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Thinking In Systems

Thinking in Systems Summary

Thinking in Systems is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem-solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.

Some of the biggest problems facing the world―war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation―are essentially system failures. They cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking.

While readers will learn the conceptual tools and methods of systems thinking, the heart of the book is grander than methodology. Donella Meadows was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as she was for delving into the science behind global dilemmas. She reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble, and to stay a learner.

In a world growing ever more complicated, crowded, and interdependent, Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.

About the Author

A woman whose pioneering work in the 1970s still makes front-page news, Donella Meadows was a scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world’s foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth–the 1972 book on global trends in population, economics, and the environment that was translated into 28 languages and became an international bestseller.

That book launched a worldwide debate on the earth’s capacity to withstand constant human development and expansion. Twenty years later, she and co-authors Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers reported on their follow-up study in Beyond the Limits, and a final revision of their research, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, was published in 2004.

Thinking in Systems Introduction

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. . . . Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

—RUSSELL ACKOFF, 1 operations theorist

Early on in teaching about systems, I often bring out a Slinky. In case you grew up without one, a Slinky is a toy—a long, loose spring that can be made to bounce up and down, or pour back and forth from hand to hand, or walk itself downstairs.

I perch the Slinky on one upturned palm. With the fingers of the other hand, I grasp it from the top, partway down its coils. Then I pull the bottom hand away. The lower end of the Slinky drops, bounces back up again, yo-yos up and down, suspended from my fingers above.

“What made the Slinky bounce up and down like that?” I ask students.

“Your hand. You took away your hand,” they say.

So I pick up the box the Slinky came in and hold it the same way, poised on a flattened palm, held from above by the fingers of the other hand. With as much dramatic flourish as I can muster, I pull the lower hand away.

Nothing happens. The box just hangs there, of course.

“Now once again. What made the Slinky bounce up and down?”

The answer clearly lies within the Slinky itself. The hands that manipulate it suppress or release some behavior that is latent within the structure of the spring.

That is a central insight of systems theory.

Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns. As our world continues to change rapidly and become more complex, systems thinking will help us manage, adapt, and see the wide range of choices we have before us. It is a way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify root causes of problems and see new opportunities.

So, what is a system? A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.

When it comes to Slinkies, this idea is easy enough to understand. When it comes to individuals, companies, cities, or economies, it can be heretical. The system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior! An outside event may unleash that behavior, but the same outside event applied to a different system is likely to produce a different result.

Think for a moment about the implications of that idea:

• Political leaders don’t cause recessions or economic booms. Ups and downs are inherent in the structure of the market economy.

• Competitors rarely cause a company to lose market share. They may be there to scoop up the advantage, but the losing company creates its losses at least in part through its own business policies.

• The oil-exporting nations are not solely responsible for oil price rises. Their actions alone could not trigger global price rises and economic chaos if the oil consumption, pricing, and investment policies of the oil-importing nations had not built economies that are vulnerable to supply interruptions.

• The flu virus does not attack you; you set up the conditions for it to flourish within you.

• Drug addiction is not the failing of an individual and no one person, no matter how tough, no matter how loving, can cure a drug addict—not even the addict. It is only through understanding addiction as part of a larger set of influences and societal issues that one can begin to address it.

Something about statements like these is deeply unsettling. Something else is purest common sense. I submit that those two somethings—a resistance to and a recognition of systems principles—come from two kinds of human experience, both of which are familiar to everyone.

On the one hand, we have been taught to analyze, to use our rational ability, to trace direct paths from cause to effect, to look at things in small and understandable pieces, to solve problems by acting on or controlling the world around us. That training, the source of much personal and societal power, leads us to see presidents and competitors, OPEC and the flu and drugs as the causes of our problems.

On the other hand, long before we were educated in rational analysis, we all dealt with complex systems. We are complex systems—our own bodies are magnificent examples of integrated, interconnected, self-maintaining complexity. Every person we encounter, every organization, every animal, garden, tree, and forest is a complex system. We have built up intuitively, without analysis, often without words, a practical understanding of how these systems work, and how to work with them.

Modern systems theory, bound up with computers and equations, hides the fact that it traffics in truths known at some level by everyone. It is often possible, therefore, to make a direct translation from systems jargon to traditional wisdom.

Because of feedback delays within complex systems, by the time a problem becomes apparent it may be unnecessarily difficult to solve.

— A stitch in time saves nine.

According to the competitive exclusion principle, if a reinforcing feedback loop rewards the winner of a competition with the means to win further competitions, the result will be the elimination of all but a few competitors.

— For he that hath, to him shall be given; and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath (Mark 4:25) or

—The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

A diverse system with multiple pathways and redundancies is more stable and less vulnerable to external shock than a uniform system with little diversity.

— Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is “out there,” rather than “in here.” It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away.

Serious problems have been solved by focusing on external agents—preventing smallpox, increasing food production, moving large weights and many people rapidly over long distances. Because they are embedded in larger systems, however, some of our “solutions” have created further problems. And some problems, those most rooted in the internal structure of complex systems, the real messes, have refused to go away.

Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them.

They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.

Obvious. Yet subversive. An old way of seeing. Yet somehow new. Comforting, in that the solutions are in our hands. Disturbing, because we must do things, or at least see things and think about things, in a different way.

This book is about that different way of seeing and thinking. It is intended for people who may be wary of the word “systems” and the field of systems analysis, even though they may have been doing systems thinking all their lives. I have kept the discussion nontechnical because I want to show what a long way you can go toward understanding systems without turning to mathematics or computers.

I have made liberal use of diagrams and time graphs in this book because there is a problem in discussing systems only with words. Words and sentences must, by necessity, come only one at a time in linear, logical order. Systems happen all at once. They are connected not just in one direction, but in many directions simultaneously. To discuss them properly, it is necessary somehow to use a language that shares some of the same properties as the phenomena under discussion.

Pictures work for this language better than words, because you can see all the parts of a picture at once. I will build up systems pictures gradually, starting with very simple ones. I think you’ll find that you can understand this graphical language easily.

I start with the basics: the definition of a system and a dissection of its parts (in a reductionist, unholistic way). Then I put the parts back together to show how they interconnect to make the basic operating unit of a system: the feedback loop.

Next I will introduce you to a systems zoo—a collection of some common and interesting types of systems. You’ll see how a few of these creatures behave and why and where they can be found. You’ll recognize them; they’re all around you and even within you.

With a few of the zoo “animals”—a set of specific examples—as a foundation, I’ll step back and talk about how and why systems work so beautifully and the reasons why they so often surprise and confound us. I’ll talk about why everyone or everything in a system can act dutifully and rationally, yet all these well-meaning actions too often add up to a perfectly terrible result. And why things so often happen much faster or slower than everyone thinks they will.

And why you can be doing something that has always worked and suddenly discovers, to your great disappointment, that your action no longer works. And why a system might suddenly, and without warning, jump into a kind of behavior you’ve never seen before.

That discussion will lead to us to look at the common problems that the systems-thinking community has stumbled upon over and over again through working in corporations and governments, economies and ecosystems, physiology and psychology.

“There’s another case of the tragedy of the commons,” we find ourselves saying as we look at an allocation system for sharing water resources among communities or financial resources among schools. Or we identify “eroding goals” as we study the business rules and incentives that help or hinder the development of new technologies. Or we see “policy resistance” as we examine decision-making power and the nature of relationships in a family, a community, or a nation. Or we witness “addiction”—which can be caused by many more agents than caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and narcotics.

Systems thinkers call these common structures that produce characteristic behaviors “archetypes.” When I first planned this book, I called them “system traps.” Then I added the words “and opportunities,” because these archetypes, which are responsible for some of the most intransigent and potentially dangerous problems, also can be transformed, with a little systems understanding, to produce much more desirable behaviors.

From this understanding, I move into what you and I can do about restructuring the systems we live within. We can learn how to look for leverage points for change.

I conclude with the largest lessons of all, the ones derived from the wisdom shared by most systems thinkers I know. For those who want to explore systems thinking further, the Appendix provides ways to dig deeper into the subject with a glossary, a bibliography of systems thinking resources, a summary list of systems principles, and equations for the models described in Part One.

When our small research group moved from MIT to Dartmouth College years ago, one of the Dartmouth engineering professors watched us in seminars for a while, and then dropped by our offices. “You people are different,” he said. “You ask different kinds of questions. You see things I don’t see. Somehow you come at the world in a different way. How? Why?”

That’s what I hope to get across throughout this book, but especially in its conclusion. I don’t think the system’s way of seeing is better than the reductionist way of thinking. I think it’s complimentary, and therefore revealing. You can see some things through the lens of the human eye, other things through the lens of a microscope, others through the lens of a telescope, and still others through the lens of systems theory. Everything seen through each kind of lens is actually there. Each way of seeing allows our knowledge of the wondrous world in which we live to become a little more complete.

At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better. The systems-thinking lens allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and

  • hone our abilities to understand parts,
  • see interconnections,
  • ask “what-if ” questions about possible future behaviors, and
  • be creative and courageous about system redesign.

Then we can use our insights to make a difference in ourselves and our world.

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Thinking In Systems

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Product details:

EditionInternational Edition
ISBN1603580557, 978-1603580557
Posted onDecember 3, 2008
Page Count240 pages
AuthorDonella Meadows

Thinking in Systems PDF Book Free Download - Epicpdf

Thinking in Systems is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem-solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.


Author: Donella H. Meadows

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