Systems thinking

How to recognize a professional business analyst from a newbie? A professional knows systems thinking. Can distinguish parts cooperating together, see the relationships and is able to foresee consequences to the whole system, when parts are being changed. Develop this thinking and it will help you in business analysis as well as life in general.

What is systems thinking?

It’s an ability to identify parts working together as a system. A system is a general concept, related not only to IT systems, but also to people, processes, organizations, and virtually everything where we can distinguish parts cooperating together. 

Examples? IT system consisting of components working together. Family consisting of family members living together. Market environment consisting of companies competing with each other.

To understand how a system works, it’s not enough to just analyze the parts separately. You also need to find dependencies. Understand properties, behaviors emerging from cooperation, to be able to assess the impact of changes on a system.

Why a business analyst needs systems thinking?

True understanding of what are you working with, regardless of whether it is an IT system, a company or anything else, lies in the ability to understand the impact of internal and external forces acting on the whole system.

Once you receive a change request to your IT system, the question is – how many changes do we really need to do? How many places in the system will be affected? How many changes will we need to implement and where? This knowledge is needed to estimate the total workload.

Foreseeing possible side effects makes changing a system more predictable and professional. You can prepare better tests for checking the final quality after the whole change. 

Examples of systems thinking

Systems are everywhere. Just let’s take a look at some examples.


A father, mother, son, daughter. All of them play their own roles in the family system. When something changes, e.g. the father becomes seriously ill, it impacts the whole family. Some functions are overtaken by the mother or by the son. The mother misses emotional & daily life support from another grown up and gets angry at kids more often. The son tries to take responsibility for the whole family, protect them from external threats, losing something from his carefree childhood. Just to name some examples of what can happen to such a system.

Organization, processes, responsibilities in a company

Let’s imagine that our company was inspired by the concept of self-organizing teams. There was a decision to resign from central roles and give the responsibility directly to teams, e.g. for a project coordination. Removal of a project coordinator will make a difference to the rest of the system (the company). Duties performed so far by the person who is leaving, still needs to be covered. Teams which do not pay attention to this change will soon experience negative consequences of projects not being coordinated properly. It will appear that someone needs to take care of it. Probably the team itself. And so the change in one role had an effect on the team – the other element of the same system and effectively the whole company.

IT system

The most obvious example is an IT system. Take an accounting system. If we decide to make a tax number a mandatory field, it will impact several components – contractors, invoices, registers – just to name a few of them. Doing impact analysis we are able to estimate the total effort for the changes, identify places to be changed and tested.

How to develop your systems thinking?

To develop systems thinking, try to think this way asking yourself the questions below.

Ask yourself – what are the parts?

As often as you can, try to recognize parts cooperating together. What are the parts of the whole system you are thinking of?

How do the parts work together?

Once you know which parts the system consists of, try to understand how the parts work together. You need to see the dependencies. Visualization can be a help. In case of IT systems, you can use a UML component diagram. To understand organizational dependencies, diagrams or organizational structure and processes can be helpful.

What will be the impact?

Imagine a change that comes to at least one part of the system. How the change in one part will affect other parts? How the whole system will react?

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