Crucial Adventures in Systems Thinking

Systems are everywhere. They shape us and we can, do, and should shape them. Our destiny is tied up with them but they are pretty invisible. In this essay I explore some useful systems dynamics and perspectives and share two essays by others exploring the same vast territory in search of insights we can use to make the world better.

Dear friends,

We live amidst all kinds of systems. We ourselves are living systems. We are also active participants in political systems, economic systems, information systems, ecosystems. These social and natural systems shape our lives, shape our beliefs about what is real and possible, and shape our destinies. Remarkably, they are almost invisible to us. We can see their parts and their impacts quite vividly all around us and even inside us. But we can’t see THEM.

We can only get a handle on them with systems thinking.

Now, I like to think of myself as a systems thinker. But there are ways in which I am and ways in which I’m not. Systems thinking comes in many forms. I’m fairly good at some of them and fairly clueless and incompetent at others.

But one thing I know, which is not necessarily common among many systems thinkers, is exactly what I just said above: Systems thinking comes in many forms. I have a broad definition of systems thinking:

Systems thinking is any style of thinking
that delves into the interconnectedness
and wholeness of reality.

That covers a lot of ground.

I think this idea of systems thinking – in any and all of its forms – is one of the most important factors in our collective fate. Our main source of folly – our lack of wisdom – is our tendency to take too narrow a view of an issue or problem. Our solutions then run into the factors that we overlooked because we weren’t thinking in terms of interconnectedness and wholeness. This failure to notice important factors undermines our solutions, making them less effective or even causing them to create problems elsewhere. We end up on a down escalator that feels like a hamster’s wheel to hell.

That’s why I define “public wisdom” as taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit. What we don’t take into account will come back to haunt us, big time. Reality bats last. Over and over.

So we really need to include information and people who can help us stretch into “the big picture” and its important interconnections.

Here are just a few examples of systems thinkers we’d be wise to include in our deliberations:

  • systems scientists – ecologists, cyberneticists, chaos and complexity scientists, evolutionary researchers, and various multi-disciplinary scholars;
  • holistic and evolutionary philosophers, historians and ethicists – perhaps especially those who come from marginalized groups;
  • sociologists, cultural anthropologists, neuroscientists, and other specialists in the dynamics and relativity of what we think we know, individually and collectively;
  • indigenous spokespeople and shamans who know how to enlighten modernist minds.

To give a sense of the eclectic nature of my view of systems thinking, here are some of the interconnected system-related understandings and resources that I believe we can and should be attending to and using more consciously:

  • feedback dynamics: incentives and disincentives, reinforcers and magnifiers, resistance dynamics, resilience…
  • self-organizing dynamics: the intrinsic nature of things and motivations of people, actual and potential connections, diversity, shared purpose…
  • positivity: the attractive powers of possibility, appreciation, fun…
  • collectivity: networks, relationships, community and tribal dynamics, mutuality, empathy, interdependence…
  • co-evolutionary dynamics: learning systems, developmental patterns, interactive processes…
  • paradigms: narratives, stories, scenarios, worldviews, assumptions and beliefs that shape a whole activity…
  • power dynamics: freedom, privilege, oppression, vulnerability, limitations, leverage, different forms of power…
  • life energy: the spirit, essence, aliveness, needs, passions, aspirations of the whole system and of its parts…
  • contexts: physical, temporal, social, psychological contexts – including history, expectations, culture, circumstances…
  • discernment without judgment: the gifts and limitations of each person, thing, or dynamic, and where it fits in the bigger picture…
  • holonics: nested systems – the reality that everything is both a whole and a part of larger wholes, and what that means…
  • perspective: scale, deep time (long-term), multiple viewpoints, multiple intelligences…
  • emergence: novelty, breakthrough, co-creativity, surprise…
  • ultimate oneness: the non-local, non-dual, intuitive, resonant, synchronous, transcendent unity of life, its manifestations and dynamics…
  • inquiry: humility, curiosity, and exploration in the face of complexity, novelty, contradiction, paradox, and uncertainty….

While the above are my own reflections on what the systemic approach involves, I also believe it is important to ground ourselves in some of the more advanced mainstream disciplines and thought leaders of systems thinking. The excerpts below represent two perspectives that I particularly respect among systems thinkers seeking to make the world a better place.


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Excerpts from
7 Lessons For Leaders
by Michael K. Stone, Zenobia Barlow,
syndicated from, Dec 12, 2013

….Taking nature as our teacher requires thinking in terms of systems… Systems can be incredibly complex, but the concept is quite straightforward. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, defines a “system” as “any collection of things that have some influence on one another.” Individual things — like plants, people, schools, communities, and watersheds — are all systems of interrelated elements. At the same time, they can’t be fully understood apart from the larger systems in which they exist.

Living systems have their own dynamics. Observing systems reveals recurring properties and processes. They resist change, but they also develop, adapt, and evolve. Understanding how systems maintain themselves and how they change has very practical consequences that go to the heart of education for sustainable living….

Seven Lessons for Leaders

[See the original article for examples of each principle,
taken from the work of the authors.]

Lesson #1: To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.

Most of the qualities of a living system, notes Fritjof Capra, are aspects of a single fundamental network pattern: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. Lasting change frequently requires a critical mass or density of interrelationships within a community…. To achieve systems change, leaders must cross department boundaries and bring people addressing parts of the problem around the same table…. It’s necessary to keep asking: “Who’s being left out?” and “Who [else] should be in the room?”

Lesson #2: Work at multiple levels of scale.

“Nested systems” is a core ecological principle. Like Russian “matryoshka” dolls that fit one into the other, most systems contain other systems and are contained within larger systems: cells within organs within individuals within communities; classes within schools within districts within counties, states, and the nation…. Changing a system affects both the systems within it and the systems in which it is nested. The challenge for change agents is choosing the right level, or levels, of scale for the changes they seek. The answer is often working at multiple levels: top down, bottom up, outside in, and inside out….

Lesson #3: Make space for self-organization.

Fritjof Capra writes, “Perhaps the central concept in the systems view of life” is that the pattern favored by life “is a network pattern capable of self-organization.” He adds, “Life constantly reaches out into novelty, and this property of all living systems is the origin of development, learning, and evolution.” Networks that can effect systems change will sometimes self-organize [in desirable ways] if you set up the right conditions….

Lesson #4: Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise.

Living systems generally remain in a stable state. That’s a good thing; otherwise, we’d be living in chaos. But it’s also why systems change can be so difficult. From time to time, however, a system encounters a point of instability where it is confronted by new circumstances or information that it can’t absorb without giving up some of its old structures, behaviors, or beliefs. That instability can precipitate either a breakdown or — due to systems’ capacities for self-organization — a breakthrough to new possibilities….

Lesson #5: Facilitate — but give up the illusion that you can direct — change.

“We never succeed in directing or telling people how they must change,” observes Margaret Wheatley. “We don’t succeed by handing them a plan, or pestering them with our interpretations, or relentlessly pressing forward with our agenda, believing that volume and intensity will convince them to see it our way.”

So what can you do? In the provocative maxim of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, “You can never direct a living system. You can only disturb it.” How do you disturb a system? By introducing information that contradicts old assumptions. By demonstrating that things people believe they can’t do are already being accomplished somewhere…. By inviting new people into the conversation. By rearranging structures so that people relate in ways they’re not used to. By presenting issues from different perspectives.

Meanwhile, you can create conditions that take advantage of the system’s capacity for generating creative solutions. Nurture networks of connection and communication, create climates of trust and mutual support, encourage questioning, and reward innovation. Effective leaders recognize emergent novelty, articulate it, and incorporate it into organizations’ designs. Leaders sometimes lead best when they loosen control and take the risk of dispersing authority and responsibility.

Lesson #6: Assume that change is going to take time.

“Quick fixes are an oxymoron,” says Margaret Wheatley. “If leaders would learn anything from the past many years, it’s that there are no quick fixes. For most organizations, meaningful change is at least a three- to five-year process — though this seems impossibly long. Yet multiyear change efforts are the hard reality we must face.”

Anticipate that you’ll need time for the education and training required for people to change attitudes, adopt new practices, or use new tools. Set high goals, but take manageable steps. Look for intermediate achievements that allow people to experience — and celebrate — success and to receive recognition on the way to the ultimate goal.

Taking time for stakeholders to understand each other’s concerns and learn to trust each other’s motivations and intentions can be time well spent….

Lesson #7: Be prepared to be surprised.

Change in living systems is nonlinear. As they develop and evolve, living systems generate phenomena that are not predictable from the properties of their individual parts, much as the wetness of water cannot be forecast by adding together the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. Systems theorists call these “emergent properties.”….

The art and science of systems change are continually evolving. We encourage people to experiment with these seven lessons — and to expect surprises. Frequently it’s the unanticipated consequences that are the most rewarding and effective results of immersion in dynamic systems.

Some good resources:

Fritjof Capra, “The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems” (New York: Anchor Books, 1996); and “The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living” (New York: Anchor Books, 2002).

Joanna Macy, “Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Ourselves, Our World” (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1998).

Humberto M. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, “The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding” (Boston: Shambhala, 1992).

Donella Meadows, “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” (White River, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008).

Margaret Wheatley, “Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time” (San Francisco: Barrett-Kohler Publishers, 2005, 2007); and “Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).


Excerpts from
Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System
By Donella Meadows

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.

This idea is not unique to systems analysis — it’s embedded in legend. The silver bullet, the trimtab, the miracle cure, the secret passage, the magic password, the single hero who turns the tide of history. The nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles. We not only want to believe that there are leverage points, we want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them. Leverage points are points of power….

So one day I was sitting in a meeting about how to make the world work better — actually it was a meeting about how the new global trade regime, NAFTA and GATT and the World Trade Organization, is likely to make the world work worse. The more I listened, the more I began to simmer inside. “This is a HUGE NEW SYSTEM people are inventing!” I said to myself. “They haven’t the SLIGHTEST IDEA how this complex structure will behave,” myself said back to me. “It’s almost certainly an example of cranking the system in the wrong direction — it’s aimed at growth, growth at any price!! And the control measures these nice, liberal folks are talking about to combat it — small parameter adjustments, weak negative feedback loops — are PUNY!!!”

Suddenly, without quite knowing what was happening, I got up, marched to the flip chart, tossed over to a clean page, and wrote:


(in increasing order of effectiveness)

9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Regulating negative feedback loops.
7. Driving positive feedback loops.
6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.

Everyone in the meeting blinked in surprise, including me. “That’s brilliant!” someone breathed. “Huh?” said someone else.

I realized that I had a lot of explaining to do.

I also had a lot of thinking to do. As with most of the stuff that come to me in boil-over mode, this list was not exactly tightly reasoned. As I began to share it with others, especially systems analysts who had their own lists and activists who wanted to put the list to immediate use, questions and comments came back that caused me to rethink, add and delete items, change the order, add caveats.

In a minute I’ll go through the list I ended up with, explain the jargon, give examples and exceptions. The reason for this introduction is to place the list in a context of humility and to leave room for evolution. What bubbled up in me that day was distilled from decades of rigorous analysis of many different kinds of systems done by many smart people. But complex systems are, well, complex. It’s dangerous to generalize about them. What you are about to read is a work in progress. It’s not a recipe for finding leverage points. Rather it’s an invitation to think more broadly about system change.

Here, in the light of a cooler dawn, is a revised list:


(in increasing order of effectiveness)

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms….

[In her full article, Meadows goes on to articulate each of these in much greater detail, with examples. A shorter review is available on WIkipedia.]

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