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Thinking in Systems: A Primer

A book by Donella H. Meadows

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The only hope to make the right decision in complex matters is to do as the title orders

  • Mar 26, 2009
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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. In other parts, a small change is magnified all out of proportion and can even lead to the near or complete collapse of the entire system. Some examples of this are introducing new species into an ecological niche where there is nothing in that ecosystem to damp out their growth.
A second mistake that can be made is to recognize that something is a part of a system but completely failing to understand what affect a change in it will have. Once again, there are many examples of this from ecology, where the introduction of new species had unexpected consequences. Another mistake is to understand what effect a "small" change will make but to have no idea where the effective limit is. The best example of this is the recent economic stimulus package that was implemented in the United States. There is no dispute that any federal money spent will stimulate the economy, the question to be debated is where is the ideal point where the stimulus crosses over into inflationary.
Within all of this uncertainty the only hope is to do as the book title orders. Every decision about what to do should be made from the mindset of the structure being a system. Each action should be analyzed as something that could potentially do great harm or perhaps relatively nothing at all. Meadows is clearly someone that has thought long and deeply about systems and their structure. The physics dictum "that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" simply does not hold in complex systems a point that Meadows makes over and over again and very well each time.
Simple-minded thinking seems to be the norm in American political life, where you hear simple slogans repeated until your mind rebels at the foolishness. This mindset is repeated in other organizations as well, which seems to manifest itself as a major business failure once a decade. If more of the people in positions of power and influence were to read this book and take it seriously, then the debate over what to do would be more logical and lead to better and sustainable decisions.

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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 . June 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 …
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 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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Charles Ashbacher ()
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Charlie Ashbacher is a compulsive reader and writer about many subjects. His prime areas of expertise are in mathematics and computers where he has taught every course in the mathematics and computer … 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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