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Key systems thinking lessons from Donella Meadows

By Geoff Marlow. Originally published on the Integration and Implementation Insights blog.

The book “Thinking In Systems: A Primer” by Donella (Dana) Meadows (2008) offers a useful entry point into systems thinking via seven lessons.

Lesson 1: Systems are always more than the sum of their parts

Feedback loops are pivotal, as is looking beyond the players to the underlying rules of the game.

Meadows (p. 13) offers guidance as to “whether you are looking at a system or just a bunch of stuff:

  • Can you identify parts? . . . and
  • Do the parts affect each other? . . . and
  • Do the parts together produce an effect that is different from the effect of each part on its own? . . . and perhaps
  • Does the effect, the behavior over time, persist in a variety of circumstances?” 

Lesson 2: Systems are within systems, within systems

This means that choosing where to draw the boundaries when thinking about systems is important.

Meadows (p.35) explores a collection of simple systems — both in isolation and in context — that create their own behaviour:

This collection has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as a zoo. It gives you an idea of the large variety of systems that exist in the world, but it is far from a complete representation of that variety. It groups the animals by family—monkeys here, bears there (single-stock systems here, two-stock systems there)—so you can observe the characteristic behaviors of monkeys, as opposed to bears. But, like a zoo, this collection is too neat. To make the animals visible and understandable, it separates them from each other and from their normal concealing environment. Just as zoo animals more naturally occur mixed together in ecosystems, so the systems animals described here normally connect and interact with each other and with others not illustrated here—all making up the buzzing, hooting, chirping, changing complexity in which we live.”

Lesson 3: Three important system characteristics are resilience, self-organisation, and hierarchy

Meadows (p. 75) points out that:

If pushed too far, systems may well fall apart or exhibit heretofore unobserved behavior. But, by and large, they manage quite well. And that is the beauty of systems: They can work so well. When systems work well, we see a kind of harmony in their functioning. Think of a community kicking in to high gear to respond to a storm. People work long hours to help victims, talents and skills emerge; once the emergency is over, life goes back to “normal”.”

Lesson 4: We understand systems through representations — maps, schema, or mental models that are inevitably limited in comparison to the complex real world

Meadows (p. 87-88) cites economist and General Systems Theory founder Kenneth Boulding in capturing this spirit:

“A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.
Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.
If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us—heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!”

Lesson 5: There are several systems archetypes that practitioners frequently observe

These archetypes crop up again and again — making them both a strength and weakness of the system dynamics school of systems thinking:

  • They’re a strength because their familiar patterns can help guide us to points of leverage for effective interventions.
  • They’re a weakness because we risk seeing a system as an arrangement of archetype “parts” and lose sight of its uniqueness.

Meadows lists the following eight common systems archetypes:

  • Fixes that Fail (also known as Policy Resistance)
  • The Tragedy of the Commons (also known as Environmental Erosion)
  • Drift to Low Performance (also known as Focus on the Negatives)
  • Escalation (also known as Accidental Adversaries)
  • Success to the Successful (also known as Competitive Exclusion)
  • Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor (also known as The Addiction Loop)
  • Rule Beating (also known as Impression Management)
  • Seeking the Wrong Goal (also known as What gets Measured gets Manipulated).

More information on systems archetypes is provided in an i2Insights contribution by Hossein Hosseini and colleagues, Using archetypes as a systemic lens to understand the complexity of sustainable development.

Lesson 6: Twelve places to intervene in a system

Meadows lists twelve places to intervene in pursuit of systemic change, from the least impactful (level 12) to the most impactful (level 1) as follows:

  1. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
  2. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows. (For an explanation of stocks, flows and delays see: Meadows or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System_dynamics.)
  3. The structure of material stocks and flows.
  4. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
  5. The strength of negative “balancing” feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
  6. The gain around driving positive “reinforcing” feedback loops.
  7. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
  8. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
  9. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
  10. The goals of the system.
  11. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  12. The power to transcend paradigms.

She observes that without systemic thinking, efforts to change systems invariably focus on points with limited leverage, which she likens to “arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” (p. 148).

Lesson 7: Beware the seductive illusion that systems thinking can equip you to predict and control an inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable real world.

Meadows (p. 166) highlights this by citing G. K. Chesterton:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is.

Concluding comments

Meadows had an enviable knack for explaining complex systemic phenomena in simple ways without dumbing down the subject, making her insights accessible to ordinary people in real-world organisations.

How does Meadows’ thinking resonate with your experience? Which other thinkers have influenced your thought and practice?

To find out more:

This i2Insights contribution is based on Marlow, G. (2023). Influential thinkers: Donella Meadows. A pioneer whose insights help inform the creation of future-fit cultures. Substack article published July 16, 2023: (Online): https://geoffmarlow.substack.com/p/influential-thinkers-donella-meadows

Reference:

Meadows, D. H. (author), Wright, D. (editor). (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont, United States of America.
(Donella Meadows’ book was originally circulated as a draft in 1993, and versions of this draft circulated informally within the system dynamics community for years. After her death in 2001, the book was restructured by colleagues at the Sustainability Institute, edited by Diana Wright, and published in 2008.)

Biography:

Geoff Marlow Geoff Marlow has more than 35 years of experience working with organisations throughout Europe, Asia and the US to help them create future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness so they are able thrive in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world. He is based in Cambridge UK. Connect on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/geoffreymarlow/.

Article source: Key systems thinking lessons from Donella Meadows. Republished by permission.

Header image: Front cover of the book “Thinking In Systems: A Primer” by Donella (Dana) Meadows (2008).

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Integration and Implementation Insights (also known as i2Insights) is a community weblog for researchers who are interested in sharing concepts and methods for understanding and acting on complex societal and environmental problems (problems like refugee crises, global climate change, and inequality). The blog is run by the Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) team at The Australian National University.

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