Today I Read … "Systems Thinking in Business Analysis: Why It Counts"

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Systems Thinking in Business Analysis

This is the another post in my “Today I read …” series where I aim to summarise. or recapitulate, excellent, and educational, articles that I have read

Previous: How to Use Enterprise Architecture to Deliver the Right Solution

Today I read an article on the Business Analysts Learnings site: “Systems Thinking in Business Analysis: Why It Counts“, authored by Stephanie Famuyide.

The title of the post piqued my interest. I didn’t quite understand what this “system thinking” was about, but in the interests of continual learning, I read it with enthusiasm.

What is Systems Thinking?

In her opening paragraph, Stephanie points out that

Very rarely do most people sit down to assess how they think.”

She points out that, as Business Analysts, we’ll often encounter situations where the normal rules of logic are not helping.

This is, apparently, where systems thinking can shine.

So what is systems thinking?

Systems thinking can be described as “trying to understand reality by examining the relationship amongst the parts of the whole and the relationship of the parts to the whole instead of examining only the parts

Yes…that’s it. System thinking means rather than thinking about the individual parts, think about how they relate to each other, and how they relate to the whole.

Wikipedia makes a valuable contribution:

Systems thinking has been applied to problem solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences

Stephanie gives examples of how system thinking can be useful in the world of the business analyst.


As mentioned – I started off with a lot of interest. When I read what systems thinking actually was, i was a bit underwhelmed. I did some further research on the subject, but was not able to get more excited.

Still, it’s a good reminder to not get entrenched in one particular way of thinking about things. In one of the other articles I read (Overview of Systems Thinking, Dan Aronson), states that the word “analysis” comes from the root meaning “to break into constituent parts”. System thinking is the opposite of this.

The original article can be read on the Business Analyst Learnings site here:

Note: Stephanie Famuyide has written several other articles that all look like they offer value to business analysis.

If you like this post, feel free to share. If you have comments that you’d like to make, please go ahead and use the comment box below.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading

  • Systems thinking (2014, March 31). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  • Systems Thinking (Links  to Systems Thinking related information)
  • Overview of Systems Thinking, Dan Aronson

Comments from LinkedIn

I posted this on a few of the LinkedIn BA groups and this created some interesting comments. I have listed these below:

BA Forum

Meg Little – Business Analyst/Project Manager at Sabre Holdings

Thanks for sharing. I had not visualized ‘System Thinking’ as the term. Just that in many companies (mine included); it is more common to analyze the PART as the project or requirement instead of the SYSTEM it is integrated into.

Manny Luna – Sr Business Analyst – Consultant

I am glad to see that finally some one has actually come to the conclusion of my many suggestions in several posting, which is: A BA that only focus in the “Functional Side” of requirements is leaving a lot of room for failure, as a project needs to be seen beyond the functional aspect, it must include other groups that directly or indirectly are touched by the needs of the client, thus the knowledge and experience in those other parts is critical to the success of the project. Having Technical as well as Functional experience allows any BA with the ability to discover things that most of the time are not discovered by simple logic, but will make sense when we see how those other parts being impacted will provide a more complete solution to the client’s needs. 

BA need to further their knowledge and experience to include the other parts, or at least surround themselves with those that can provide the necessary guidance to see what a single pair of eyes can see.

Jo Keown – Business Analyst at National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR)

When I read your article Mark, I was a little underwhelmed. Not by the article, but that it wasn’t really a revelation. You see, I’ve been under the misapprehension that this was called ‘holistic thinking’, which I’ve been doing all along. Although, I must hasten to add, you are correct in saying that it isn’t always embraced by others as some think my approach is a little over the top. However, I believe, emphatically, that you can’t address a subsystem without looking at the whole picture and viewing it in it’s context, particularly if there are dependant inputs & outputs. A further point worth noting, my holistic/systems approach has never lead to a failed project, conversely, I believe it has been a large component of the success of these.

If, however, there are time/budget/political constraints that prevent me from taking a holistic/systems view, then I always call out additional risks and ensure that these are noted and understood by management and SME’s.

Larry Felton – Senior Business Analyst, Technology Partners

Systems thinking deals with archetypes — specific forms of interactions that will lead to specific results. The 5th discipline by senge is an excellent source. It also provides excellent methods for gathering requirements.
Chuck H.- Experienced Business Analyst

I enjoyed your article. Sadly in my work place, I’ve been accused of thinking outside the box too much and am penalized for it. I receive comments such as “why are you working on that; your part is a minor subset of *that* and that’s where you need to be concentrating. I hate being the “I told you so” voice, but when problems go wrong down the road it usually happened in the area I was looking at in the first place and then was told not to.

IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysis)

Duane Banks – Holistic Analysis and Solutioning 

Though business analysis is a practice that will benefit from virtually *any* new learning, I’ve come to the conclusion that systems thinking is not uniquely applicable to business analysis.

In fact, I equate the two, with an essential difference. Whereas systems thinking is the practice of “understanding” Complexity (actually, *engaging* Complexity), business analysis seeks to understand Complicated matters.

But note that I observe a particular definitions of Complex and Complicated, nicely described at the following…

Putcha Narasimham – Consultant and Coach, BA, RE & Solution Design

What Duane says may be right but I have seen a direct benefit of applying Systems Thinking in the following manner. I hope it qualifies as ST.
This is interesting but I find that two principles of General Systems Theory are NOT spelt out. I am unable to find the source of what I read but I find the following are very useful for discovering hidden factors and gaining insights.

1 A system is made up of interrelated and interacting sub-systems (parts),
2 A system is a sub-system of a larger system.

By themselves they are NOT very useful. Their implications ALSO must be elaborated, appreciated and applied.

I do not recall reading the following anywhere but I do not claim originality for the same.

Implication and application of 1:
It is sufficient to identify and separate (not necessarily physically) the largest sub-systems of a system. After that a study and understanding of how the specific subsystem interfaces with other subsystems is sufficient. The sub-subsystems of each subsystem need not be probed.

This allows minimal “digging into details” for SUBSTANTIAL understanding and tacking of the system.
Implication and application of 2:
This is the principle that reveals the external factors of the system that are essential for the operation of the system under discussion.
Through this we discover how gravity and friction are necessary for a car to gain traction and why the car does not run underwater or on moon.
This also explains why ecommerce did NOT work or inspire a general buyer to buy on the net, till laws and assurances came forth to define the modes of operation on the Internet and their correspondence with general laws of commerce.

While I ask questions and explain only after the students do their bit of exploration, there are great rewards of student’s independent thinking in many fields.

One such is application of GST 2 to the ISO 9000:2005 definition of System. The student pointed out that it DOES NOT acknowledge that the system under consideration “is a part of a larger system”.

My students are NOT outstanding but they have the independent ability to examine and EVEN CORRECT ISO Definitions which are elaborately formulated, tested and validated by world class experts.


Want to learn more?

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    1. putchavn
    2. pat lehane
    3. BA Learnings (@StephFam)

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