Taking a Systems View

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then the rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves…There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”—Robert Pirsig, Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows uses a Slinky® to introduce a central concept about systems: that behavior is related to structure the way the elements and interconnections work together to achieve a function or purpose.   Systems aren’t just any old collection of things.  A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.  For example, the elements of your digestive system include teeth, enzymes, stomach and intestines.  They are interrelated through the physical flow of food, and through an elegant set of regulating chemical signals.  The function of the system is to break down food into the basic nutrients and to transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream (another system) while discarding unusable products.  A school is a system.  So is a city, and a factory, and a corporation, and a national economy.

Systems produce the effects they do because of the way they are structured, the interconnections between elements, and their purposes.  The elements of a system are often the easiest parts of a system to notice because many of them are visible, tangible things.  The elements of a tree are roots, trunk, branches and leaves.   But before going too far in that direction, it’s a good idea to stop dissecting out elements and to start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together…Some interconnections in systems are actual physical flows, such as the water in the tree’s trunk or the students progressing through a university.   Many interconnections are flows of information – signals that go to decision points or action points within a system…

If information-based relationships are hard to see, functions or purposes are even harder.  A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily written or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system.  Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

You can understand the relative importance of a system’s elements, interconnections and purposes by imagining them changed one by one.  A tree changes its cells constantly, the leaves every year or so, but it is still essentially the same tree.  If you change the players of a football team performance is usually not significantly affected.  Change the rules of the game from football to basketball and you have, as they say, a whole new ball game.  Changes in purposes can be drastic.  What if you keep the players and the rules but change the purpose – from winning to losing?



Systems fool us by presenting themselves – or we fool ourselves by seeing the world – as a series of events.  We are less likely to be surprised if we can see how events accumulate into dynamic patterns of behavior.  Long term behavior provides clues to the underlying systemic structure.

Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System

Systems can be complicated and surprising in the way they resist change.  Leverage points, the silver bullet, the trim tab, the miracle cure, are points of power that when engaged can cause changes to the system out of proportion to their relative size.  In descending order of influence:

  1. Transcending Paradigms – That no paradigm is ‘true,’ that every one, including your own, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.
  2. Paradigms – The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumption, constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. E.g. Growth is good. One can ‘own’ land. The selfish actions of individual players in markets wonderfully accumulate to the common good. Paradigms are the sources of systems.
  3. Goals – The purpose of function of the system. The diversity-destroying consequence of the push for control demonstrates why the goal of a system is a leverage point superior to the self-organizing ability of a system.
  4. Self-Organization – The power to add, change, or evolve system structure. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it’s called technical advance or social revolution. The genetic code within the DNA that is the basis of all biological evolution contains just four different letters combined into words of three letters each. Intervening here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging variability and experimentation and diversity means ‘losing control.’
  5. Rules – Incentives, punishments, constraints. As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.
  6. Information Flows – The structure of who does and does not have access to information. Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure.

Systems work well because of three characteristics:

  • Resilience – the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc., after being pressed or stretched. Elasticity. Resilience arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after large perturbations. Because resilience is something that is very hard to see without a whole systems view, people often sacrifice resilience for stability or productivity or some more immediately recognizable system property.
  • Self-Organization – The capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex, to learn, diversify, evolve. Like resilience, self-organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stability, the usual excuses for turning creative human beings into mechanical adjuncts in production processes. Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability. It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder. These conditions often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures. Out of simple rules of self-organization can grow systems of great complexity.
  • Hierarchy – the arrangement of subsystems aggregated into larger subsystems, aggregated into still larger subsystems. E.g. A cell in your liver is a subsystem of an organ, which is a subsystem of you as an organism. Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up. When a subsystem’s goals dominate at the expense of the total system’s goals, the resulting behavior is called suboptimization. Too much central control is just as damaging. To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing.

About Freedom to...

Consultant helping people and employers in health care, education and government to see and understand how their organization works and how to change them to improve performance.
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