Systems Thinking: An introduction for Oxfam programme staff

Kimberly Bowman et al.


Systems thinking can be an important part of developing truly sustainable and transformative change. This introduction explains how a systems approach can be integrated within programmes and ways of working, and provides tools, case study examples and links to resources for further learning. It highlights the need for change at both a programme and organisational level to ensure that systems thinking underpins all an organisation’s work.

Systems thinking can make a significant contribution to problem identification and context assessment when designing programmes, but there are no quick fixes or unique technical solutions. Behaviours and actions required to operate effectively in complex systems include:

  • shifting away from fixed, long-term planning to more iterative and adaptive planning based on learning and experimention
  • focusing on multi-stakeholder approaches and co-creation with local stakeholders
  • searching for context-specific solutions rather than generic ones based on good practice elsewhere
  • recognising that our paradigms and preconceived ideas often limit our ability to understand local contexts
  • increasing work across organisational boundaries, reducing differences in power, and bringing in different ideas and perspectives in order for deeper, less biased understanding of the systems we engage in.


For programme staff:

  • Find ways to challenge your pre-existing ideas, deepen your understanding of the system and see the perspective of others.
  • Put in place resources, time and mechanisms to obtain feedback, reflect, discuss and learn, and use this learning regularly to challenge your programme logic chains and, if necessary, to change course.
  • Look for routes to system change from the outset. Use a deep understanding of the system to identify leverage points that will enable you to stimulate change on a large scale. Recognise that you don’t need to start with large-scale change. Programmes that start small, that allow learning and that bring together stakeholders from across the system can leverage change at scale.
  •  If stakeholders in the system move things in a direction different to your plans, don’t resist this: build on this locally-owned change.

For managers:

  • Consider stakeholder management and adaptive skills as much as technical ability when recruiting staff
  • Create space for innovation and adaptability, and encourage a culture that recognises an element of failure is inevitable
  • Influence donors to understand and support a systems approach.

For advisers:

  • Move beyond ‘good practice’ examples, and identify learning from initiatives that have not succeeded
  • Work with MEAL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning) staff to develop approaches that facilitate adaptive programming
  • Support programme staff by breaking down jargon and introducing them to relevant tools and learning opportunities.


Bowman, K.; Chettleborough, J.; Jeans, H.; Rowlands, J & Whitehead, J. (2015). Systems thinking: an introduction for Oxfam programme staff. Oxford, UK: Oxfam GB.