Five Books for Developing Systems Thinking

See horizontal connections across operations, and learn how human factors contribute to success or failure.

4 min readNov 28, 2021

Systems Thinking is critical for effective strategy, communications, and creative planning. But what makes a good systems thinker?

Most talented systems thinkers I know are generalists — and I have long remarked that folks who spend meaningful time in personal hobbies seem to bring perspective and valuable divergent thinking to systems and strategic challenges. In this respect, simply exploring your interests and being curious can be powerful patterns to assist in the development of systems thinking… but all of us could use the perspectives of others to sharpen our skills, and that often comes from books. Here are four I recommend — plus a couple bonus notes for folks working in B2C, B2B, and Residential Schooling.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement
by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

The Goal reads a lot like a novel, which makes it a great starter book, but don’t let the format fool you: it’s a powerful primer on systems thinking. The book is focused on the theory of constraints/limits and provides a narrative context for framing both the systems challenges and the impact of those challenges on employees and culture. An easy read, but a compelling one.

The Design of Everyday Things
Donald Norman

“DOET,” as this book is often called, is a masterclass on core concepts of the interactions between systems and humans — the central realm of design. Donald Norman covers the big topics, including Design Thinking, Human Centered Design, Functional/Design/System models, etc… but he does so in a highly accessible manner, beginning first with a discussion of doors! This is a seminal work, and one to which I turn again and again. DOET is valuable regardless of your industry or formal specialty.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas Kuhn

Know the term “paradigm shift”? Thomas Kuhn coined it. This book is philosophical and (as its name suggests) deeply rooted in science, yet the thoughts Kuhn offers are accessible, elegant, and applicable to the everyday world. Perhaps not the easiest read, but an incredibly rewarding one.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Donella Meadows

For true systems geeks — or for novices who are willing to put in the work — Donella Meadow’s Thinking in Systems is a masterclass in systems design. The book provides an intellectual framework through which virtually every systems or “change” problem can be viewed. Reading it is like learning algebra for the first time — a little tricky, but practical practical practical. Meadow’s gives systems thinkers a shared vocabulary and framework from which to work, and her vivid metaphors and real-world examples put key concepts in sharp relief.

A Fifth Book for B2C

For those who work in consumer-facing businesses, I’d recommend some reading around consumer behavior: Why We Buy by Paco Underhill comes to mind. It’s a wonderful introduction into the basics of retail anthropology.

A Fifth Book for B2B

For Business to Business Businesses (ha!) you’ll want to look into works focused on how cultural inertia can influence the accomplishment of mission; there are precious few books that cover these topics well, but Leadership on the Line, by Ron Heifitz and Martin Linsky is as good as any I’ve found.

A Fifth Book for Boarding Schools and Colleges

Boarding schools and colleges represent the strangest of businesses because they are “total institutions” — meaning that, like ancient city states, they are essentially closed systems that must provide for their current customers in totality, day in and day out. While many would recommend that schools explore works that are specific to education, I often recommend the opposite: academic culture is surprisingly insular when it comes to be institutional or operational planning. Thinking of parents, students, and alumni as customers may be the best way to introduce new ideas into schools — a critical need these days, as schools face vast changes in their models and marketplace. If your school isn’t quite ready to take the plunge, consider the very (very!) brief work One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer; it’s focused around how to change when there is a fear of doing so.