Systems Thinking Resources: Books, Articles & Videos to Get Started


A lot comes up when you search “systems thinking” on the internet. It’s a little overwhelming, TBH. If you’re curious about systems thinking and systems design and looking for a short list of articles, books, videos, and podcasts that explain the concept and its practical applications, start here.

Some of these were suggested by the IDEO U community, some by our course instructors, and a few appear in IDEO U’s Human-Centered Systems Thinking online course. When you’re ready to go deeper by putting these ideas into practice with a cohort of like minded professionals, our course is a great next step. You’ll also get links to additional resources curated by our learning designers to help you extend your learning in each module.


1. Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows (Book)

Donella Meadows is one of the first names you’ll hear in connection with systems thinking. A classic that has sold more than half a million copies worldwide, this book is a primer on what it means to think in systems and how to apply that knowledge to some of the world’s biggest challenges—war, hunger, poverty, environmental degradation.


2. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, by Donella Meadows (Article)

Another oft-referenced Donella Meadows piece, Leverage Points explains how to find the places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.


3. Dr. Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking, Part 1 (Plus parts 2 and 3) (Videos)

A pioneer in systems thinking and former professor at Wharton Business School, Dr. Russell Ackoff explains systems through the analogy of an automobile. 


4. What the %*$# Is Systems Design?, Modus (Article)

Deirdre Cerminaro, IDEO senior director and instructor in our course Human-Centered Systems Thinking, answers the most common question she gets about her professional area of focus. Read for an explainer on systems, why they need designing, and what she actually does for a living. 


5. How to Think in Systems for Greater Impact, IDEO U (Article + Podcast)

Deirdre shares how IDEO’s approach to systems thinking helps you go beyond thinking to doing—using creative methods to get you to solutions you can implement. She breaks down a mindset (zooming in and out) and a tool (systems mapping) central to a systems thinking practice and how you can try them out today.


6. What is Systems Design? How to Surface Opportunities for Change, IDEO U (Article + Podcast)

Melanie Bell-Mayeda, former IDEO partner and managing director, has worked in systems design for 20+ years. Learn how she thinks in layers to identify the elements of a system, then creates a system map to surface opportunities for design.


7. How to Apply Eames's Powers of Ten to Real Life Problems, Fast Company (Article + Video)

This video is worth nine minutes of your time. In fact, you may realize you’ve seen it before—or something inspired by it. The film Powers of Ten was made by Charles and Ray Eames in 1968 and is as relevant today as it was then. This article prompts you to think about the power of scale and the interconnectedness of our world.


8. Unlocking the power of design for the social sector, Stanford (Article)

A how-to for social sector leaders on using the practices of systems thinking, strategic planning and human-centered design in concert for greater outcomes. The advice is applicable to any company or industry tackling complex challenges.


9. Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown (Book)

A favorite of Melanie Bell-Mayeda and many others, Emergent Strategy is often cited as a book that helped people think differently about change and the opportunity we have to design the future. It’s less of a systems thinking primer and more inspiration for thinking about the big picture.


10. Systems Thinking vs. Design Thinking, What's the Difference?, IDEO U (Article)

Systems thinking and design thinking are two different approaches to problem solving. This article shares the key differences between them, as well as specific tools and frameworks to start applying them in your work.


Do you have a systems thinking resource you’d add to this list? Chime in on this thread on IDEO U’s LinkedIn page

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