Complexity and Systems Thinking resource list for Design Leaders


This is a resource list that I have created as part of the Berghs Design Leadership course. This list is designed to help Design Leaders understand the core principles of Complexity and Systems thinking so that they may apply them practically within their organisation’s in the context of leadership and design. 

If Russ Ackoff had given a TED Talk… (video)

First, stop on your systems thinking journey. An excellent video that describes the basics of System Thinking. 

Systems Thinking for Curious Managers

A follow-up to Ackoff's rather famous “Management flaws”, with an additional introduction going into general systems thinking. Must read for anyone interested in the application of systems thinking to organizational issues.

‘Thinking in Systems: A Primer’, Donella Meadows

One of the foundational books on systems thinking. Enormously influential and a necessary read for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of the field.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization Peter Senge

A milestone in the field and another must-read for anyone interested in design for change. Senge's fifth discipline refers to systems thinking of course, seen as the one that integrates the traditional organisational practices in the ‘learning organisation’. 

Without considering systems thinking you cannot effectively develop a learning organisation. 

Making Sense of Complexity - an introduction to Cynefin(video) Jennifer Garvey Berger 

‘Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders’ Jennifer Garvey Berger 

A thoughtful book that provides practical accessible advice. The book outlines simple habits one can develop but acknowledges there are no simple solutions. First tackling how things have become more complex, the authors use a cleverly constructed fictional story—about managers who face a crisis—with observations about strategies needed to deal with these complexities. 

Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity’, Jennifer Garvey Berger

According to Jennifer, she wrote this book to distill the main issues leaders must be aware of when managing complexity. The result is a list of five “quirks” in our thinking that become traps when we’re navigating complexity. If you are going to start with one of her books begin here. 

Introduction to systems thinking 

A nice downloadable PDF and well-done introduction to systems thinking with a clear focus on its practical applications. 


I am a huge Johnson fan and amazed at his ability to take complex subjects and explain them in a very interesting way.  A very accessible book that describes how emergence, complexity, and systems fit together. Great summer reading. 

Systems Thinking for Business

An excellent section on the dynamics of systems thinking where he also adapts ‘business-ish’ serious games from a systems thinking angle. Great source of workshop activities.

Systems Thinking Design Pack

Directed to younger students but equally effective for learners of all ages. A downloadable PDF guide on systems thinking and education. The guide contains plenty of useful insights for anyone in a position to teach systems thinking in class or in organisational contexts.

The Manager's Pocket Guide to Systems Thinking.

An unpretentious guide to what systems thinking can do for management processes. Read if interested in how systems thinking can be used to affect leadership and organizational change. 

The Systems Thinking Playbook.

A great resource if you need exercises, games, and plenty of reflection on their

intended results, potential pitfalls. Comes complete with instructor guide for all activities, length, and level of difficulty. I have used many of these in teaching and consulting.

Lastly if you would like some more online information to go to the Systems Thinker website. A comprehensive publication supporting systems thinking since the 1980’s with contributors like Senge, Sweeny, Meadow and Kim.