Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Tutorial: Systems Theory in Strategic Practice


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This tutorial will help you use systems theory and mapping methods to understand and make change in the world around you.


This video has been edited to protect the privacy of participants in the live tutorial.

Whether we work on new products and services, strategy, or wicked problems, we are intervening in complex systems. These systems can be surprising and frustrating—they often refuse to change in the ways we want them to, head off in unexpected directions, or just seem too collosal to influence or anticipate.

Systems theory and methods give us tools to think and act with. Learning key vocabulary, core principles, and some simple mapping techniques can help you understand and influence systemic change.

This tutorial introduces systems concepts and tools to enhance your strategic practice. Participants will apply theory and methods to map a system relevant to their work, then collaborate to clarify and deepen our understanding of the insights and interventions we can generate.

Bringing systems theory and methods into your practice will help you to:

  • Understand change and resilience in complex systems
  • Use core concepts to describe systems and systems dynamics
  • Use rapid system mapping techniques to document and describe relevant systems
  • Anticipate and adapt to unexpected or unintended consequences
  • Identify leverage points for strategic intervention


  1. Anderson, Andrea A. “The Community Builder’s Approach to Theory of Change: A Practical Guide to Theory Development.” The Aspen Institute – Roundtable on Community Change, 2009.
  2. Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: Dutton, 1979.
  3. Brand, Stewart. Clock Of The Long Now: Time And Responsibility: The Ideas Behind The World’s Slowest Computer. New edition. Basic Books, 2000.
  4. De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, 1997.
  5. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – New Zealand. “Futures Wheel.” Futures Wheel. Accessed October 8, 2022.
  6. Ebrahimi, Maryam. Applications of Soft Systems Methodology for Organizational Change. Business Science Reference, 2020.
  7. Goodman, Michael. “Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How?” The Systems Thinker, February 27, 2016.
  8. Government Office for Science UK. “Systems Thinking: An Introductory Toolkit for Civil Servants.” Government Office for Science UK, 2022.
  9. ———. “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices – Project Report – 2nd Edition.” Foresight. Government Office for Science (UK), 2007.
  10. Gunderson, L. H., and C. S. Holling. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. 1 edition. Island Press, 2001.
  11. Heath, Dan. Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen. Penguin Books, Limited, 2020.
  12. Kim, Daniel H. “Introduction to Systems Thinking.” The Systems Thinker, 1999.
  13. Kim, Daniel H. Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide. The Toolbox Reprint Series. Cambridge, Mass: Pegasus Communications, 1995.
  14. Macy, Joanna. World as Lover, World as Self: 30th Anniversary Edition. Parallax Press, 2021.
  15. Meadows, Donella. “Dancing with Systems.” The Systems Thinker, November 8, 2015.
  16. ———. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” The Academy for Systems Change (blog). Accessed October 8, 2022.
  17. Meadows, Donella H. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.
  18. Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017.
  19. ———. “Kate Raworth: A Healthy Economy Should Be Designed to Thrive, Not Grow | TED Talk.” Accessed October 8, 2022.
  20. Resilience Alliance. “Adaptive Cycle.” Resilience Alliance. Accessed October 8, 2022.
  21. Systems Thinking: A Cautionary Tale (Cats in Borneo), 2014.
  22. The Open University. “Diagrams in Systems Thinking.” Open Learn – The Open University. Diagrams in systems thinking, June 21, 2021.
  23. ———. “Rich Pictures.” Open Learn – The Open University. Rich pictures, June 21, 2021.
  24. Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. New Ed., 1990.


Scott Matter is an Associate Director with Shaping Futures, NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet’s strategic intelligence and foresight unit. He has been working to understand and influence change in complex systems for over 20 years. He holds a PhD in sociocultural anthropology from McGill University, and has worked in four countries across three continents. As an academic, he has research and teaching experience in international and community development, political ecology and sustainability, transnational social movements, and social change. For the past eight years, he has worked in the private and public sectors in Australia, practicing and leading strategic foresight, strategic design, and service design projects. He is committed to a critical, engaged anthropological practice to foster social, economic, and political transition toward a more resilient and regenerative relationship among humans and the rest of the planet.


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