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Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change

This module is about managing complex situations. Managing is ultimately about taking action in complex interconnected situations, where others involved may have contrasting understandings, motivations and interests, and where conflicts inevitably arise. You will develop your understanding of complex situations using robust tools from the traditions of systems practice to think strategically about change and uncertainty. The situations that you choose to work with in the module to develop your practice with systems tools can either derive from your existing, or aspiring, professional capacity or simply be of general interest to you. Although most of the work for this module can be done either online or offline, part of the module is presented exclusively online. You’ll be encouraged to use online forums to interact with other students in appreciating multiple perspectives, including your own.

Vocational relevance

By studying the module you will be able to examine current issues in your own working life, make sense of them using a range of innovative ideas, tools and techniques, and extend your competence as a professional. In our modern world where all organisations face increasing uncertainty and complexity, the experience of our students is that successfully completing our ‘systems’ modules not only benefits them personally, but is of great benefit to the organisation where they are employed.

This module is ideal for those people who are in situations such as:

  • positions where you have to work across boundaries (internal or external)
  • those where you and others are uncertain about the nature of the problem and thus what would constitute a solution (i.e. dealing with wicked problems or 'messes')
  • interdepartmental working parties, groups, committees
  • managing change of some form or another
  • having to engage others in what you are doing (i.e. building stakeholding) either within or external to your organisation or project
  • providing leadership
  • policy development or implementation
  • tasks involving professionals with different perspectives on issues e.g. policy-makers and other practitioners in public sector agencies - business; government and NGOs; health services; project teams etc.
  • inspiring innovation and/or creativity
  • organisations where you have to work with others to get something done
  • developing new policies that will affect a wide range of people
  • project or programme development and/or delivery
  • participating in or managing multi, inter or trans-disciplinary research
  • managing a staff team
  • working more effectively with your colleagues.

This module will meet the needs of anyone engaged with taking action in situations that involve complex inter-connections, multiple stakeholder interests, and have problematic boundaries, by providing practical and conceptual foundations for managing in the broadest sense.


Module code


  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.
Study level
Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU postgraduate modules correspond to these frameworks.
OU Postgraduate
Study method
Distance learning
Find out more in Why the OU?
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements

Find out more about entry requirements.

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What you will study

The module is structured as two parallel streams. Both streams enhance your capacity to engage with and improve complex situations in any domain. The strategies for improving situations may range from local domestic strategies for improving education or employment opportunities, towards international strategies associated with environmental decision making, economic planning, and improving social justice. You will learn to work with others across organisational ‘silos’ and different service providers. You will gain specific practical skills, an understanding of their application in different contexts, and you will become aware how your practice is shaped by the nature of individual processes of thinking.

Tools stream

The Tools stream teaches five systems approaches. In each case you examine the ideas behind it, how to apply it and examples of its use combined with opportunities for you to practice hands-on experience in using it.

The five key approaches for systems practice are drawn from three philosophical traditions underpinning systems thinking - feedback, perspectives, and boundaries. The systems approaches are:

  • System Dynamics and the Viable Systems Model, primarily dealing with feedback, interrelationships and interdependencies 
  • Soft Systems Methodology and Strategic Options Development and Analysis with Cognitive Mapping, primarily dealing with multiple perspectives 
  • Critical Systems Heuristics, primarily dealing with ethics and politics.

These five cover the fundamental concepts of systems thinking and the essential elements of the different perspectives across the main theoretical strands of systems thinking.

People stream

This stream provides a complementary light-touch series of five separate topics, each of which focuses on a particular theme that is designed to enrich and illuminate systems approaches and their use. From this you will appreciate systems (and other approaches) as psychological aids as well as logical processes, and appreciate how inter-personal differences are likely to affect how they are used.

Two books, written specifically for this module, provide the core subject matter: Systems Approaches to Managing Change: a practical guide (Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S., eds (2010)) and Systems Thinkers (Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2009)). You will receive these books as part of the study material.

You will gain from this module practical and theoretical underpinning for your management and leadership practice. You will also gain practical competence in a range of systems approaches linked with awareness of the role and impact of cognitive processing on practice. This combination will equip you to develop your own current capacities and your ongoing learning. When you finish you should be able to think and act differently, not only as an individual but in your working with others. In addition to appreciating systems approaches to engaging with complex situations, you will acquire practical skills in the techniques of these approaches. Your ability to work with others will be developed by understanding how your cognitive processes influence and shape your individual practice, and how others’ cognitive processes influence their reactions and so influence your practice.

The module aims to help you engage with and improve complex situations in all areas of work and personal life where there are other individuals, groups and organisations also interested in the actions taken.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. You will be able to contact your tutor by telephone, email and post. There is usually a lively student online forum.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

You must use the online eTMA system to submit your end-of-module assessment (EMA). The end-of-module assessment takes the form of a developing a strategic plan for a situation of your own choosing using the ideas presented in the module. There is no examination.

Course work includes

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.

Future availability

Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change (TU811) starts once a year – May 2019 is the last time it will start. We plan to replace it with a new module – TB871 (title to be confirmed) – that will start for the first time in May 2020.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

    Entry requirements

    There are no entry requirements, but we do assume that you have already done some study up to HNC, HND or bachelors degree level, or have equivalent experience from your employment.

    Some basic prior awareness and knowledge of systems thinking would be advantageous, though the module website does have links to some extra resources for those completely fresh to systems thinking. Some open-source resources are also available such as the introductory chapter Introducing systems approaches from the core Reader Systems approaches for managing change: a practical guide and the Introducing systems thinking OpenLearn resource.

    Your spoken and written English must be of an adequate standard for postgraduate study. If English is not your first language, we recommend that you will need a minimum overall score of 6 and minimum score of 5.5 in each of the four components: reading, writing, speaking and listening under the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Please see the IELTS website for details.

    If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


    Start End England fee Register
    01 May 2019 Oct 2019 £1360.00

    Registration closes 11/04/19 (places subject to availability)

    May 2019 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

    Future availability

    Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change (TU811) starts once a year – May 2019 is the last time it will start. We plan to replace it with a new module – TB871 (title to be confirmed) – that will start for the first time in May 2020.

    Additional costs

    Study costs

    There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

    Ways to pay

    We know there’s a lot to think about when choosing to study, not least how much it’s going to cost and how you can pay.

    That’s why we keep our fees as low as possible and offer a range of flexible payment and funding options. To find out more see Fees and funding.

    Study materials

    What's included

    The module is a blend of online activities and text-based material that are supported by a study guide and two module books, Systems Approaches to Managing Change: a practical guide (Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S., eds (2010)) and Systems Thinkers (Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2009)). Practical exercises, video demonstrations, online discussions and web-based multi-media teaching are used to ensure that the ideas become grounded in your own experience.

    You will need

    You will need a broadband connection to the Internet to download video material. A dial-up connection will not be suitable.

    Computing requirements

    A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module.  Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

    Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

    A desktop or laptop computer with either:

    • Windows 7 or higher
    • macOS 10.7 or higher

    The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

    To participate in our online-discussion area you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones. 

    Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students. 

    If you have a disability

    Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and diagrams and tables may be particularly difficult to read this way. Alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. 

    There is a high level of illustrations and a requirement to be able to draw and interpret diagrams, or their equivalent. If you have a disability you may need to seek advice on the choice of your end-of-module project in order to minimise access problems.

    If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Disability support website to find more about what we offer.