Michael Cavanagh’s must-read guide to Systems Thinking
Published: 09 December 2014
The definitive list of the best books on Systems Thinking from one of the masters of the art.
1. Ackoff’s Best, Russell L. Ackoff: Wiley, 1999. ISBN: 9780471316343
Some iconoclastic essays dealing with the Systems approach. Ackoff can be a bit smug and irritating at times, but always challenging.
2. Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander: Harvard University Press, 1964. ISBN: 9780674627512
Although this deals with architecture, the concept of ‘pattern’ is very relevant to thinking about similarity and systems.
3. Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle: Oxford University Press, 1925. ISBN: 9781625582089
This introduces the five ‘intellectual virtues’: Science, which is how things work; Art, which puts things together; Intuition, which is about putting things together in the ‘best/ right’ way; Phronesis, putting the thing in to practice; and Sophia, the ability to combine all of the previous four. In my experience, Academia does the first two, lacks (in some cases derides) intuition, and distrusts phronesis as ‘impure’. The reverse is true for practitioners. The systems approach needs them all.
4. An Introduction to Cybernetics, William Ross Ashby: Chapman & Hall, 1956. ISBN: 9781258687335
A fundamental text, but difficult to read.
5. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Peter Checkland: John Wiley & Sons, 1981. ISBN: 9780471986065
Concentrating on the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) – not a bad approach to start with. Excellent chapter on the history of thinking.
6. Beyond Certainty, Charles Handy: Arrow, 1996: ISBN: 9780099549918
To uncertainty … and beyond! Charles Handy is very readable, yet the points he makes are serious indeed. A strong argument for the need for second-order thinking.
7. Management, Information and Power, Lucas D. Introna: Macmillan, 1997. ISBN: 9780333698709
Although this is one of the worst edited books I have ever read, once you get behind the bad grammar, convoluted and often unconcluded arguments, there are some stimulating ideas here.
8. Systems Thinking, Michael C. Jackson: John Wiley & Sons: 2003. ISBN: 9780470298091
An excellent introduction to the various tools and techniques in the Systems Thinking discipline.
9. The Unbounded Mind, Ian I. Mitroff and Harold A. Linstone: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN: 9780195102888
This is so good I recommend it on every course I run, whether or not directly relevant.
10. Realising System Thinking, John Mingers: Springer, 2006. ISBN: 9780387281889
Brings the various schools of thought together.
11. Reason in Human Affairs, Herbert Alexander Simon: Stanford University Press, 1983. ISBN: 9780804718486
How people really make decisions – the concept of ‘Bounded Rationality’.
12. Complexity and Management, Ralph D. Stacey: Routledge, 2000. ISBN: 9780203184684
Suggests that Systems Thinking isn’t the Philosopher’s Stone in Complexity Management – it’s more about human beings, their relationships and behaviours. Doing things differently means that we have to address those behaviours.
13. Similarities, Connections, and Systems, Niraj Verma: Lexington, 1998. ISBN: 9780739100004
Similarity is a very useful enquiry tool – this introduces the topic, but I think the similarity classification could go further.
14. The Art of Judgement, Geoffrey Vickers: Chapman & Hall, 1965. ISBN: 978-0803973633
Again, not the easiest read, but the concept of the ‘Appreciative System’ is hugely important.
15. Understanding Computers and Cognition, Terry Winograd and Fernando: Addison-Wesley, 1987. ISBN: 9780893910501
Ground-breaking and fascinating. The ‘Computers’ bit is way out of date, but the ‘Cognition’ is still spot on.