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Why systems generate their own behaviour, and what to do about it
on 10 June 2012
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.