Supermini course: creating and using systems circles

April 8, 2019

Systems mapping is a commonly used tool for understanding systems—and may sometimes be feared, too! This is because it involves a number of concepts which are quite technical and require practice to understand and use well. And the maps, themselves, are often sprawling and super detailed. While very useful, systems maps aren’t for every context.
You may want to start with a much simpler construction—a systems circle—which is more easily understood by a diversity of stakeholders.


  1. What is a systems circle? Sometimes called a connection circle, this is a thinking tool to help you think through the complex dynamics in your system of interest. You can draw a simplified representation of your system, the important components that are interacting with each other, and what is influencing other things.
  2. Keep in mind the limitations. Your systems circle is a mental model intended to help you understand the system in which you are trying to create change. Once drawn, it can tend to take on the feeling of a concrete thing. But remember, it is only a representation at one moment in time from one perspective. And, by necessity, it is highly simplified because it’s impossible to represent all the elements and interactions in a complex system. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming simplistic in your attempt to understand complexity. If you map your system at a different moment in time, your systems circle will look different; if your system is drawn by someone else, it will look different. Naturally, working together with others who have different perspectives, will enrich and improve your systems circle.
  3. Then—why and how is a systems circle useful? Representations, or models, are useful in a number of ways. They can help us temporarily narrow our focus to a more manageable number of variables. For many, having something in a visual format greatly aids understanding. Systems circles can surface important relationships that we weren’t aware of before; and they provide a record of our thinking which we can go back to later; for example, experimenting by changing one or two key elements and re-drawing the circle to seek new questions and insights. Perhaps, most importantly of all, systems circles surface things that have previously been internal—and often largely invisible—creating a common language and framework, around which partners can discuss and learn together.
  4. OK, then how do I go about drawing a systems circle? Start by watching this short video (just over four minutes) which provides a great summary and gives a concrete example.
  • STEP ONE. If you can, get together with a few key stakeholders working on your wicked problem, so that you’ll have multiple perspectives represented.
  • STEP TWO. Do (or review) a bit of research on your problem area to identify key issues in your problem area. Even if you’ve been working on it for a while, don’t assume that you or the other participants know what all the key issues are. Instead, be curious and try to come with an open, beginner’s mind.
  • STEP THREE. Identify what is changing. In your problem area: what is increasing, decreasing, or tenaciously continuing to cause problems? This step helps you agree on the focus of your systems circle. (For example, in the video, “what is changing” is the price of prescription drugs).
  • STEP FOUR. Identify how it’s changing. Write a problem statement that describes how things are changing in your system. Make sure your problem statement describes: 1) the variable you’re investigating, 2) the change, and 3) the time period. (For example, in the video, drug prices increased 113% from 2006—2013.)
  • STEP FIVE. Now ask: why is it changing? Based on your research and review, identify components of the problem. What is contributing to the issue? List between 8—12 key components. Because we all work in integrated social-ecological systems, our complex problem will necessarily include some social and some ecological key variables. Make sure you have both.
  • STEP SIX. Go back and check—did you really include enough social and ecological variables? This is hard for many of us who are used to thinking about these areas separately. If your focus is predominately on the social side, go back and add in some more ecological variables—and visa versa, if your focus is predominately ecological.
  • STEP SEVEN. Draw your systems circle. Make it nice and big to give you lots of room to work! Then write your 8—12 variables around the outside.
  • STEP EIGHT. Start connecting! What is influencing what? Draw this with arrows, showing the direction of the influence, i.e. drawing arrows from causes to effects. Take your time and have lots of discussion along the way.
  • STEP NINE. Identify feedback loops, if you can. See this short TED Ed video for an overview of the concepts involved. Feedback loops are key within any system, because they amplify the effects of some components that are interacting together. Strong feedback loops can keep systems very stuck in negative patterns. So, if you’re setting out to change your system, you need to understand the key feedback loops. Those will be critical points to consider for any intervention.
  1. How do I know if my systems circle is accurate? Well . . . as with so much when dealing with complexity, this is not a problem to which there is one correct answer! While some systems circles can be more accurate than others (e.g. a systems circle using intuition vs. one based on research), by definition, no systems circle is completely accurate! As noted above, these are very simplified models of specific moments in time. The intention is not to create a best or final story of a situation, but rather to gain insight and create a story around which stakeholders can have transformative discussions. As Cameron Guthrie concludes in his video, “Sharing our mental models helps bring our personal metal models, with all their flaws and biases, out into the daylight; and it helps us build a richer collective understanding of a complex situation.”  Thus, it’s better to ask how useful your systems circle is. Does it clarify the situation? Does it raise new questions and understandings? Does it help people grapple with the issue at hand? Then it’s useful.
  2. What do I do next? Discuss your insights with others who are working on the problem. Facilitate more in-depth discussions with stakeholders to go deeper. Test your new insights by doing small experiments. Follow new insights by conducting more research. Revisit your systems circle and adjust it. Create new systems circles focusing at different levels in the system or using different variables. Continue to explore and, in short, do all the things a good changemaker does to learn and engage others.

Further reading and resources:

  • Causal Loop Diagrams, Systems Thinking in Public Health, Johns Hopkins University (Coursera) to go more in-depth into systems mapping.
  • Causal flow diagram rules, by Dan McCarthy.
  • Thinking Complexity, iVersity The video we viewed for the exercise, above, is part of this course. If you want to go deeper, the entire course is useful. You can do the course for free after setting up a free iVersity account.
  • The Nature of Explanation, by Shane Parrish, Farnam Street, 2019.
  • The Thinker’s Toolkit classic book by Morgan D. Jones (1995) on how to think well.
  • The Thinker’s Toolkit summary on the McDonough School of Business (Georgetown University), which summarises some of the main concepts presented in the first three chapters of the book. In particular, the bolded sentences identifying some of our common thinking pitfalls are very useful to review.
  • Mental Models: Learn How to Think Better and Gain a Mental Edge by James Clear. At a beginner level, this article is useful because it lists many common mental models in different disciplines, and links to further information on each.