Open Thinkering


Tag: Systems Dynamics

TB871: Vicious cycles and causal loops

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Activity 2.14 asks us to take the following diagram and create two separate causal loop diagrams signalling the ‘vicious cycles’:

A circular diagram titled "AMAZON RAINFOREST DIE-OFF" explains the cycle of degradation with a central image of a burnt forest and surrounding text indicating escalating environmental damage due to rising temperatures, increased wildfires, tree deaths, and decreased rainfall.
Taken from module materials (The Open University, 2020)

I had a quick look at the ‘answer’ after creating my two loops below, and they’re presented separately. But I still prefer my version:

Causal loop diagram. First loop showing reduction in number of trees leads to less water in air, and less rainfall, leading to drought, and so fewer trees.

Second loop shows days of drought leading to increased number of wildfires, which releases more CO2, and therefore increases average global temperatures, and therefore increases the number of days of drought.


TB871: Three purposeful orientations and five different systems approaches

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

A spray diagram outlining three orientations of systems thinking: RESPONSIBILITY linked to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH), UNDERSTANDING, and PRACTICE linked to System Dynamics (SD), Viable System Model (VSM), Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), and Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA).

The above spray diagram (Activity 1.11) is my attempt at relating five different systems approaches to three different ‘purposeful orientations’. The idea is that different approaches are useful for different purposes.


Below can be found my overviews of the five different approaches, taken from Reynolds & Holwell (2020, pp.19-21).

System Dynamics (SD)

SD is a method to conceptualise, analyse, and simulate complex systems over time. It helps in understanding the internal structures of systems, including feedback loops and time delays that influence behaviour.

This approach uses causal loop diagrams and other modeling techniques to predict how changes in one part of the system can ripple through and affect the entire system. It focuses on how system structures cause its behavioir and how simulation can be used to explore policy and strategy changes within the system.

This approach is useful for: examining strategic issues and persistent problems by looking at them as part of a feedback system rather than isolated incidents .

Viable System Model (VSM)

VSM is a model of the organisational structure that is capable of surviving in a changing environment. It provides a framework for analysing and designing organizations in such a way that all necessary functions for survival are fulfilled. The VSM helps diagnose organisational issues and suggests where changes should be made to improve viability.

This model uses the concept of recursion to structure organizations, ensuring that each subsystem is itself a viable system.

This approach is useful for: emphasising the importance of adaptability and self-organization, which are critical for maintaining the viability of an organisation in a dynamic environment .

Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA)

SODA is a method that uses cognitive and causal mapping to help groups and individuals explore and solve complex problems. By structuring thoughts and perceptions into a visual map, SODA facilitates a deeper understanding of the situation, helping to identify key issues and develop strategic options.

SODA maps are used to explore different scenarios and their potential impacts before making decisions.

This approach is useful for: focusing on negotiation and consensus-building, making it particularly effective for strategic planning and decision-making where multiple stakeholders are involved.

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)

SSM is an approach designed to tackle ‘soft’ complex, problem situations where there is no clear problem definition. It encourages the use of ‘systems thinking’ to explore the different perceptions of reality held by different stakeholders.

By creating conceptual models of the system, SSM helps to stimulate debate and dialogue about desirable and feasible changes. This methodology is action-oriented and focuses on facilitating structured and informed discussions to bring about improvement in complex situations .

This approach is useful for: situations where human factors and qualitative dimensions play a big role.

Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH)

CSH is a framework designed to support reflective practice through the use of boundary critique. This approach focuses on uncovering and questioning the underlying assumptions and power dynamics that frame how problems and solutions are defined and addressed.

CSH uses a set of guiding questions to explore the boundaries of consideration for problem-solving, which helps to understand the interests of different stakeholders, especially those who are marginalized.

This approach is useful for: encouraging a more inclusive and participatory approach to systems practice by emphasising the importance of transparency and ethical considerations in systems design and decision-making .


  • Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S. (eds) (2020) Systems approaches to making change: a practical guide, 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer.