Linda Booth Sweeney


“Habits of Mind are the characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolutions of which are not immediately apparent.”

Art Costa, Ed.D. Author, teacher

Thinking About Systems:

12 Habits of Mind

There is no one pedagogy, book, or computer program that will help us become better systems thinkers. Instead, the complexity of our worlds demand that we develop “habits of mind” (to borrow Art Costa’s term) to intentionally use systems principles to understand the complexity of everyday situations and to design for desired futures. The 12 Habits of Mind are:

Sees the Whole: sees the world in terms of interrelated “wholes” or systems, rather than as single events, or snapshots;

Looks for Connections: assumes that nothing stands in isolation; and so tends to look for connections among nature, ourselves, people, problems, and events;

Pays Attention to Boundaries: “goes wide” (uses peripheral vision) to check the boundaries drawn around problems, knowing that systems are nested and how you define the system is critical to what you consider and don’t consider;

Changes Perspective: changes perspective to increase understanding, knowing that what we see depends on where we are in the system;

Looks for Stocks: knows that hidden accumulations (of knowledge, carbon dioxide, debt, and so on) can create delays and inertia;

Challenges Mental Models: challenges one’s own assumptions about how the world works (our mental models) — and looks for how they may limit thinking;

Anticipates Unintended Consequences: anticipates unintended consequences by tracing loops of cause and effect and always asking “what happens next?”

Looks for Change over Time: sees today’s events as a result of past trends and a harbinger of future ones;

Sees Self as Part of the System: looks for influences from within the system, focusing less on blame and more on how the structure (or set of interrelationships) may be influencing behavior;

Embraces Ambiguity: holds the tension of paradox and ambiguity, without trying to resolve it quickly;

Finds Leverage: knows that solutions may be far away from problems and looks for areas of leverage, where a small change can have a large impact on the whole system,

Watches for Win/Lose Attitudes: is wary of “win/lose” mindsets, knowing they usually makes matters worse in situations of high interdependence.

12 Living System Principles

example:system integrity

If you cut a cow in half do you get 2 cows?

If you cut a cow (or any living species) in half, you don’t get two cows. Why not? Living systems have integrity, it matters how the parts are arranged. A useful way to explore a system’s integrity is to notice: when is the whole no longer a whole if a part or process is removed?