on 8 June 2009
I have a more thorugh review on my website. But let me just say, that I really enjoyed this book a lot.
The central insight of the book (and systems thinking in general) is, that manipulation of a system can suppress or release some behaviour which is latent within the structure of a system. A system can cause its own behaviour.
It is easy to see, why such insights carry an important message to anyone wishing to manipulate a complex systems into a desired state, such as architects, organisational designers, or business process designers. The book urges us to consider systems thinking complementary to reductionistic analysis, not throwing either of the paradigms out with the bathing water.
I usually don't comment on the appendix on the book, but in this case I will make an exception; the appendix is excellent and containts both a very useful glossary, as well as the main points of the book in bulletpoints.
This book is an extremely interesting read, and in particular relevant for people dealing with changes in complex structures, such as organisations, architectures, or business processes. For some readers, this primer will be a complete eye opener, changing the way the world is seen, For other, the will start to give them a vocabulary and a framework for understanding what they already knew by intuition.
The book provides a lens for understanding systems - and an excellent at that!
This is where newcomers to systems thinking should start, no two ways about it. Donella and Diana layout a firm foundation for the field of systems thinking study; they cover the basics with fluidity and grace using an easy, straightforward style that I could grasp instantly.
The authors start by covering definitions of a system followed by feedback-reinforcing and balancing loops, moving into the systems zoo, systems traps (E.g tragedy of the commons, seeking the wrong target, success to the successful among others), leverage points and finishing with a mildly idealistic chapter on living with systems. An excellent Appendix summarising each chapter rounds out the book.
The authors tour systems thus:
* The Basics- A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo
* Why Systems Work So Well
* System Traps and opportunities
* Leverage Points-Places to Intervene in a System
* Living in a World of Systems
* Appendix: Systems Definitions: A Glossary, Summary of Systems Principles, Spring the System Traps, Places to Intervene in a System, Guidelines for Living in a World of Systems, Model Equations, Notes, Bibliography.
I particularly liked the leverage points chapter, a chapter offered with some caution by the authors. It was such an eye opener and practical that I was able to apply the concepts to a client the following day with success, in this case the notion of changing the structure and the rules.
If you need to organise a business, design policy or simply have an interest in the way the world works and you have only just started out with systems-get this book.
If you have more advanced books that confuse a little right now, like I do, get this book.
If you have ever heard the term Systems Thinking and thought it difficult, get this book.
Personally I would also hand it to any GCSE Science students-none of whom would have a problem reading straight through it and understanding it.
This one I'll be lending my own colleagues!
Thanks to the authors for a fine job.
Please see my Listmania for other titles in this list-a beginner's list that this book is at the top of!
on 14 July 2010
There is not much new here, I would say, just the typical Forrester way of doing social research by computer simulations, made famous through "The Limits to Growth" and the books by Peter Senge. The reason I give it five stars, however, is because it is written in a simple way, discussing the theory of differential equations without even mentioning differential equations. For a more balanced view on this approach, I think Berlinski's book from 1976 is useful, but even though the ideas in this book are old and controversial, they are important. Recommended.
on 22 September 2011
Systems thinking doesn't seem to lend itself to bedside reading. But there is real humanity and humour in this book. Too many books delight in building a facade of complexity and force you to keep the brow knotted in concentration or you have to backtrack.
But every time you find it getting too complex there is a nice gentle shove back on track.
Time and time again one finds the best teachers are able to explain the most complex problems simply. This is one of those places where one finds a pleasant conversation and not a text book
I recommend Thinking in Systems because it has changed the way I understand and relate to my world. Published after Donella Meadow's death, it introduces Systems Thinking by way of definition, illustration and application.
In Part 1, System Structure and Behaviour, Meadows uses two graphical tools to analyse systems: stock and flow diagrams to show system structure; and charts mapping stock or flow levels over time to explore system behaviour for specific scenarios. The diagrams can be used to display "balancing" (aka "negative") and "reinforcing" (aka "positive") feedback loops, and the charts to explore how these might play out.
While some of the systems might seem simplistic, they build up understanding of a key Systems Thinking insight, that systems generate their own behaviour. And if you're ever wondered why the "heroes and villains" style of explanation only works in retrospect, this is a damn good explanation.
Chapter two, The Zoo, is a library of common system structures and their behaviour. Those of us from the software world will be reminded of a patterns library. Again, these patterns illustrate a deeper insight, that "systems with similar feedback structures produce similar dynamic behaviors, even if the outward appearance of these systems is completely dissimilar." (p 51)
In Part 2, Systems and Us, Meadows applies Systems Thinking to our world. Many of the examples are dated, but I found myself thinking how applicable these patterns and insights were to topics I was currently encountering - for example, I can't help thinking she would have loved the way that Kanban reflects a systems learning, that the ability of people and organisations to execute tasks degrades rapidly as the number of tasks rises beyond a critical limit.
Of course one natural and urgent interest in systems behaviour is how to change it. If worshipping heroes and lynching villains isn't going to reform systems that may exhibit non-linear, perverse or self-preserving behaviour, what is?
In Part 3, Creating Change in System and in our Philosophy, Meadows gives us a dozen leverage points for changing systems, starting with the simplest and ending with the most powerful. She finishes with a list of "systems wisdoms" - attitudes and values that she and others she respects have adopted to make them more effective at understanding and changing the systems we live in.
Like many of the other reviewers, I wish I'd read this book a long time ago. It has its limitations - I'd love to see more recent examples, and can't help wondering if there are any open-source Systems modelling resources. But for me this is a book of timeless value for anyone interested in a better understanding of their world and their options in it.
on 5 August 2012
The main purpose of this book is to give you a basic ability to understand and to deal with complex systems. This purpose has certainly been achieved, even more so, it gives much food for thought. As an engineer, manager and consultant I have used systems thinking and models all my working life, so there is nothing really new in this book, but I have never seen such a splendid and to the point explanation. The most important section is however part three, the leverage points and guidelines for living in a world of systems, summarizing the "system wisdoms". They are the behavioral consequences of a worldview based on the ideas of feedback, nonlinearity and systems responsible for their own behavior. Al fifteen given aspects are important and enlightening and should be kept in mind by all our major decisions on complex issues. It is very difficult to rank them, but the one to be mentioned here is : Stay humble - stay a learner. Very much recommended for all interested in the human mind and heart and soul.
on 7 May 2012
This book came recommended in Josh Kaufmann's The Personal MBA in a section on systems. Wanting to know a bit more on the subject I purchased this book on my kindle and was presently surprised by how well it was written. I felt that I came away with a better understanding of systems- and in sufficient detail for my needs. This is very much a primer and not for those wanting a detailed look at the field.
on 30 April 2011
Not just a primer, but a useful reference. I have trouble keeping hold of it though as as soon as anyone picks it up and reads a chapter, they borrow it. I may just buy a second copy and be done with it.
Well written, easily understood without being in any way patronising or trying to be too clever. It assumes little knowledge to begin with and builds from simple foundations. Having read it a few times, I now find myself paraphrasing from it and using examples from it when I'm instructing or coaching.
Highly recommended for trainers and students alike.
on 7 June 2014
I had always considered myself to be a system thinker and had read many books on artificial life, chaos theory etc.
But until now there was no book that I had read that formed a basis of how systems, in general, tied together. This book provides that glue. It covers a lot of ground and provides solid examples of how system thinking can, quite literally, change the world. It covers areas such as oil production, politics, user of language and drug addiction in ways that are cohesive and informative. It never provides 'just so stories' that are unsupported and provide examples of simple systems (from the systems zoo) that explain why often those who influence systems end up pushing the wrong way and making things worse, even though they may have the best of intentions.
I have so far recommended this book to five people all from different backgrounds and will be folding in what I have learnt here into my User Experience work.
on 30 June 2012
As the title suggests, this book is written as a 'primer' into the subject, and it fulfils this function with ease and grace. It has the confident feel and logical evolved structure of a book written by someone who had completely mastered her subject and was well used to introducing these key ideas to her university students.
There is a strong emphasis within the book on economic and environmental issues, which suited me well. I presume that the late author held quite progressive environmental views anyway, but systems thinking engenders and illuminates environmental concerns better than any other approach I can think of. The sections on resource depletion are both fascinating and frighteningly realistic. Although the issues and underlying thinking was not necessarily always original to systems thinking, the language (labelling of terms) and often counter-intuitive approach of systems modelling has got a lot to give in these two subjects.
Concepts introduced such as information hierarchies and resilience, are both common sense and useful intellectual tools at the same time.
"I think of resilience as a plateau upon which the system can play, performing its normal functions in safety. A resilient system has a big plateau, a lot of space over which it can wonder, with gentle, elastic walls that will bounce it back, if it comes near a dangerous edge. As a system loses its resilience, its plateau shrinks, and its protective walls become lower and more rigid, until the system is operating on a knife edge, likely to fall off in one direction or another whenever it makes a move. Loss of resilience can come as a surprise, because the system usually is paying much more attention to its play than to its playing space. One day it does something it has done a hundred times before and crashes."p78
Looking back through it, the structure of this book is also very good as I have mentioned. It progresses in a logical way from the practicalities of systems thinking through to their implications and ends with some quite philosophical themes and advice. As another reviewer has mentioned, the appendix is actually useful in this book for a change, and seems in parts like a list of the key points of the book in a type of student revision notes form.
The writing and citations in this book almost seem to suggest an air of bemused condescension on behalf of systems thinkers for their misdirected non systems thinking fellow man and the subsequent mistakes they make. Similar to the airy condescension of free market economists, but more justified and less disproved by recent events. There are many examples given which justify this air of superiority, and it seems to me to be an easy stance to buy into! Systems thinking does seem to contain the right tools for tackling the biggest contemporary problems.
Anyone suggest a suitable follow up book on systems thinking? ( preferably one biased towards economics)
Very accessible and recommended to all as an enjoyable introduction to this subject.