How to think in Systems? Great (and accessible, and short) book.

Thanks to whoever suggested I read ‘Thinking in Systems’, by Donella Meadows. It’s great – one of those short, easy reads that may induce a gestaltThinking in Systems shift in the way you see the world. The topic is ‘systems theory’ – that phrase that wise-looking wonks bandy about in meetings, to intimidating effect. If you can’t beat them, then I suggestion you join them by reading this.

Meadows, an MIT systems guru, finished the draft of this book in 1993, and it circulated informally for years, without being published. She died suddenly and prematurely in 2001, before she could finish it. Diana Wright edited it and it was finally published in 2008. It doesn’t feel at all dated – Should we be inspired or depressed when we read a book written 20 years ago that captures virtually every bit of ‘new’ thinking in development?

On to the content: ‘A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.’ It is more than the sum of its parts – eg a body v individual cells; a university v individual students; an ecosystem v an individual plant or animal. A living being is a system, but it loses its system-ness when it dies.

To understand system behaviour over time is to understand

a)      Stocks v flows (lots of bathtub-filling models)

b)      Feedback (two kinds of loops: reinforcing and balancing – for some reason she avoids ‘positive’ and ‘negative’). Delayed feedback loops (the norm) can lead to wildly different behaviours – dampening, small or very large oscillations.

But the book really gets going when it moves on to the practical implications of systems theory to real life, including politics, starting with a great quote from Czech hero Vaclav Havel:

‘I realize with fright that my impatience for the re-establishment of democracy had something almost communist in it; or, more generally, something rationalist. I had wanted to make history move ahead in the same way that a child pulls on a plant to make it grow more quickly.

I believe we must learn to wait as we learn to create. We have to patiently sow the seeds, assiduously water the earth where they are sown and give the plants the time that is their own. One cannot fool a plant any more than one can fool history.’

Not too hard to apply that to the world of project cycles, theories of change and results, eh?

Aid workers navigating a typical system
Aid workers navigating a typical system

As she approaches the end of the book, Meadows gets increasingly lyrical, and concludes with a set of ‘Dancing Lessons’ for those who seek to dance with systems:

Get the Beat of the System: ‘Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system….. Starting with history discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system’s actual behaviour, but by the lack of our favourite solution.’

Expose your mental models to the light of day: ‘mental flexibility – the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure – is a necessity. Get your model out there where it can be viewed….. Scientific method is done too seldom even in science, and is done hardly at all in social science or management or government or everyday life.’

Honour, Respect and Distribute Information: there should be an 11th commandment ‘Thou shalt not distort, delay or withhold information.’

Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts: words matter. ‘we don’t talk about what we see, we see only what we can talk about…A society that talks incessantly about productivity but that hardly understands, much less uses, the word ‘resilience’ is going to become more productive and less resilient.’

Pay attention to what is Important, not just what is Quantifiable: ‘be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers the presence or absence of quality’

Make Feedback policies for Feedback systems: design policies that change depending on the state of the system

Go for the Good of the Whole: Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as growth, stability, diversity, resilience and sustainability, whether they are easily measured or not

Listen to the Wisdom of the System: ‘Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself. Notice how many of those forces and structures are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.’

Locate Responsibility in the System: in both analysis (look for the ways the system creates its own behaviour) and design (eg internalize pollution costs)

Stay humble, stay a learner: ‘trust my intuition more, and my figuring-out rationality less. The thing to do, when you don’t know, is not to bluff and not to freeze, but to learn.’

Celebrate Complexity: learn to embrace the ‘nonlinear, turbulent and dynamic universe…. [even though] there is something within the human mindsystems thinking that is attracted to straight lines, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery.’

Expand Time Horizons: ‘many native American cultures actively spoke of and considered in their decisions the effects on the seventh generation to come.’

Defy the Disciplines: ‘interdisciplinary communication works only if there is a real problem to be solved and if the representatives from the various disciplines are more committed to solving the problem than to being academically correct.’

Expand the boundary of caring: ‘The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings, or from the global ecosystem.’

Don’t Erode the Goal of Goodness: She ends by quoting literary critic and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch:

‘Though man has never before been so complacent about what he has, or so confident of his ability to do whatever he sets his mind upon, it is at the same time true that he never before accepted so low an estimate of what he is…. Truly, he is, for all his wealth and power, poor in spirit.’

I’m not sure yet how much this book will change me – watch this space.

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10 Responses to “How to think in Systems? Great (and accessible, and short) book.”
  1. JChettleborough

    We are often guilty of ‘over-engineering’ in the development sector (akin to Havel pulling on the flower I guess). Two of my favourite examples from the book showcase how an understanding of how systems work can help us avoid this. They both relate to the control of pollution in the US.

    The first example illustrates Meadow’s point about the power of information. She claims that the legislation most effective in curbing polution in the US has been the Freedom of Information Act. Once this was passed, in some States newspapers started publishing data on the worst polluters in the area. This led of course to public pressure and to companies unilaterally deciding to invest in pollution control. It led to some of the most significant reductions in polution seen in the US.

    The second example is about tweaking systems so that their design creates direct motivation for actiors to behave responsibily. The example given is of a factory that is emitting pollutants into the river. The solution, pass legislation that forces factories to put the inflow pile downstream of their outflow pipe.

    She compares the costs and effectiveness of these sort of strategies – which leave the system to sort things out once it has been tweaked – very favourabley to ‘traditional’ solutions which would require policing, regulation and have much higher transaction costs.

    We have much to learn!

  2. Halima Begum

    Thanks for the book review – look forward to reading.

    Pollution, power of information and the US?

    China should provide a good example of Meadow’s point, too: pollution very high, right to information very low.

  3. Carlos M


    Haven’t researched on this recently, but I believe China’s polution is still comparatively lower than the US and they might even have some more progressive environmental policies

  4. Systems thinking has been the basis of family therapy too. But we tend to go into strange developments of it. So:

    It is really good to see a thorough, still entirely relevant (to working with families and other client systems), clear and well-grounded account like this.

    I’m not sure if family therapists already know this book or not … but now we do!

  5. Samuel Lee-Gammage

    Great summary, I have recently purchased this book and will be getting it off the shelf right away.
    Another book I would highly recommend for inspiring gestalt shifts is Causal Explanation for Social Scientists by Andrew Vayda.
    The nature of causation is one of those concepts that is often a hidden assumption in any theory of change, or interpretation of research; but causation is not a monolithic thing. There are qualitatively different types of causation which are often unique and context dependent, especially so in complex systems. Often, what is seen as being the cause depends on the framing of the problem, or the depth of explanation sought (proximate vs underlying causes).
    I would highly recommend it if you haven’t heard of it.

  6. P Baker

    It might have been me that recommended it! Anyway, it has certainly helped me and encouraged me to look at things holistically.

    In the area of sustainable coffee where I work, the lack of systems thinking is taking the industry down the wrong track – small ineffectual carbon sequestration efforts take no account of continuing deforestation for new coffee plantings that release hundreds of times more carbon than sequestration schemes.

    But I don’t use it enough – I lack the skill to make it a core of my work. I suspect you may find the same because you will lack the spare time to train yourself up.

    I think any org above a certain size should have a systems person to nut out any particular problem. It’s a great heuristic tool – if you can’t draw a plausible system, you don’t understand it. However complexity may always defeat you.

    I hope anyway it will improve the box and arrow diags you use sometimes – what is moving around with those arrows? Where are the stocks?

    And Dana Meadows is a forgotten figure – she is one of the great female scientists of the 20th century, involved as she was in the Limits to Growth work that was rubbished by know-nothing economists at the time, but which is looking prescient now.

    And she was a great writer too – a tragic loss that she died so young.

  7. Gabrielle Liddy

    It might also be me who suggested it! Some of those Systems people from the 60s onwards look very smart now. I also recommend ‘freedom in a rocking boat’ by Geoffrey Vickers.

  8. Frauke de Weijer

    Dear Duncan,

    Thanks for writing this, and I have also always loved the beautiful metaphores in this book.

    In my mind, systems thinking can really change the way we think about international development, in general but especially in fragile states.

    I have tried to best to apply the lens of systems thinking to my long-time experience of capacity building and institutional strengthening in Afghanistan, and presented a paper on this topic at the Santa Fe institute of Complexity Science. If you’re interested, have a look at