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Thinking in Systems: A Primer

A book by Donella H. Meadows

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Strong introduction to systems thinking

  • Jun 12, 2009
We tend to think in terms of linear cause and effect chains ("if I do this, this will happen"), or expecting to know in advance what output will correspond to what input, and we put emphasis on immediate results ("I will do this if the direct results are beneficial") over long term consequences. This straightforward guide to systems thinking shows the problems with considering the world to be easily manipulable. The fact that rewarding a team for good performance, for example, increases their short term motivation to work hard, doesn't mean that increased rewards will increase performance. What comes out of a system depends not only on what goes into it but also on the character of the system, its current state of resources and how they are affected by external and internal variables.

Meadows first outlines several simple types of systems and shows how they tend to function. She reminds that the model is not the same as the system, and that we can always expect systems to surprise us due to factors we cannot determine in advance - at the same time as she highlights several ubiquitous "systems traps" and how to overcome their pitfalls. She indicates several useful strategies for working with and living in a world of systems. This is not really a textbook for those who will need to perform systems analysis, but it is a helpful introduction to systems that goes well beyond some of the platitudes that abound in "self-help" style business and management books (e.g. "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" which is true enough but only gets you so far). Well worth reading; a book that could and should change the way most of us look at and interact with the world. For another book on about the same level that gives a systems approach to thinking about ourselves, see the exciting and excellent Tree of Knowledge.

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More Thinking in Systems: A Primer reviews
review by . February 18, 2010
If you're trying to grapple with problems or to make predictions in things like a business, a charitable organization, or a classroom, this book can help you see what you're working with as a system. Doing so -- and the numerous simple real-world examples make it possible -- can help you approach problem-solving in a new and probably more successful way.     If you enjoy thinking about philosophical issues or the great problems of the world, systems thinking is an intriguing …
review by . April 16, 2009
I first learned and practiced systems analysis back in the 1970s, and it's a skill that seems neglected in the training of many young professionals I come in contact with.    "Thinking in Systems: A Primer" is a book I hoped would be informative and accessible for people who need to develop the skill or just refresh their own talents. It does present its subject systematically and without confusing jargon.    While I found the writing clear and well-organized …
review by . March 26, 2009
Nearly everything that humans deal with is a system, which by definition is a structure with many parts that are interconnected in many different ways. One, but by no means the only mistake that can be made is to fail to recognize that something is a part of a system. If that mistake is made, then what happens can be unexpected and completely out of proportion. A change in some parts of a system is damped out so that even a major change in the part will have little overall affect on the system. …
review by . March 17, 2009
As a long-time admirer of Donella Meadows' work, and knowing that she died much too young in 2001, I was surprised and enormously gladdened to learn that another book had arrived. Meadows all but completed the volume which has been edited and released by the Sustainability Institute.    It is her masterwork. (You did us right, Dana! As Cat Stevens framed it, "Oh very young, what did you leave us this time? You're only dancing on this earth for a short while ...")     The …
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Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #68
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
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Starred Review. Just before her death, scientist, farmer and leading environmentalist Meadows (1941-2001) completed an updated, 30th anniversary edition of her influential 1972 environmental call to action, Limits to Growth, as well as a draft of this book, in which she explains the methodology-systems analysis-she used in her ground-breaking work, and how it can be implemented for large-scale and individual problem solving. With humorous and commonplace examples for difficult concepts such as a "reinforcing feedback loop," (the more one brother pushes, the more the other brother pushes back), negative feedback (as in thermostats), accounting for delayed response (like in maintaining store inventory), Meadows leads readers through the increasingly complex ways that feedback loops operate to create self-organizing systems, in nature ("from viruses to redwood trees") and human endeavor. Further, Meadows explicates methods for fixing systems that have gone haywire ("The world's leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth ...but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction"). An invaluable companion piece to Limits to Growth, this is also a useful standalone overview of systems-based problem solving, "a simple book about a complex world" graced by the wisdom of a profound thinker committed to "shaping a better future."
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ISBN-10: 1603580557
ISBN-13: 978-1603580557
Author: Donella H. Meadows
Genre: Business & Investing, Science
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
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