Systems Thinking in Research: Considering Interrelationships in Research Through Rich Pictures

Joan O'Donnell
Published in
8 min readMar 19, 2023


Bob Williams, Joan O’Donnell

The third of a series of blogs on using systems thinking in research

Let’s start with a true story. It follows on from our last blog about focus and scope. But it highlights our tendency to start with focusing in on the subject of our research — with boundary setting­ — rather than considering the wider scope, especially when faced with ‘a problem’ that we hope our research will address. Stating that something is a ‘problem’ is a form of boundary setting, as we will see.

Group of 15 people standing in a circle
Bob and Joan with 1st year ADVANCE CRT Student Induction, Cork, Ireland January 2023

Some years ago, Russ Ackoff, a leading systems thinker, was approached by a major machine tool manufacturer experiencing considerable fluctuations in demand for its products. This created problems of low morale, poor productivity and bad industrial relations. Russ was called in to sort out this issue which was framed by the company as a ‘production smoothing’ problem. The organisation’s senior management asked Russ to work out how it could smooth out its production so that it can avoid negotiating layoffs and then running around trying to recruit people some months later. After a considerable amount of investigation, Russ told them that they would never find a solution if they continued to see (i.e., frame or bound) the problem in terms of…