does Design Thinking relate to Agile?

Design Thinking and Agile are two sides of the same coin. Design Thinking, when implemented correctly, can help an organization to identify which products add the most value to our customers. For example, in the world of banking, Design Thinking can be utilized to determine which new features should be added to an online banking platform to attract and retain customers. In the restaurant sector, we might use Design Thinking to determine which new services will help retain customer that have families.

If Design Thinking is a way to determine what to build or offer next, then Agile is the process that we then use to implement these ideas. Agile uses and iterative approach to building the product in services in such a way that we can provide the customer with something incrementally to generate feedback loops. We can then use these feedback loops to validate that we are building the correct product and to reduce our Return on Investment.

My teams are not UX designers, so why should they use Design Thinking?

There is a common misunderstanding that Design Thinking is about creating effective user interfaces. Why this can be part of what Design Thinking can be used for, it is only a small subset. Design Thinking is a process used by successful organization all over the work to help drive innovation and product development. Design Thinking focuses on working with customers to understand what motivated them, what problems they have, and how an organization can help solve these problems.

Design thinking focus on empathizing with customers, define root problems, determining real solutions to these problems and then experimenting to determine if our ideas add value and are beneficiation. Design Thinking highlights what problems and solutions are worth investing in, thus reducing risk and promoting cost efficiency.