Thinking in Systems: the difference between sequential thinking and systems thinking


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As an original thinker, I think in systems or, as some systems thinkers call it, ‘thinking in circles’. The main difference between systems thinkers and serial thinkers is the scope of what we notice.

Standard thinking is sequential. One idea follows the next and appears logical as per the person’s knowledge of the situation and similar experiences. It 1. restricts possible choices to the person’s assumptions, history and beliefs; 2. notices what’s deemed relevant; 3. may overlook factors that might enhance understanding or outcomes. Sequential thinkers have a relatively straight path to their outcomes.

Many leaders are sequential (transactional) thinkers. When resolving a problem they speak to other leaders; consider actions to resolve it; invite other leaders to create and deploy a solutionThey often make decisions based on intuition and available information.

Systems thinking is circular. Systems thinkers hear, think, notice a broad range of factors on many levels simultaneously, making it possible to compile an expansive data set from a broad array of sources. With more good data to weigh, there’s a high probably of more creativity, more choice, less risk, less resistance, more collaboration, more efficiency and a greater possibility of attaining excellence.

A systems thinking (relational) leader seeks out a broad scope of ideas and people to ensure inclusion and maximum creativity. To assure there’s collaboration, agreement, and acceptance, and to gather the full fact pattern, they assemble (representatives of) all job descriptions touching the problem and the solution; trial several workarounds; lead the group to discern if the risk of change is manageable; promote group buy-in to integrate the new solution. I’ve developed a 13 Step model that facilitates systemic change.


Top people in their fields are generally systems thinkers. Steve Jobs, Nikolai Tesla, Cezanne. In modern sports, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, and LeBron James become one with the ball, their implement (racket, club), the court/course, their hands, their legs, their grip, etc. and continually (re)adjust their position according to their opponents. It’s all one system. When Federer, Woods, James are not ‘one’ with all, they miss the shot. My son, a medaled Olympian at 3 Olympics (Nagano, Salt Lake, and Vancouver), excels when he’s ‘one’ with his system: his skis, the snow, the poles, his knees and boots, his arms, the gates, the run, the turns. When he’s not ‘one’ with all, he falls.

Here’s a breakdown of the systems artists think in while making a painting. They simultaneously:

  • see the paint, the canvas, the brush, the stroke, the color, the mental vision of what they’re painting, the emerging patterns and a shifting minds-eye visual as the picture emerges.
  • feel the emergence of the vision from their mental picture, the brush, the hardness of softness of how the brush meets the canvas, their hand/arm as they apply color to the canvas.
  • hear the whisk of the brush on the canvas, the creak of the floor or chair as they move toward and away from the canvas.

I believe that adding systems thinking to transactional activities will make them more efficient and their outcomes more successful, collaborative, and creative. For those of you who’d like to add more systems to your thinking, here are some ideas to consider.


Everyone naturally thinks in both systems and sequences at different times and for different reasons. Here’s a simplistic explanation of how we end up doing and thinking as we do.


Everything we see, hear, feel is a translation from our existing neural circuitry and, by nature, subjective. We’re all restricted by how our brain stores our history. We understand, act on, notice, and even hear what we already know; we do what we’ve always done. While true, it’s not the whole story. We actually know – and sense, and understand, and intuit – a lot more than we use due to the way our brain stores stuff.

Fun fact: our brains collect millions of bits of information PER SECOND and sends them whizzing around our 100 trillion synapses as we make decisions, write reports, and turn on the dishwasher before going to bed!

Our conscious thoughts are a fraction of the full data set we’ve got stored in our unconscious. Sequential thinkers will likely access more of the automatic superhighways – those neural circuits triggering ideas and behaviors that have become habituated – that carry our historic (biased, subjective) expressions. Systems thinkers are less direct and make decisions from a broader fact pattern; their brains access more of the data stored in various circuits around the brain and not automatically accessible, providing more elements and less bias in each decision.

Here’s the problem when we need to make a choice: due to our brain’s laziness, our standard thinking automatically triggers our assumptions and biases. Obviously we’d prefer the broadest range of data for decisions making. How, then, do we access our unconscious to retrieve more of what we’ve got stored?

Note: I’ve got a new book coming out soon that provides ways to accomplish this. (HOW? Generating new neural circuits for learning, behavior change, and decision making)

Here’s how I access data beyond my brain’s automatic choices. Maybe you do some of this naturally?


During conversations or when helping someone resolve a problem, several layers of data show up simultaneously as I listen:

  • I am detached (in Observer/witness/coach) from any outcome, making it possible to notice more and gather a broader scope of data with a minimally-biased brain.
  • detect the underlying intent. A speaker initially offers a simplified version of a goal or problem, often unaware of the complete fact pattern. The ultimate goal is often unspoken, unknown, and unconscious until it’s fully uncovered. Too often sequential thinkers assume the initial disclosure is accurate; it’s where I begin accessing patterns.
  • hear the underlying message which I call a metamessage. Again, this is largely unspoken – a belief, or bias that isn’t specifically mentioned but rules the entire interaction.
  • I can detect disparities, incongruences, between the metamessage and the stated (but often incomplete and possibly incongruent) intent. Too often, sequential thinkers only notice incongruences after they’ve become a problem.
  • I notice patterns, what occurs repeatedly. So if I see someone regularly taking action on a subset of data before uncovering the full data set (i.e. FIRE, excluding the ‘Ready, Aim…’), I assume that’s a typical behavior.
  • I can hear the underlying systems and assumptions that influence the goal. How did X become the ‘logical’ conclusion? Why is Y the response to Z?
  • The person’s tone, tempo, pitch, and affect point me to congruence or incongruence in their goal.
  • I notice word choices. How the chosen words correlate with the stated goals and problems lead me to underlying assumptions and where something’s missing.
  • I only attend to what’s relevant to understand the system. Neither details nor story line are relevant at the beginning.
  • I notice if a problem can be fixed from previous successful fixes. Note: among a brain’s 100 trillion synapses there are often existing neural circuits that were used successfully before. I always ask: ‘Have you successfully resolved this before? If so, what’s stopping you from using the same methods now?’ Otherwise I help them generate new neural circuits for a new solution.

Thinking in circles, I hear/notice all this simultaneously. When one of the factors doesn’t match the goal or intent, it lights up in my head telling me there’s an unresolved issue, or a systems problem.

Unfortunately, sequential thinkers often resolve problems in ‘logical’ steps and are surprised when they later discover the goal, as stated, is wrong, or they’ve gathered an incomplete set of problem factors, or not included all necessary stakeholders, or missed vital factors that conclude with failure or resistance.

I believe that anyone can add systems thinking to their standard thinking.


Thinking in systems provides a broader scope with which to think and plan. Beneficial for inspiration, resourcefulness, accuracy, unbiased responses, and creativity, for writers, artists, musicians, inventors and original thinkers to name a few. I also believe that corporate management, healthcare providers, coaches and trainers would benefit from an unbiased, broad, inclusive understanding of the entire scope of a situation. Of course listening without bias and posing non-biased questions are skill sets everyone needs.

For those times you need a bit of inspiration or seek a more complete outcome, it’s possible to add some systems thinking practices. Here’s an exercise to express your systems-thinking brain.


Remember a time you considered making/creating something. Painting, knitting, whittling, woodworking. Let’s see if you can capture what you did in creation mode to see if any of your actions are worth adding to your current way of thinking. And grab a sheet of paper to write down your answers to the questions below.

To begin your project, you might have had pictures in your mind’s eye as you played with ideas. Maybe you made some sketches. Or just trialed different things knowing you’d fail a few times. You probably sat quietly to think and let your mind explore possibilities from all sides. Is this the right angle? What will adding this color do?

Notice how you’re thinking, how the ideas are emerging. Are they similar to things you’ve done before? Wholly new? Do they have sound? Colors? Can you feel any of them? How many different versions are showing up? How do you know which ideas are ‘good’ or relevant, which won’t work? How many different things did you come up with? How many of these did you try? How did you choose which ones were ‘good’ and which were ‘bad’? How did you notice what you needed to alter – did you feel it? See it? When did you decide you needed some additional research? How did you know you were finished? Did you complete? Why? Why not?

Now, what’s different about the way you thought of those things vs the way you go about resolving a problem? Is there anything you can add to your daily choices that would expand what you notice? What you consider? What you do?

I believe that all of us could benefit from systems thinking for activities that demand we show up with minimal bias. Listening to strangers, or people not in our general life path (i.e. unhoused people; elderly people; disabled people) without bias or judgment. Recognizing a problem that needs resolution. Making life decisions that affect others.

Try it. You’ll expand your world.

Sharon-Drew Morgen
I'm an original thinker. I wrote the NYT Bestseller Selling with Integrity and 8 other books bridging systemic brain change models with business, for sales, leadership, communications, coaching. I invented Buying Facilitation(R) (Buy Side support), How of Change(tm) (creates neural pathways for habit change), and listening without bias. I coach, train, speak, and consult companies and teams who seek Servant Leader models.


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