While reaching consensus on future plans to address current global health challenges is far from easy, there is broad agreement that reductionist approaches that suggest a limited set of targeted interventions to improve health around the world are inadequate. We argue that a comprehensive systems perspective should guide health practice, education, research and policy. We propose key 'systems thinking' tools and strategies that have the potential for transformational change in health systems. Three overarching themes span these tools and strategies: collaboration across disciplines, sectors and organizations; ongoing, iterative learning; and transformational leadership. The proposed tools and strategies in this paper can be applied, in varying degrees, to every organization within health systems, from families and communities to national ministries of health. While our categorization is necessarily incomplete, this initial effort will provide a valuable contribution to the health systems strengthening debate, as the need for a more systemic, rigorous perspective in health has never been greater.