Systems Thinking

When you are trying to make sense of the world, or an organization, or even a small group of people, it helps to think in terms of systems. Examples from nature spring to mind: if coyotes aren't getting enough to eat, they have smaller litters, which makes for less coyotes, which means there is more food to go around, so that litters get bigger, etc.

People like Peter Senge, Jay Forrester, and Arie de Geus have led the way in modern thinking about systems, but there are earlier systems thinkers, e.g.:

  • Charles Darwin the naturalist,
  • James Madison the American founding father,
  • Thucydides the great Greek historian,
  • Lao Tzu, the Taoist.

Some System Archetypes:
The modern systems thinkers have identified system archetypes - sort of the lego's of complex systems. One is the reinforcing loop. One example would be this vicious circle: a family breaks apart, the children are scarred by this, they are less able to cope, they get less well-educated, they resort to escapes like drugs or promiscuity, the next generation has a worse upbringing, they are less able to function, they spiral down into poverty and brokenness.

There are other archetypes:

Escalation - as exemplified by the arms race. One party in a system takes an action which is perceived by the other as a threat. The second party takes an action to defend itself against the perceived threat. That reaction is perceived as a new threat by the first party, which then takes further steps to defend itself.

Tragedy of the Commons: Say there is a village, with some meadow land held in common. Villagers graze their cattle on the common land. One villager buys more cattle, grazes them there, and makes more profit for himself. Another villager tries the same thing, and another. Soon the pasture is overgrazed, and all the cattle are starving. No one profits; everyone suffers.