Scratching the Surface of Systems Thinking

When dealing with any complicated problem, it’s natural to try and break it down into less complicated problems before blindly trying to solve it. However, in my case, I often get overwhelmed and unsure of how I’m approaching the problem. In worse cases, it can stop me from thinking any further. That’s when I was introduced to the concept of “systems thinking”, which let me to this book Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. The book can be intimidating at first, but it provides a variety of examples to help you understand how the world operates with systems. Understanding and using systems thinking can be a great help for structuring and analyzing your problems. Here is a brief summary of the concepts introduced in the book.

What is a system?

A system is a set of elements that interconnects each other and operates to achieve something. A system must consist of three things, “elements”, “interconnections” and “function or purpose”.

Elements for example can be students, teachers, classes, buildings in a school system. (Note that elements do not have to be always physical things.) Interconnections are what holds the elements in a relationship. In a school system, it can be class enrollment, money flows, or grading. Elements in systems are more recognizable, but interconnections often have more impact on how the system operates. Functions or purposes are a little tricky to find because they are deduced from behavior, not from a statement. For example, if a student asks some questions to a teacher, the purpose of that student is most likely not to talk with the teacher but more about getting the right answers to a quiz.

Systems are often nested, and there can be purposes within purposes. Successful systems have their overall system purposes and sub-purposes in harmony. It is always important to keep in mind that all in a system are essential and all interact.

Understanding the system structure

Thinking in systems, you will need to create a model to help you see what the elements are and how they interconnect. Here are some concepts to help you create a model to understand the system structure.

The two basic foundation of any system.

  • Stocks are elements of the system that you can see, feel, count, measure, but it does not always have to be physical things.
  • Flows are a series of actions that enable stocks to change over time. (ex. births, deaths, purchases, sales, deposits, withdrawals, success, failure)

If you are not sure whether the thing is a stock or a flow, imagine you’re taking a snapshot. If you can measure that thing in some way at that very moment, then that is stock. If it’s anything you can’t measure, then it is a flow. (ex. In a snapshot of water coming into a bathtub, the amount of water in the tub is a stock, amount of incoming/outgoing water is a flow.)

Feedback loops are what creates the system’s consistent behavior.
It is formed when changes in a stock affect the incoming or outgoing flows of that stock. There are two kinds of common feedback loops.

  • Balancing feedback is a common kind of feedback loop that stabilizes the stock. Each balancing feedback will try to keep a stock at a given value or within a certain range. Balancing feedback loops can often operate in two directions. It can be both sources of stability and sources of resistance to change.
  • Reinforcing feedback is a second feedback loop that enhances whatever direction of change is imposed on a stock. It is found wherever a system element has the ability to reproduce or grow itself.

Systems work in their structures, but if they spiral out of control, the system may cause unexpected damages or the system itself can collapse. There are characteristics in systems that help to maintain a balance while enhancing their performance. These are the characteristics that make systems work so well.

  • Resilience is the ability of a system to recover. It works in a variety of aspects but resilience always has a limit. This is why it can act as a measure of a system’s ability to survive and persist in various situations.
  • Self-organization is the capacity of a system to change its own structure into a more complex system. It is the ability of the system to learn, diversify, and evolve.
  • Hierarchy is the structure generated to regulate subsystems while maintaining and enhancing the larger system. It can help systems to run more efficiently because subsystems can reduce the amount of information to keep track of.


Now we know the basics of system structure, but how do we change it and produce more of what we want and reduce what’s undesirable? To achieve this, we need to find leverage points. Leverage points are places in the system where a small change could trigger a large shift in behavior. However, leverage points are difficult to find, and systems often surprise us with their complicated behavior. It can be helpful to know the common patterns in advance when searching for leverage points, especially the ones that cause problematic behaviors. These common trap patterns are called archetypes. Here are some introduced in the book.

When various actors try to pull a stock towards their own goals, the more effective policy will pull the stock farther from other actors’ goals. This will lead to additional resistance and can result in something nobody wants but requires considerable effort in maintaining.


Let go. Bring in all the actors and use the energy formerly expended on resistance to seek out mutually satisfactory ways for all goals to be realized — or redefinitions of larger and more important goals that everyone can pull toward together.(Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (p.116). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

When there is a commonly shared resource, every user can benefit from it but also abuse it. Since so many users are involved, the feedback from the condition of the resource to each user is weak. This will have a weak effect on the decisions of the resource users, and result in the overuse of the resource until it becomes unavailable to anyone.


Educate and exhort the users, so they understand the consequences of abusing the resource. And also restore or strengthen the missing feedback link, either by privatizing the resource so each user feels the direct consequences of its abuse or (since many resources cannot be privatized) by regulating the access of all users to the resource.(Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (p.121). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

Allowing negative bias from past performance to influence the performance standards, creating a reinforcing feedback loop that sets a system to lower performance.

Keep performance standards absolute. Even better, let standards be enhanced by the best actual performances instead of being discouraged by the worst. Use the same structure to set up a drift toward high performance!(Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (pp.123–124). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

When there are competing actors trying to get ahead of each other, that reinforcing feedback loop can drive a system into escalation. (Negative campaign, technology competition, price war, etc.) If nothing is done, the system will spiral until someone collapse.


The best way out of this trap is to avoid getting in it. If caught in an escalating system, one can refuse to compete (unilaterally disarm), thereby interrupting the reinforcing loop. Or one can negotiate a new system with balancing loops to control the escalation.(Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (p.126). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

When a winner of a competition systematically has the advantage to win again, a reinforcing feedback loop is created and will eventually eliminate the losers. (Education, market shares, investment, etc.)


Diversification, which allows those who are losing the competition to get out of that game and start another one; strict limitation on the fraction of the pie any one winner may win (antitrust laws); policies that level the playing field, removing some of the advantage of the strongest players or increasing the advantage of the weakest; policies that devise rewards for success that do not bias the next round of competition.(Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (pp.130–131). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

In cases when there are perverse behaviors that seem to be following the rules but actually distorting the system. (Employees not working but spending their time in the company for an overtime fee. )


Design, or redesign, rules to release creativity not in the direction of beating the rules, but in the direction of achieving the purpose of the rules.(Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (pp.137–138). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

When the goal of the system is inaccurate or incomplete, the system can work in a direction that is not intended or wanted.


Specify indicators and goals that reflect the real welfare of the system. Be especially careful not to confuse effort with result or you will end up with a system that is producing effort, not result. (Meadows, Donella H.. Thinking in Systems (p.140). Chelsea Green Publishing.)

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At first, I thought that systems thinking is a kind of framework for problem-solving, and I just need to get familiar with some terminologies. It turned out that it is more about how to see things and how to picture them in structures you defined. There are no “correct” answers when modeling a system structure, and it will take a lot of practice to get your brain ready. However, the concepts I learned will give me a perspective to see problems in different dimensions. Instead of just solving the issue at that moment, I can start asking questions like “How will this affect other stocks?”, “What are the consequences in the future?” and “What is the delayed response to this action?”. I hope this helps anyone who is on the same page as me.

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