The systemic approach

Originally resulting from the work of the School of Palo Alto and developed by the Mental Research Institute (MRI) team in the late 60s, the systemic approach is the result of the convergence of several disciplines: anthropology, biology, the theory of information, cybernetics and the theory of systems, etc. The systemic approach is not a science or a discipline, but rather a form of epistemology, in other words, a way of thinking about how an individual’s reality is constructed. It therefore stands at the crossroads between so-called systemic thought (in contrast with so-called natural linear thought) and a transdisciplinary methodology. It enables one to consider a problem in its dynamic and multifactorial form.

The strategic movement

The Palo Alto strategic systemic approach aims to resolve relational problems through brief interventions.

  • The strategic systemic approach leads a person or a group of persons to go through a strategic movement: rendering harmful behaviour redundant.
  • The strategic movement enables a change to take place in the stance of an individual with regard to their relationships and interactions: stopping doing more of the same thing.
  • The change in stance which is sought consists, for some people, in engaging in a proactive accountability process: enabling greater autonomy for each individual. 

The strategic systemic approach provides a relational context where an individual actively becomes responsible for his/her behaviour and for its resulting relational consequences in a given situation

"When the solution is the problem"


The overall way a system functions works toward stabilising of an equilibrium around an operating standard. Even if this balance has become detrimental, the system seeks to find its initial balance: this is resistance to change or doing the same thing over and over again.


Or feedback. Elements or individuals in a system interact through feedback: A acts on B which acts on A that acts on B. This is known as an interpersonal feedback loop. After a certain period of time, initial conditions no longer have an incidence on the way the system functions.


Or nonsummativity: the fact that a whole is more than just the sum of its parts. The ‘more’ bit stands for the emerging qualities of the system. They’re the properties that result from interactions between elements in a system. The infinite possibility of interactions does not, therefore, allow one to predict the evolution of the system.

la dynamique relationnelle


One given cause does not lead to one single consequence. It is understood that identical initial conditions can evolve toward identical consequences, as well as to different ones. One cannot predict how an evolving system is going to stabilise and the origins of the system’s way of functioning are irrelevant.

More simply: what does that mean?

The strategic systemic approach or systemics consist in understanding how a problem remains in the present by considering no only the complexity of the environment but also the interactions between the individuals involved in the problem. This analysis enables a systemics specialist to define what kind of homeostasis (balance) the individual is stuck in, in order to be able to give them exercises between two sessions to help them to test a different form of behaviour to the one they are normally used to. This external vision is vital in helping the individual in coming out of their vicious circle.