Thinking in Systems: A Primer

By Donella Meadows, 2009, published by Earthscan, Abingdon

“There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair.”

–          Donella Meadows.

No serious student of systems thinking can ignore the contributions of the late Donella Meadows. She is perhaps best known for her work on the Limits to Growth, and for the State of the Village Report; the latter inspiring the well-known Miniature Earth Project video.

In her book, which has been republished several times (the most recent in 2009), she sets out the key elements of systems thinking, namely an ability to understand diverse parts of a system and know the whole is more than the sum of its parts, to ‘see’ interconnections and feedback loops, to ask ‘what if’ questions about possible future behaviours, and finally to have the courage and creativity to redesign systems through their most effective leverage points.

In doing so, she takes pains to avoid the jargon and technical language sometimes associated with systems theorists, and sprinkles her arguments liberally with examples from a range of spheres, times and places.

Meadows argues that our mental models and thinking habits prevent us from ‘seeing’ the interconnections between system and sub-system parts, or the positive and negative feedback loops that regulate and react to the system changes. She seeks to answer the question of ‘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’? This is a question those of us working in the social sector have undoubtedly asked.

Many of the social issues and problems we encounter are products of system ‘traps’ – difficult to overcome no matter how much analytical or technical expertise is thrown at them. Systems problems, Meadows (2009, p4) tells us, can only be overcome when “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.” Meadows reminds us that the world is non-linear, yet we are trained to think in linear ways, assuming that action A will lead to effect B. And so we fail to understand why, for example, building more roads and highways results in more, and slower, traffic. And our bounded rationality – the fact that our poor brains can only know so much – means that we rarely seek to view things from alternative perspectives.

Meadows also explains the ‘leverage points’ in which we can intervene in a positive way in systems. At the lowest and easiest level, are the numbers, funds, parameters or standards that can be raised or lowered; these typically won’t change things a great deal but they are usually the interventions we turn to first. She moves through balancing and reinforcing feedback loops, to information flows, organising rules, system goals and purposes and finally the paradigms and mindsets defining a system itself.

It is these higher level leverage points that are the most difficult (and take the most courage) to act on, but which have the capacity to lead to lasting change. Barack Obama’s changes to the US healthcare system, and the global responses (or lack or responses) to the financial crisis provide apposite examples of actions at these various levels.

The final chapter, ‘Living in a World of Systems’, is of particular importance to those interested in leadership for change.

The key ideas (pp 170-184) are summarised here:

Creating Change: Advice for Leaders

  1. Get the beat of the system: Observe how systems behave before you try to make changes. Surfers do this all the time – the best surfers  study the pattern of waves, the weather and the tides  for some time before choosing the best spot. As she notes; ‘If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history…’ This helps to overcome our natural tendency to define a problem ‘not by the system’s actual behaviour, but by the lack of our favourite solution’.
  2. Expose your mental models to the light of day: Our thinking and knowing reflects, and is reflected by, our dominant mental models, so we need to explicitly identify them, get others to challenge our assumptions, invite alternative hypotheses – and ‘scuttle them if they are no longer supported’.
  3. Honour, respect and distribute information: Don’t distort, delay or withhold it.
  4. Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts: Think of the terms we use to describe something, what kind of thinking are they prompting/supporting?
  5. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable: There is much pressure to focus only on the quantifiable in the social sector. But she reminds us that: ‘No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point towards their presence or absence, they will cease to exist’.
  6. Make feedback policies for feedback systems: In other words, our policies should ‘design learning into the management process’.
  7. Go for the good of the whole: The aim should be to ‘enhance total systems properties such as growth, stability, diversity, resilience and sustainability’ – even if they aren’t easily measured.
  8. Listen to the wisdom of the system. Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.
  9. Locate responsibility in the system: Design systems with ‘intrinsic responsibility’, so that they send feedback about the consequences of decisions directly to decision makers. She cites the example of having pilot sit up at the front of the plane – where consequences are certainly direct and immediate!
  10. Stay humble – stay a learner: Remember that our own mental models are incomplete, so reflective trial and error, seeking feedback from others is important.
  11. Celebrate complexity:  Accept and embrace the messiness of the world – as Meadows says, it’s ‘what makes the world interesting, what makes it beautiful, and what makes it work’.
  12. Expand time horizons: Short term thinking – in all spheres of life, can be damaging; we should remember that in systems, actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come’.
  13. Defy the disciplines: Don’t stick to your own comfortable discipline (whether it is economics, social work, politics, theology or chemistry); listen to other perspectives and be open to learn from them.
  14. Expand the boundary of caring: Leading in our complex world means not only expanding our time horizons and thought horizons, but also our ‘horizons of caring’. In this sense systems thinking reinforces ethics.
  15. Don’t erode the goal of goodness: Be conscious of the race to the lowest common denominator in the media, popular culture and politics, as she noted more than a decade ago ‘it is much easier to talk about hate in public than to talk about love’.

All in all, this book is a worthwhile addition to any leader’s library, and will remain a classic for years to come.

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