Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows

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This is a remarkably readable introduction to systems thinking, a method to understand the inherent behavior of a system, and design appropriate interventions to change what the system is doing.

Meadows starts by defining a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. … a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.” So a system, in this definition, must contain parts that affect each other, and where those “parts together produce an effect that is different from the effect of each part on its own”. Note that “parts” could be humans, cells, objects, processes, etc. so this definition can cover lots of things – a system could be an organism, or organizations ranging in size from a family to a company to a country, or a population or an economy, or even the internal landscape of our minds. By studying the structure of a system, we have a potentially powerful tool to find leverage points to change how the system operates.

In the first chapter, she shares a key insight, which is that changing the elements of a system rarely changes the system’s behavior, as the interconnections (the feedback and incentives) will drive new elements to behave similarly in acting in accordance with the system’s purpose. The system’s structure overpowers the individuality of the elements. So a systems thinker must examine those interconnections and design new interconnections to change the behavior of a system; as she writes, “What makes a difference is redesigning the system to improve the information, incentives, disincentives, goals, stresses, and constraints that have an effect on [elements within the system]”. One might hope to change the system’s purpose rather than the interconnections, but for an existing system involving humans, that often requires a charismatic leader to change people’s minds (e.g. Ronald Reagan re-defining government as the problem, rather than the solution).

Meadows spends a chapter describing the mathematical modeling of systems thinking, which uses diagrams to map out stocks, the elements of a system “you can see, feel, count, or measure at any given time”, and flows, the processes by which the stocks increase or decrease. Flows are generally managed via feedback, which can either take the form of balancing loops (which nudge stocks back to a stable set point) and reinforcing loops (which are runaway loops that spiral out of control, although they always encounter a balancing loop in the end, as there are always limits to growth). The fun part of this aspect of systems modeling is that those loops can interact with each other in unpredictable and unexpected ways (e.g. Senge’s Beer Game simulation)

To explain these concepts, Meadows takes the reader through a “Systems Zoo”, starting with a simple system where a thermostat turns the furnace on or off to maintain a certain temperature and ending with modeling a fishing economy, which can go drastically unstable if people overfish in the pursuit of profits, and exhaust the ability of the system/fish population to renew itself.

Part of what makes system thinking difficult is that systems do not exist in isolation, and therefore any systems analysis will be a model of reality where we choose what to include and exclude as part of the system. As Meadows notes, “It’s a great art to remember that boundaries are of our own making, and that they can and should be reconsidered for each new discussion, problem, or purpose.” The “relevant” parts of a system will change with each question we ask, so we must constantly refresh our view of the system.

Meadows spends a chapter of the book describing typical system traps that result from taking too narrow a view of a problem, and the potential way out of each trap. The solution is often counterintuitive for those already trapped e.g. when elements within a system are resisting a new policy, pushing harder on the new policy will only create greater resistance; the way out is to let go of the new policy, and bring the actors within the system together to find a mutually satisfactory path forward.

What will stick with me is the last chapter of the book where she describes how systems thinking has changed how she approaches life. Because everything is a dynamic, complex, interconnected set of systems and feedback loops, “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them! Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity – our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.”

I love this description of living in a systems world – it’s not about calculating the optimal path forward, but choosing how we want to be in the world in each moment, and dancing our way into our future. It also echoes how my mentor coach describes coaching as dancing with the client, which makes perfect sense, since each person is a system of interconnected beliefs and desires and parts, of which some want to change, and others resist change.

She offers some lessons she’s learned from using systems thinking, including:

  • “Get the Beat of the System” – understand the system and its interconnections before trying to change it. “We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”
  • “Honor, Respect and Distribute Information” – systems work better when relevant information is delivered accurately and promptly to the actors within the system.
  • “Pay Attention to What Is Important, Not Just What is Quantifiable” – if we manage only what we measure, we often miss the most important aspects of a system.
  • “Locate Responsibility in the System” – make sure people within the system “will experience directly the consequences of his or her decisions” e.g. place the outflow of a factory directly upstream of its inflow.
  • “Stay Humble – Stay a Learner” – “What’s appropriate when you’re learning is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more.”
  • “Defy the Disciplines”, which was music to my Unrepentant Generalist ears.

What’s remarkable to me is that Meadows originally wrote this manuscript in 1993, although it wasn’t released until 2008 after she died, and yet most of this book is entirely applicable today, showing the power and timelessness of systems thinking. For example, I wrote a LinkedIn post in June that included a line that could have come from Meadows: “By acting with integrity, and trying small experiments to see what resonates, you can create outsized impact within your network.” It seems like a lot of what I’ve been painstakingly learning over the past few years was written here decades ago – I just didn’t know about it, and wouldn’t have known how to apply it.

I loved reading this book, and plan to keep referring to it when I see a system that seems stuck. I will look for the traps keeping the system in an undesirable situation, and poke at the leverage points around feedback loops and information distribution to see what can shake the system into a new structure. This includes systems of my own thinking – my recent use of mantras is a way to disrupt and weaken the feedback loops that currently exist inside my head. I look forward to seeing how I can apply what I learned about systems thinking across my coaching and organizational work going forward.

9 thoughts on “Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows

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