Thinking in Systems Overview

POLARIS Thinking in Systems

Public health grapples with many problems that are challenging and difficult to resolve. Thinking in Systems (TiS) can help public health professionals think more effectively, and systemically, about the issues they face. This can lead to identifying possible policy solutions that may not have been readily apparent, which can be helpful in the realm of using policy to improve the health and wellbeing of populations.

Explore this section to learn more about how you can use TiS to address policy problems and think about possible policy solutions. Each section will present a major TiS concept, an example using a real world public health challenge to demonstrate the concepts, and a rundown of how you can use it in the CDC Policy Process.

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Identifying Systems Problems: Recognizing complicated and multi-factorial problems

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Thinking Dynamically: Thinking about patterns of behavior over time to help identify the public health problem or issues in terms of its effect on population health

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Getting Operational: Using stock and flow diagrams to understand how the system works and to help you find higher leverage policy solutions

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Expanding the Boundary of Inquiry: Increasing the likelihood of considering a larger set of relevant relationships that affect how the system works and what is causing the behavior in order to help you focus on relevant policy levers

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Looking for Feedback: Identifying when a condition in a system causes activity that then impacts the initial condition which may result in unintended consequences for different policy options. Explore these pages to learn more about how you can use TiS to address policy challenges and think about possible policy solutions.


We’ve developed three content-rich webinars. Each is about an hour in length. They aim to help you develop a baseline level of skills in using the TiS approach in the context of your own work.

An Introduction to Thinking in Systems

Webinar 1 introduces fundamental elements of the TiS toolset. You’ll learn a bit more about system issues, and you will learn how TiS can address some of the challenges with system issues. You’ll have the opportunity to work with us to create a simple map of a real public health issue. And you’ll learn about some low-investment ways to develop your skills in TiS.

Thinking in Systems: Conversation Starters

Webinar 2 offers a set of systems-focused “conversation starters” that will help to get you going in applying the TiS approach to systems issues. A case study shows how the approach was used to understand why a public health-focused initiative in a developing country had less than its desired impact.

Thinking in Systems: Applying the Framework

Webinar 3 presents two case studies. One, drawn from a student project of the guest instructor of the webinar series, looks at eating disorders among adolescent girls in a small city. The second, drawn from work at CDC, looks at accessibility and affordability of evidence-based treatment for families with young children with behavioral, emotional, and attention disorders.