Thinking in System - Donella Meadows

Thinking in System - Donella Meadows

Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows is a short introduction to “systems thinking,” their components (stocks, flows, feedback loops), common system configurations, common pitfalls/opportunities of those configurations, and leverage points to intervene in those systems. I thought of recommending this book after listening to 118 - Work the System, which, despite sharing the word “system” doesn’t have much in common with Thinking in System.

I had so many “Ah ha!” moments reading this book. Many were about things I “knew” but hadn’t realized the consequences of. Like how “systems with similar feedback structures produce similar dynamic behaviors, even if the outward appearance of these systems is completely dissimilar.” For example, a population system (controlled by births and deaths) has a similar configuration as an economic capital system (controlled by investment and depreciation). Reading this book, it was so easy to think “Here’s a silver bullet!” but then she totally called me out on it:

People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mind-set of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.

Here’s another example, which @joebuhlig will probably like: the stocks and flow diagram of a software development system (from An Elegant Puzzle by Will Larson) and how the rate of different activities (code review, for example) affect the balance of the system.