Thinking In Systems

Almost everything which does work in the world is a system – a collection of smaller things or actions or relationships that together form a mechanism for self-regulation or creation or life. Understanding how these systems work, and that they follow finite rules and consistent patterns is incumbent upon anyone who wants to understand or change the world. Understanding systems is vital to public administration and organizational development (OD) work. Donella Meadows wrote the pivotal work on this subject, THINKING IN SYSTEMS; A PRIMER. This approachable and enlightening work is a must have for any serious OD practitioner. For it is only when “we see the relationship between structure and behavior,{that} we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns.”

Meadows explains that a system must include elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose (p.11). When we look around, we can see that so much of the world consists of systems- our cars, our clocks, our ecology, our institutions, and even our bodies. All of these things work because they have parts (elements) which work in coordination (interconnection) in order to achieve an end (function or purpose). They are so much a part of everyday life and the life of society that we hardly notice them at all, and yet they are perhaps the central element of all human endeavor and even of the natural world. Systems built well can be self-sustaining, reinforcing the energy and propagation of creation. But systems can also become out of balance, either through changes in circumstance, intervention, or because they have an archetype (structure) that is inherently perverse (p.112). Meadows refers to these instances as systems traps, situations that can become so out of whack that they must be changed or dismantled, not because there is any one actor to blame, but because the whole show is poorly written. Being able to recognize when a problem is really a systems trap can deeply influence the way solutions are found.

In the context of a discussion of systems thinking, we are reminded that the Constitution is a document or rule book for establishing a system, in this case of government. Any government, organization, or group which gathers and attempts to implement policy is creating a system, one which will succeed or fail based upon how it is defined, and how clearly and adequately its purpose is defined. Meadows is clear that purpose is “the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior” (p.17). In the Federalist Papers and the many writings contemporary to them, we can see the effort and energy put into trying to establish a working system, with stated and thought out feedback loops (checks and balances, three branches) to allow the system to maintain balance through time and changing circumstances. It is doubtful the founders thought in terms of systems, but it is precisely what they were creating. In this country, if more attention were paid to the purpose of our system than to the mechanisms of it, the implication is that the function of government would be smoother.

Similarly, changes in policy or changes in policy systems must be changes in purpose in order to affect real change and get away from reinforcing feedback loops (p.17). The goal of all policy professionals is to create or steward systems that work better and are more responsive to the needs of the people and governments they serve. In seeking to adjust or make changes to those systems, care must be taken not to move the lever (change) in the wrong direction (p.57). Only a deeper understanding of the system itself will allow anyone to push or pull in the right direction.  Systems thinking, being able to watch the history and behavior of systems and see what they really are as opposed to what we believe or are told they are, is a skillful tool for policy makers. Within this way of seeing the world lies the key to understanding our jobs, the limits of what we can do, and the factors that most need attention in work and crisis. Systems traps can be seen in action all the time, when multiple attempts to fix problems either create more problems or require constant intervention. In policy, most of these traps are related to what we call wicked problems (Head, 2008 p.101). Learning how to change existing systems and create new systems might be the key to solving these, just as systems thinking is the key to seeing them clearly.

Meadows shows us how in system dynamics, resilience and self-organization are intrinsic to system health but are too often sacrificed in the name of productivity and stability (Meadows, 2008, p.79). This is something that can be seen all around us every day, and reflects one of the arguments in policy circles about the management theory of administration. The third crucial aspect of  system health is hierarchy, which in public policy and all systems must “balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing” (p.85). This ability and need to balance multiple elements is integral in all levels of any system. Paying attention to the balance and health of a system, cultivating the will and ability to think within those parameters, is perhaps the best way possible to affect real change and make a difference in the world. We must endeavor to “design policies that build learning into the management process” (p. 177), so that we create dynamic, self-adjusting systems. And then implement them.


Head, Brian (2008), Wicked Problems in Public Policy, Public Policy, Volume 3,  pp. 101-118,

Meadows, Donella (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, White River Junction, VT

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