Systems Thinking About Wicked Problems

Tanja Popovic, MD, PhD, Deputy Associate Director of Science, Office of the Director for Science, U.S. CDC
Date published
Nov, 2010
Last updated
25 Jan 2020


Understanding how things influence one another within a whole is key to systems thinking.  Systems thinking include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization healthy or unhealthy. Systems thinking have been defined as an apporach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events which may contribute to further development of uninteneded consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices within a framework that is based on the beliefd that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Acknowledging that an improvement in one area of a system can adversely affect another area of the system, it promotes organizational communication at all levels. Systems thinking techniques may be used to study any kind of system - natural, scientific, engineered, human, or conceptional. In this session participants explored how systems thinking approaches and tools can be used to address complex public health issues and explore strategies to promote the adoption of systems thinking in public health over the long term. 

By the end of the session, participants were able to:     

  • Define systems thinking     
  • Describe how systems thinking benefits complex problems of public health    
  • Recognize the value of systems thinking in your specific work setting    
  • Recognize the value of organizational learning You can access the session materials by clicking here