We live in a complex world of systems. In “Thinking in Systems”, Donella Meadows explains how we can use systems-thinking to understand how things work, identify root problem causes, see new opportunities, make better decisions and adapt to changing circumstances. In this Thinking in Systems summary, we’ll outline the concepts, principles and real-life applications for systems thinking. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
Thinking in Systems: Concepts and Principles
A system is a set of interlinked elements organized to achieve a goal. Every animal, plant, organization and society is a complex system.
A system’s structure defines its behavioral pattern. While systems may be influenced by external forces, the way they respond to these forces tend to come from their inherent characteristics. This means that the economy will move in cycles regardless of what political leaders do. Companies that lose market share would’ve done so regardless of how competitors respond.
Unless we can see how systems operate and create their own problems, we can’t identify and address the root causes. We’ll be like the proverbial blind men, each touching a different part of an elephant and drawing different conclusions about what an elephant is like.
A system is more than the sum of its parts
Every system is made up of elements and sub-elements, interconnections, and all these parts interact to jointly serve an overarching purpose.
In our full 13-page summary we elaborate on various system components in detail, including elements connections, purpose, stocks, flows, and feedback loops.
In a nutshell:
• Stocks and flows help us to understand how a system behaves. A stock is an observable or quantifiable aspect of a system, e.g. population size or inventory levels. Stock levels rise when inflow > outflow and drop when inflow < outflow. Stock levels stay constant when inflow = outflow.
• A feedback loop is formed when a change in stock affects the inflow/ouflow for that stock, i.e. it triggers a process to increase, decrease or maintain the stock level. A balancing loop is goal-seeking. For example, a thermostat regulates temperature—it warms up a room if it gets too cold, and cools it down if it gets too hot. Such loops bring stability but also resist change. A reinforcing loop amplifies an existing effect to trigger a virtuous or vicious cycle. For example, the more people catch a virus the faster it spreads, or the more you save the faster your bank balance grows from the compound interest. Such loops bring exponential growth but can also cause things to spin out of control and collapse.
The best way to understand a system is to (i) map out a system diagram and (ii) plot the variables/stocks on a time graph. For example, the simple diagram below shows the key factors that affect the water level in a reservoir. When you examine it alongside time-graphs, you can get a better grasp of how each variable affects the water levels.
Understanding Systems Behaviors
Just like how animals in the zoo give us a snapshot (but not the full picture) of wildlife, systems diagrams represent a simplified model of the world. In the book, Meadows shares numerous examples, charts and diagrams to help us see how systems-thinking can be applied to real world systems from societies to economies, inventory etc. In our complete book summary, we’ve distilled these into a few key illustrations of systems with 1 vs 2 stocks and balancing vs reinforcing feedback loops. We also explain how (i) time lags, (ii) renewable vs non-renewable stocks, (iii) drivers and (iv) interaction between these variables can affect system behaviors.
Applying Systems Thinking
Ultimately, it’s impossible to fully understand dynamic, self-organizing, nonlinear systems, much less predict or control them. The real value of systems thinking is in helping us to understand the complexity of the world we live in, so we can manage our expectations, learn from surprises, and actively design/refine systems and find creative ways to bring our visions to life. In the book / our complete 13-page summary, you can learn how to better apply systems thinking:
Building the 3 Characteristics of Effective Systems
We tend to focus our interventions on observable elements and short-term results, which are ineffective and even harmful in the long run. In the book / full book summary, we explain how/why these 3 key characteristics are vital for long-term system effectiveness: resilience, self-organization and hierarchy.
Overcoming Thinking Gaps
We tend to get surprised by systems because we over-estimate how much we know and under-estimate how complex systems are. In the book / full Thinking in Systems summary, we elaborate on these common thinking gaps:
• Adopting linear thinking in a non-linear world.
• Drawing imaginary boundaries where there are none.
• Thinking in terms of singular cause-effect relationships when there are multiple, evolving constraints
• Not accounting for system delays in decision-making or planning
• Drawing conclusions with a limited system perspective.
Identifying System Traps and Opportunities
Most of the recurring problems we encounter are driven by certain “behavior archetypes” or system structures. When you can recognize these system archetypes, it’ll be easier to restructure the system and tackle the problems at cause. These archetypes include: policy resistance, the “tragedy of the commons”, a “drift to low performance”, escalation, widening winner-loser gaps, addictions, rule-breaking, etc.
For instance, a resistance to policy change is usually a sign that there’re balancing feedback loops that sustain existing behavioral patterns. These in turn tend to come from different goals in the sub-systems which pull the overall system in different directions. In such cases, the best way is to step back, identify all the players’ goals and how to incentivize them to move in the desired direction.
Changing Systems Effectively
The best way to change a system is to (i) identify the leverage points where a tiny shift could trigger a large change in behavior, then (ii) figure out the right direction to push. For example, it’s much more impactful to influence the underlying motives and relationships driving the system behaviors, than to tackle the individual elements or outcomes. In the book / complete summary on Thinking in Systems, we elaborate on these leverage points in order of impact: paradigm shifts, system goals, self-organization abilities, rules, information flows, reinforcing feedback loops, balancing feedback loops, length of delays, system structure, buffers, and numbers.
Conclusion & Other Details in “Thinking in Systems”
The book is packed with examples and diagrams and to help us understand systems at work. Meadows also presents several rules of thumb to help us navigate more effectively in a world of systems. Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get our Thinking in Systems summary bundle for an overview of the various ideas and tips, or visit academyforchange.org and donellameadows.org
Learn to think in systems and solve complex problems more effectively!