For Thinking in Systems book group: do the assigned readings before you come to class on the date listed; enter your reading homework for these three questions here (remember to enter useful comments on your topic page, as well).Thinking in Systems

2/28 3/14 3/28 4/11 4/25
Intro, Ch 1 (p. 34) Ch 2 & 3 (p. 85) Ch 4 & 5 (p. 141)and post responses for Ch1-5 Ch 6 (p. 165) Ch 7 & Appendix (p. 203) and post responses for Ch 6-7
  1. Explain how one idea in the reading relates to other topics already covered in class or something you learned elsewhere (another class or life experience).
  2. List what you think are the three to five most important points made in the reading.
  3. Write a question to provoke discussion among others who read the same passage.

44 Responses to “Thinking in Systems


  1. […] fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. […]


  2. […] fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. […]

  3. aubreylane Says:

    1.I really enjoyed how Donella explained the effects of parameters in relation to political systems. She talks about how putting different actors into the same “machine” doesn’t net you all that different of a result. I think many people were disillusioned as to thinking that the recent elections both in 2008 for the President’s seat and the last election that saw a shake up in the House of Representatives would result in dramatic, sweeping changes & quickly at that. However, we now see that the same system is at play and it’s often difficult to work against, even by those with the best of intentions. Seeing as she died in 2001 I would have loved to know her opinion on the previous and current administrations & think that all of us would do well applying a little more systems thinking into our personal politics.
    2.

    How do you change paradigms? you point out their failures and flaws, you speak loudly against them, and you insert, publically, the new paradigm.

    – The concept that leverage points are places of power, and it is here that small changes can have an impact, but only if we correctly interpret and utilize them, too often we get thinks backwards and have a counterintuitive effect on the very thing we’re trying to improve or change.

    “Surely there is no power, no control, no understanding, not even a reason for being, much less acting, embodied in the notion that there is no certainty in any world view. But, in fact, everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help you to achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, listen to the universe.” (<—- probably the most important point in the book for me and it has resonated deeply with me.)….. we do have a lot of power, and not knowing everything is part of the majesty in life & if something isn't working out, if the current trajectory isn't working, let's change it!

    "The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable."

    3. Do you think that this book spoke more to the technological, mathematical, and scientific aspects of life and our understanding of it or the intuitive, emotional, empathetic qualities?
    & what advice, adjustments, changes do you think Donella would add to the book now, in light of recent events, considering she passed in 2001?

  4. yochivoy Says:

    I found very interesting the mention of growth, and how with growth we want to exterminate the same problems that emerge as consequences of growth it self. Like for example some of the costs of growth are poverty hunger and environmental destruction, this are problems that we try to eliminate with growth. The idea that we need much slower growth, different kinds of growth and in some cases no growth or negative growth really resonates with me. Very unfortunately for most of us it seems that is all about economic growth, whereas i would like to see more, intellectual, conscious, spiritual, emotional growth.
    I liked the whole leverage points talk.
    I found really powerful the passage that says “A system with an unchecked reinforcing loop ultimately will destroy itself.”
    “The more you have of something, the more you have the possibility of having more”
    “If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them.”

  5. deniellea Says:

    To be very honest myself–I do see the importance of the more holistic ways of viewing things which the book presents, but I have still had some trouble completely absorbing all of the concepts and language throughout and difficulty getting through the last few chapters especially, so an in depth response feels difficult for me to make at this time.
    So here I will at least share a quote that I liked from chapter 7:

    “The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionist science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.
    For those who stake their identitiy on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand predict, and control, what is there to do?
    Systems thinking leads to another conclusion, however, waiting, shining, obvious, as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says that there is plenty to do, of a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.”


  6. A main key point in chapter six is that there is no truly one size fits all solution to the serious problems that confront out modern world– or for that matter, anything. Meadows gives the example of Jay Forrester’s model that growth will solve everything. She points out that there are costs as well as benefits in growth, but we don’t typically consider the costs. This reminds me of a concept I’m learning in my persuasion and argumentation class called confirmation bias. The law of confirmation bias basically states that people have a tendency to seek out information or evidence that favors or confirms their hypothesis, or what they beleive to be true. It also means that they utterly ignore information that contradicts their beliefs. This is a selective and biased process, and when applied to problems as having a leverage solution, as Meadows discusses, it tends to push situations in the wrong direction.

    I think the most important points made in chapter 6-7 are as follows:
    – An effective leverage point is a free-flow of information and a general transparency in a system. It is defined as the ability to transcend thinking as it is in the status quo– we need to start thinking outside the box, because this thinking will help lead us to solutions that best reflect our goals and values.
    – In order to change a system, we must first understand how a system behaves. Therefore, watch how it behaves. Be open to what’s happening without trying to control it or evaluating on the basis of right or wrong, good or bad.
    – When developing models or solutions, don’t rigidly attach yourself to any one outcome. Be open to the possibilies of many solutions and outcomes, flexibiliy is afterall the secret to immortality. Don’t give up your intention to fulfill your goals, just release your attachment to the outcome.
    Lastly, a question I have is, what is a “solution” to the economic and industrial problem that is destroying our planet? Are we already too far gone? Sea levels are rising, atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing, the wealth distribution between the rich and the poor is increasing– is there anything we can do to save these situations, or is it too late?

  7. zotique Says:

    To be completley honest I am doing my second book post having not fully read the last chapters of this book. The book was a little too dry for me and because I am taking calculus and studying mathematical systems I got too high of a dose of these dry mathy concepts and started to spend more time reading Original Instructions instead. I did read the first four chapters thoroughly but skimmed the last three. These are four ideas i find to be at the core of this book. 1) The set of vocabulary words Meadows has created that is large enough to analyze and model systems at work in the universe.

    2) I like this line a lot: “We can’t control systems but we can dance with them.” This line’s underlying lesson is that complete control is NOT the ultimate goal in understanding the leverage points, feedback loops and all the other factors in the system you are studying. While salsa dancing, control is not the ultimate goal either. It is a give and take between partners, keeping time, knowledge of certain moves, feedback loops and improvisation that make a successful system of dancers.
    3) “Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts.” This quote is one that meadows herself called a main point in the last chapter. This quote seems to me to be the best way to use Meadows’ words to describe the affect she was striving to have on the readers of this book. Dry as the book was at times Thinking in Systems was able to enrich some of my thought processes with a different way of thought and a format for achieving this new way of thought.
    4) Ethical Message, again these are goals stated by meadows in the last chapter but who sums up the main points of the book better than the author? Locate responsibility in the system, go for the good of the whole, stay humble, celebrate complexity, expand time horizons, defy the disciplines and expand the boundaries of caring.
    Meadows writes that systems never account for the whole reality of a situation. With Occam’s razor in mind, the science ethic that simplest theory is likely to be the truest does it not seem that Meadows is selling herself short? With Occam’s razor in mind I say that certain systems can be modeled fully. I model systems for physics homework all the time and every input and output is accounted for as is the nature of those inputs and outputs. My point being that with the scope of your vision narrowed, as it gets in studying sciences, systems thinking and modeling can cover the whole reality and nature of a system. It is the systems involving people and their businesses that can never be predicted or modeled in such a way as to represent the whole picture because both you and I are unpredictable everyday of our lives.


  8. 1. Systems thinking helps you understand a lot but never everything. Also there is no one predictable solution to be applied through systems thinking. I think this is an interesting and important thing to think about in our current health care system. The increasing specialization of doctors has created a lot of issues in being able to treat patients. Thinking that one specific aspect of a body can be healed without taking into account the rest of the body has caused very careless practice in this country. No doctor will ever be an all knowing expert in one area, and they must have an overall holistic understanding of the entire body and its interrelatedness.

    2.
    a) The normalcy of people to jump to solutions. Those solutions almost always pertain to predict, impose, control your will without thinking about the overall systems problems and solutions.
    b) Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model” (p. 172)
    c) The need to use language with more complexity was a very interesting concept that I thought was true. Language here is shown as a sort of self perpetuating process. I think it is important to expand the language we use to fit the end results we want to see. Diversify language to create resilience. Concrete, meaningful, and truthful.

    3. I appreciated hearing about Jimmy Carter, who had a systems thinking approach when dealing with policies, although they didn’t pass. It is glaringly obvious that most politicians do not have this capability. How as citizens in a democracy-ish can we deal with this. Do you see a way of drawing attention to the way that these lawmakers think in a non-linear and backwards way?

  9. zotique Says:

    I think a useful linear system only occurs in numerical analysis, for example the line y=mx+b is one of the most simple systems that could be(one input produces one and only one output). Every system you study as a biologist and every system I study as an engineer is very fortunatley not that simple, otherwise we would get bored, right?

    1. zotique Says:

      oops that was supposed to be posted as a response


    2. Yes, I understand the complexity of systems and their non-linearity. The question I’m interested in is, could fact that they are nonlinear, (in statistics an example would perhaps be an “outlier”), meaning, the fact that we are conscious of the non-linearity and unpredictability of systems, be substantiated within a human context of understanding; meaning, could we somehow develop a graph or chart that would account for the difference? I guess I’m having a hard time expressing the question I’m thinking. It’s complicated lol. I’ll try to think of an adequate example before class tonight. Thank you for your response 🙂

    3. zotique Says:

      What are the important points of the first four chapters? The first two chapters were focused on introducing a set of vocabulary words and presenting easy to follow examples of systems thinking. Comparitively the second two chapters were able to get deeper and slightly perplexing at times. Basically we were given the backbone to train the mind to think in systems not linearly. I saw the change from linear to systematic thought processes as one of the largest ideas to pick up on, for some reason. Donella writes in the beginning of chapter 4, “Everything we think or know about the world is a model. Our models have a strong congruence with the world. However, and conversely our models fall short of representing the world fully.” This is to me almost a challenge from Meadows to take systems thinking far enough, detailed enough, so that the systems in your mind can close to represent reality and predict future flows and ebs in said system.
      The main point I discuss here contradicts the question Jess posted, which is interesting to me. I got the impression I should be getting away from linear thinking while Jess wonders how often a complex system can approach an almost linear nature, at least I think that’s what you were getting at.

      To relate a point in the book to my own experiences:
      I’d like to answer a question about the enriching qualities of thinking in systems. If it is enriching and a change to think like this, I would say it is, and since everybody lives inside of and is a part of many, many systems how is it that the majority of us are not inherently systems thinkers?
      I would say that it is because of the ease of linear thinking and because of a large quantity of self organizing systems. I work for a landscaping company. Let’s say that the number of workers my boss has is the stock of a system. There are balancing feedback loops connecting my boss’s, Kurt Christiansen, stock to who comes in on what day. The feedback loops are balancing because we have rather slow and he needs to acheive a different balnace between his stock and the work to be done each day. This system has many self organizing features. For instance, the balancing feedback loop between stock and workflow is not always thought about as a system. Instead of balancing feedback loop between stock and system you could say, Kurt’s ability to get people to show up when more work needs to be done. For me it can be as linear as I called Kurt and he said, “Stay home, no work.” However, being the long winded man he is that conversation would never happen like that. What I am trying to say with my example here is that systems thinking is dependent on a person’s responsibility level(Kurt often has to think more systematically than I do as the boss) and self organizing systems may be the cause for system thinking not being inherent in all of us.
      Would you guys answer my question the same way?


  10. My primary view of the author’s purpose for writing this book is to provide human beings a mirror; that is to say, a means of reflection of the workings of our world. Most of the principles in this book are, in my judgment, rudimentary and seemingly inherent; and yet, when one steps back to acknowledge a system in all its complexity, one is often surprised. It is interesting how the processes in front of us are so obvious they are invisible.

    I parallel the elements of a system, which the author discusses in the first chapter, to what I am learning in my Biological Psychology class. Virtually everything is operated systematically—from the central nervous system to a cell membrane—literally everything is interconnected with everything else. What I think is really fascinating is how an electrical message is carried down the axon of a neuron to synapse with another neuron to control muscle movement and behavior. The author distinguishes three things as being the foundation of a system: elements, interconnection and a function or purpose. In the case of the neuron, the electrically charged positive or negative ions that subside in the extracellular and intracellular fluid of a cell (Na+, K+, CI-), along with the myelinated axon and the sodium or potassium channels, are all the basic elements that are required to send information from one neuron to another. The interconnectedness is these elements working in sync with each other to alter the electrical activity of the cell—thus producing a depolarizing or hyperpolarizing affect. They do this by changing the quantity of ions in the cell: a stimulus opens a voltage-dependent sodium channel, which allows positively charged sodium ions into the intracellular field of a cell, depolarizing it from its resting value of -70mV to 40mV, which then allows potassium channels to open, which brings it back to its resting value. All of this occurs in less than a millisecond—and they occur billions of times a day in billions of cells, all to produce the physical movements that we make, such as walking, raising our hands, typing on a keyboard, moving our lips and mouth, etc. That is the essential function of the elements and interconnectedness—the final intention of the system.

    And that’s just chapter one.

    This far in the book (chapters 1-4), I think the most important points the author makes are:
    – Systems work well because they are complex: they are self-organized, self-governing, resilient and hierarchical.
    – The relationships between systems are nonlinear; there is no two-dimensional model that can accurately predict, without exception, the behavior of a system at a given time.
    – The narrowed intention and purpose of one particular element in a system may in fact oppose the purpose or function of the entire system.

    One question I have to ask, is, (and this may seem like a rhetorical question), could the pattern of nonlinearity produce behavior that is, essentially, linear?

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