Thinking in Systems

Recommending a book involves lot of risk; your credibility and other people’s time would be at stake. However, after reading “Thinking in Systems”, it is worth taking this risk.

If you have ever thought about questions like:

  • How systems work and behave?
  • How systems are structured and what abstractions to use to simplify their complexity?
  • Is it possible to change a system? If yes, when and where you should intervene to get desired outcome?

Then you should read ” Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows.  Concepts in this book are relevant to every system, no matter which area of life you are dealing with. Systems are everywhere; galaxies, political systems, project teams or an individual cell in your body are few examples.


In Part one, writer defines system, its building blocks and how they interact with each other to achieve certain purpose.

In Part Two, writer explains how systems work so well and explains key characteristics of the systems that make them sustainable. Three key characteristics are described here :  Resilience (ability to sustain in adverse conditions), Self Organization (changing own structure) and Existence of Hierarchy (systems within systems).

System traps are phenomena you should avoid while you are analyzing an existing system, identifying root cause of certain behavior or designing new systems to achieve certain goals. One such trap is Tragedy of Commons, it  happens when a shared resource is used (or abused) by many participants and its use (or abuse) can not be attributed to any single participant. Potential opportunities to avoid this trap may be things like privatizing the resource (each participant pays price of its usage) or regulating the resource usage .

In last part, writer discusses most interesting topic:  Leverage Points:  places to intervene in a System. You would be amazed to see that there are so many places in the system where you can intervene to change the behavior. Real life systems are so complex that you may need to adjust many leverage points to achieve desired outcome.

If you are brainstorming about a specific problem like how to improve performance of your company,  then you will have to identify goals, establish rules, feedback loops,  setup appropriate structure, each one being a leverage point in systems theory. Hundred years ago, who would have thought that we will be driving cars in 8 lanes freeway or operating such busy airports or writing such complex software with such a discipline. You can identify how rules, feedback loops (reinforcing loops or balancing loops) are in action in these systems.

These concepts help you broaden your perspective;  how you look at the systems,  understand their historical context,  what solutions may (or may not) work, or what position you take when talking about political issues etc.