Book Review: Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems: A Primer


Donella Meadows

My Rating

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Our world is a system, itself composed of many systems. You and your colleagues form a system, which is a subsystem of your organisation's system... which is a subsystem of the economy. Everything is a system.

Wouldn't it be advantageous if there were ways to reason about systems that let us understand them and adapt them to better suit our needs? This is precisely the goal of Systems Thinking, and a very alluring concept for almost anyone who wants to improve almost anything.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by the late Donella Meadows, is an informative, intriguing, and inspiring introduction to Systems Thinking. For me It was the perfect introduction to the topic; now I can't stop thinking in systems.

Abstraction Tools for Systems

My first wow moment when reading this book was the first diagram of a system. I was highly-engaged to learn about the conceptual components of a system, including stocks, flows, and feedback loops.

These concepts allow you to illustrate and reason about how any kind of system works - human, inorganic, economies, anything. These abstract building blocks are so powerful because they let you model any kind of system.

Visualisation is a key aspect of learning, teaching, and sharing information. So I have no doubt that these concepts for modelling systems are an import step in understanding and improving systems. As proof, the diagrams made understanding the text in the book substantially easier.

Improving Systems

Abstracting systems, using concepts like stocks and flows, enables abstract concepts for improving them. These are known as leverage points in Systems Thinking nomenclature.

Leverage points in systems allow you to affect the behaviour of systems. Ideally you consciously change them for desired behaviour. But quite often, as the book shows, people unwittingly push leverage points in the wrong direction to promote adverse behaviour.

Towards the end of the book is a list of leverage points. I found this list highly useful. By relating the leverage points to systems I know, I can definitely see how they apply abstractly to most systems.

One leverage point that I already practice a lot is increasing the flow of information. I encourage my colleagues to learn more about the goals of the business so that they can make business impacts. This requires a flow of information from the top of the business to the front-line engineering teams.

First Baby Step

What I learned from this book is just enough to start thinking in systems. The book provides the abstract tools for modelling systems, and the author provides some basic examples of a variety of systems. However, as the title says, this book is just a primer.

I now have the apetite for more in-depth examples of human learning systems. I also want to play around modeling systems to see if I can actually use Systems Thinking gainfully. So I have plenty of learning on this topic still to come.

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