What does ‘systemic’ actually mean?

“We need more systemic approaches!” This claim has gained some traction in the development world. Everybody is talking about how to make development approaches more ‘systemic’. A quick internet research reveals quite a number of results related to development organizations: USAID, USAID, CGAP, GIZGIZ, GIZ, and SDC.

This post is cross-posted on our new Systemic Insight website. Have a look!

The website of SDC’s employment and income network, for example, states that: “In order for SDC to increase the outreach and the sustainability of its interventions E+I promotes a powerful systemic framework for understanding market systems and guiding interventions for more inclusive markets.” (emphasis added). [For readers that are not familiar with the abbreviations, SDC is the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and E+I is employment and income].

But, one might ask, what does ‘systemic’ actually mean? Is it just a buzzword or what is hidden behind it? First, we have to differentiate between ‘systematic’ and ‘systemic’, as these two are still often confused. If you do something in a systematic way, you follow a clear methodology in a regular and comprehensive way. Doing something in a systemic way, on the other hand, means that you take the wider system and its behavior into account. While a systematic intervention follows a clear plan in a meticulous and ordered way, a systemic intervention tries to have an impact on the ‘whole system’. This brings us to the discipline of systems thinking or systems theory, which is studying how systems work and how they can be influenced. The following explanation of the concepts around the idea of ‘systemic’ is largely drawn from  Bob Williams’ and Richard Hummelbrunner’s book ‘Systems Concepts in Action: A Pracitioner Toolkit’ as I think it gives a very good overview of the topic.

There are various schools of thoughts and applications in systems theory, but there are three ideas that all of them have in common:

  • An understanding of interrelationships
  • A commitment to multiple perspectives
  • An awareness of boundaries

Interrelationships are essentially about how things are connected and with what consequence. There are four important aspects about interrelationships that we need to consider:

  1. the dynamic aspects, the way the interrelationships affect behavior of a situation over a period of time
  2. the nonlinear aspects, where the scale of ‘effect’ is apparently unrelated to the scale of the ‘cause’; often but not always caused by feedback
  3. the sensitivity of interrelationships to context, where the same intervention in different areas has varying results, making it unreliable to translate a ‘best’ practice from one area to another
  4. the massively entangled interrelationships, distinguishing the behavior of ‘simple’, ‘complicated’, and ‘complex’ interrelationships.

Thinking systemically is, however, more than making sense of the way boxes and arrows fit together or how networks operate. Thus, the second concept is about perspectives. Thinking systemically includes how we look at the picture. When people observe the results of interrelationships, they will ‘see’, interpret, and make sense of those interrelationships in different ways. We need to consider two important aspects

  • Firstly, the concept of perspectives in thinking systemically pushes us further than just considering stakeholder interests. We need to understand that different stakeholder groups may not share the same perspective, and most importantly, any one stakeholder will hold several different perspectives, not all of which will be compatible with each other. Thinking systemically about perspectives will help us make sense of individual, diverse, and unintended behaviors.
  • Secondly, perspectives draw the focus away from the perceived ‘reality’ of how the system works and allow us to consider alternatives. We can essentially not only look at the world how it is, but also compare our conclusions with alternative perceptions of what people think the world looks like. Thus thinking systemically about perspectives gives us a window into motivations through which we can explain and predict unanticipated behaviors.

The third feature of the concept of thinking systemically is based on the realization that we cannot think about everything. Thus, setting boundaries around our thinking is not optional. We make situations manageable by setting boundaries. Thinking systemically has to include a process of making this boundary setting conscious. A boundary determines what is deemed relevant and irrelevant, what is important and what is unimportant, what is worthwhile and what is not, who gets what kind of resources for what purpose and whose interests are marginalized, who benefits and who is disadvantaged. Boundaries are sites where values get played out and disagreements are highlighted. Power issues are often wrapped up in boundaries. Boundaries also determine how we approach a situation, what we expect from it, and what methods we might use to manage it.

So, in essence, if we want to call something ‘systemic’, we have to think about whether it covers the three aspects of interrelationships, perspectives, and boundaries to a satisfactory degree, and in an explicitly way.

Bob Williams and Richard Hummelbrunner (2010). Systems concepts in action: a practitioner’s toolkit. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California. (Amazon, Google Books, Stanford University Press)


1 thought on “What does ‘systemic’ actually mean?

  1. christianschoen

    Thanks, Marcus. This is a very useful synopsis of the concept ‘systemic’ and its main features, Next time when applying the ‘Systems Game’ as training tool we should stronger refer to these three characteristics when discussing implications with the participants: interrelationships, perspectives and boundaries.


Leave a Reply