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Learning to think in systems to tackle complexity

9 May 2022

News and media


Blurry image of people walking in a crowd


In a complex and volatile world, many parts of the public sector are struggling with policy challenges that cut across agencies and jurisdictions and involve actors inside and outside government.

David R. Keith, Assistant Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that understanding system dynamics – and where governments fit into broader systems – can improve public sector leaders’ ability to deliver better responses to complex challenges.

Prof. Keith is one of the new masterclass presenters in ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series and will deliver the Diagnosing and Solving Complex Policy Problems masterclass on 1 June. The masterclass will introduce public sector leaders to System Dynamics, a methodology for the modelling and analysis of complex systems and design of high-leverage interventions.

MIT is a world leader in System Dynamics, and the masterclass will allow public managers in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to get an introduction to valuable concepts that are routinely used by engineers, but are generally not understood or applied by public services.

He says that the masterclass will help participants to think more systematically, and gain a higher-level understanding of how complex problems they were dealing with could be managed more effectively.

“We live in an increasingly interconnected world, and many of the problems that policymakers and managers face persist in spite of – and in many cases – directly because of their own past actions,” he said.

“There needs to be a recognition that we are all operating within feedback-rich systems, and capturing that interconnectedness is necessary to solve complex problems. When you break a problem down into bite size chunks, you lose the interdependencies of the problem and you can’t develop solutions that will respond to that complexity effectively.”

“When we think about systems it’s more like that MC Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand – the system we operate within today is the direct result of decisions that were made in the past, and the decisions we are making today will shape the system as it moves into the future.”


The social and economic systems public managers are part of are highly complex and dynamic, and governed by multiple and often non-linear feedbacks. Public sector leaders working within those systems need to be accustomed to working with limited information, lengthy time-delays, and ambiguity in measuring cause and effect.

Building better mental models of complex systems

Prof. Keith said the most important change that public sector leaders can make is to embrace an ‘endogenous mindset’, helping them to develop better mental models of the systems they operates in and how they and other actors shape these system.

“One of the keys to changing mental models is to embrace a top-down perspective of systems and problems, zooming out from the perspective of individuals, individual departments and policies that keep us busy on a day-to-day basis.”

“The top-down perspective allows you to consider how problematic events and patterns of behaviour emerge as a consequence of the structure of the system you are operating within.

He said that this kind of thinking allowed for the development of interactive simulations that provide an environment in which policy interventions for how the whole system may be changed can be prototyped.

“Many of the problems we come across: ageing populations, the housing crisis or water security, all of the big issues for our time, we need to zoom out to a high level and then build a model where we can experiment on various possible futures,” he said.

“As statistician George Box said, ‘All models are wrong but some are useful’, and we believe that models can help us come up with more robust decisions and policies, not optimal policies, for a future that is inherently uncertain.”

He said that models of complex, dynamic systems had three main elements:

They have a ‘broad model boundary’ – not just how individual actors, people, money, markets or environments react, but recognition that outcomes are based on relationships between all of these stakeholders.
They recognised the role of time and of time delays, something that not always recognised in standard economic theories.
They included a realistic portrayal of human behaviour, which may be quite rational or it might not, depending on the information we have available and our ability to make sense of that information.

He said that this level of complexity did not necessarily mean that governments should take a ‘hands-off’ approach and not intervene in systems.

“There are areas where a heavy hand from government may be the only approach possible if we are going to achieve a certain outcome,” he said.

“We need to think about ways we can alter how systems behave, and if we can strengthen the processes by which something good happens in those systems. There is a long list of interventions that we can use, and a hierarchy of ways that we can think through interventions in systems.”

System Dynamics is a modelling methodology that can be applied across different policy areas, and Prof. Keith will bring his diverse range of experiences to the masterclass from working with the automotive industry on the roll out of new technologies; to working with a US school system experiencing a death spiral of teacher burnout, declining educational attainment and increasing parent dissatisfaction; and with technology companies on the social impacts of machine-learning algorithms.

He said that an understanding of System Dynamics cold be applied across a range of problems and that the masterclass would involve sharing tools and ideas that would help participants identify and manage complex systems problems

“The main concept I want people to take away is that of ‘endogeneity’: – the idea that we are working within systems, and that most of the problems we face today are the result of decisions taken in the past, and the decisions we make today will have their own impact on the system over time.”

ANZSOG’s Future public sector leaders’ series for 2022 begins on 12 May.

The full list of new masterclasses is:

Adaptive leadership with Farayi Chipungu from the Harvard Kennedy School
Political astuteness in disruptive times with Ben Hubbard and Wayne Eagleson, former chiefs of staff to Prime Ministers of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand
Indigenising co-design for innovation in complexity with Angie Tangaere from the Southern Initiative
Diagnosing and solving complex policy problems with David R. Keith from the MIT Sloan School of Management
Foresighted Government with Bart Edes from McGill University
Economic Empowerment and First Peoples with Michelle Evans from Melbourne Business School
Creating public value through negotiation & influence with Alex Smith from Google

In addition, returning presenters include:

Creating change through systems leadership with Professor Michael Hogan
Leading with cultural intelligence – building stronger partnerships with First Peoples with Lil Anderson
Bridging the gap between policy and implementation with Professor Anne Tiernan
Leading with integrity with Harvard Kennedy School’s Professor Dana Born
Making evidence count in policy advice with ANZSOG Deputy CEO (Research and Advisory) Dr Subho Banerjee

All masterclasses will offer hard-working and passionate emerging public sector leaders the chance to reflect and think more deeply about the challenges that they are facing and leave with new ideas to apply in their work.

For more information on the Future public sector leaders 2022 series  click here.

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