Systems Thinking


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  • online
  • on demand

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Who should attend

  • Technical and engineering leaders
  • Project managers
  • Consultants
  • Analysts
  • Business decision-makers
  • Team leaders across any industry

About the course

To succeed and thrive in today’s increasingly interconnected world, the ability to frame, manage, and solve complex problems has never been more essential. This program provides concrete systems thinking tools you can apply to analyze complex situations and foster a culture of organizational learning. You’ll be able to integrate systems thinking concepts, principles, and practices to improve existing processes, operations, and thinking patterns, ultimately developing a more three-dimensional mindset in both work and life.


Framing Complex Problems with Systems Thinking

Whether you need to tackle a complex project, communicate more effectively, rethink your organization or your job, solve world hunger, or figure out your teenager, systems thinking can help you. All of these are complex and challenging real-world problems, sometimes called wicked problems. We all confront problems, big and small, in our personal and professional lives, and most of us are searching for better ways to solve them. In this course, Professors Derek and Laura Cabrera will demonstrate how we can use systems thinking to solve everyday and wicked problems, to transform our organizations, and to increase our personal effectiveness.

At its core, systems thinking attempts to better align the way we think with how the real world works. Our thinking is based on our mental models, but these models, created from our unique perspective with its inherent biases, are usually inadequate representations of reality. The Cabreras illustrate how we can use feedback to recognize and adapt our mental models so that they better align with reality, enhancing our problem-solving capabilities.

For systems thinking to be successful, it must be adaptive. In this course, you will explore the concept of complex adaptive systems, and while these systems seem unnecessarily complicated, the Cabreras will reveal a surprising discovery. Underlying all complex adaptive systems are simple rules, and applying these rules is the key to transforming the way we frame and solve everyday problems.

Using the Four Simple Rules of Systems Thinking

While you may not realize it, you are already making use of some of the patterns of systems thinking. For example, you may take a certain perspective on a problem—however, you might not be aware of your perspective and more importantly, may not recognize that you are likely omitting other perspectives. It is these types of omissions that contribute to both the creation of our most challenging problems and our inability to solve them. This course will walk you through the four simple rules of systems thinking, which provide a new paradigm for solving problems. These rules represent distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives, or DSRP.

Throughout this course, you will start to unlearn some of the deeply ingrained thought patterns that result in unproductive interactions, unintentional bias, and faulty binary or linear thinking. Systems thinking means intentionally reflecting on how you think, including both the information and the structure of your thoughts and ideas so that you can break old habits and think more systematically. With a variety of examples, tools, and techniques, you will practice making distinctions between ideas or things, organize ideas into systems, recognize hidden or underlying relationships, and identify the perspectives implicit in the information you analyze. As a result, you will be equipped to identify more innovative solutions, build consensus across diverse groups of people, and approach problems with more creativity, adaptability, and clarity.

The course Framing Complex Problems with Systems Thinking is required to be completed prior to starting this course.

Visualizing and Modeling Complex Problems

How do you make sense of all the information you are bombarded with on a daily basis? We can barely absorb the overwhelming amount of information, let alone determine its meaning. As Derek and Laura Cabrera illustrate in this course, we humans process information best with our eyes and our hands, and we can take advantage of this fact by using visual maps. Visual maps can help you corral this information, organize and structure it, and most importantly, convert it into knowledge that you can act upon.

In this course, you will use the online mapping software, Plectica, so that you can break down your complex problems using the simple rules of systems thinking, DSRP. Building maps with this easy-to-use software will help you gain insights into processes, relationships, or challenges of any kind, and enable you to quickly and easily share these insights with others. As you become more adept at creating visual maps, your systems thinking skills will increase as you deepen your understanding of complex ideas, communicate these ideas more effectively, and enhance collaboration across groups to spur innovation.

The courses Framing Complex Problems with Systems Thinking and Using the Four Simple Rules of Systems are Thinking are required to be completed prior to starting this course.

Building Analytical and Emotional Intelligence with Systems Thinking

Recent surveys show that employers are looking for individuals who have both analytical and emotional intelligence. Organizational leaders across a wide spectrum of industries and professions want people with strong problem-solving skills who can handle their emotions and work effectively with others. How can you learn to better balance your emotions with critical thinking, to balance your own needs with the needs of another? This course will provide you with the tools and guidance for using the simple rules of systems thinking (DSRP) to build both your analytical and emotional intelligence.

By asking more robust questions and challenging yourself to go beyond traditional forms of thought and logic, you can more quickly identify and bridge the gaps in your thinking and build new knowledge about any problem or situation. You will transcend either-or thinking to consider a wider range of possibilities that more closely reflect the real world. These same approaches for building your analytical capabilities also enable you to harness your emotions by helping you gain awareness of your own thinking. This awareness will build your emotional intelligence, which in turn will increase your ability to collaborate, think creatively, and solve tough problems. You will come away from this course with practical approaches you can apply in every area of your life to enhance your work, your decisions, and your relationships.

These courses are required to be completed prior to starting this course:

  • Framing Complex Problems with Systems Thinking
  • Using the Four Simple Rules of Systems Thinking
  • Visualizing and Modeling Complex Systems

Designing Organizations for Systems Thinking

Why do we start organizations in the first place? We have a vision for the future, and we need to work with others to bring that vision to life. The whole purpose of any organization is collective action. When organizations fail, it is often the result of the failure to harness the collective power of individuals to drive toward that singular vision. However, much like you would design an iPhone, you can also design organizations that are adaptive and can focus everyone on achieving the organization's vision.

In this course, Cornell University faculty members Derek and Laura Cabrera present you with the design principles of intelligent, adaptive organizations built for systems thinking. With expert guidance and hands-on activities, you will create your organization’s vision and mission, and build capacity and learning systems that support your organization’s ability to achieve these core principles. This approach is a systems leadership and organizational design model that will help you better design, guide, manage, and change your organization. It provides you with a blueprint to build the culture you need to attain your ultimate goal: to have your entire organization, at every level, working toward realizing your company’s vision.

These courses are required to be completed prior to starting this course:

  • Framing Complex Problems with Systems Thinking
  • Using the Four Simple Rules of Systems Thinking
  • Visualizing and Modeling Complex Systems
  • Building Analytical and Emotional Intelligence with Systems Thinking

Becoming a Systems Leader

For organizations to succeed, they need to develop individuals who are constantly learning and adapting according to information on the ground. Sharing key mental models—at the organizational, team, and individual levels—is critical to creating a culture of learning that enables the organization to survive and thrive through chaos and complexity.

In this course, Professors Derek and Laura Cabrera demonstrate how to become a systems leader; that is, someone who can use systems thinking at the organizational level, at the team level, and at the individual level. You will create a culture for your organization that is built on shared mental models and develop techniques to incentivize thought leaders to support the culture based on your vision, mission, capacity, and learning. At the team level, where the real work of the organization gets done, you will explore the process of building, sharing and evolving mental models through collaborative mapping and feedback processes. And finally, you will turn your own thinking into doing, to ensure that your actions are aligned with key organizational mental models. With tools, techniques, and expert guidance, you can begin to implement systems thinking at all levels of the organization, creating teams and individuals upon which organizational culture, values, and success are built.

Key course takeaways

  • Devise more effective approaches to managing complex systems, situations, processes, and problems
  • Analyze and model changes to complex systems
  • Enhance the logic you use to solve problems
  • Strengthen your emotional intelligence through structured awareness
  • Build a culture that inspires systems thinking at the organizational, team, and individual levels of the organization

What you'll earn

  • Systems Thinking Certificate from Cornell Institute for Public Affairs
  • 48 Professional Development Hours (PDHs)


Derek Cabrera

Derek Cabrera (PhD, Cornell) is a systems scientist, inventor, and social entrepreneur and is internationally known for his work in systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems modeling. He is currently visiting faculty at Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking and organization...

Laura Cabrera

Laura Cabrera (BS, MPA, PhD, Cornell) currently teaches Systems Thinking and Modeling and Organizational Design, Change and Leadership at the Institute for Policy Affairs. She is co-founder and Chief Research Officer at Cabrera Research Lab. Dr. Cabrera is also the Co-principal Investigator and ...

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Systems Thinking at eCornell

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Read more about Business Analytics

What will you learn from Business Analytics courses? First of all, you will learn about the profession of a business analyst, his duties, and what such a specialist does. You will get various soft skills, such as organizing teamwork, for example, acc...

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