Thinking in Systems: A Primer

I read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donnella H. Meadows in a week. That’s unusual for me with books that are a bit more academic oriented, but this book grabbed me. If I were younger and I’d found out that systems study was a thing, I’d probably consider doing it. But at this point in my life I’m content to let it open me up to thinking both about my work differently and about the world differently.

I bought the book because folks I admire in the industry were reading it and praising it, so I figured I’d give it a try. And I can’t believe how much I found helpful in the book. I think about systems for making web sites and applications and such and how we do that. And this book will be something I’ll be returning to again and again as I work with teams and build out systems.

Some of things I’m still thinking about after reading this book:

  • How I can enter teams and take the time to observe and see what’s happening, before I start getting information from those on the team.
  • How the levers work in a system and in teams I work with figuring out what those are and how I can be aware of what pushing on them will do.
  • What has the biggest impact on a system? How do I find it? How do I uncover the true inner workings of the system?
  • Can a system grow forever? (This especially made me think of capitalism and economies, is it realistic that we grow forever and is growth always good?)

The final chapter of this book I think I underlined almost the entire thing. Meadows takes the study and the more research oriented things she’s explained throughout the book and makes a series of recommendations for how to approach and work with systems. It’s amazing. If you only read part of this book, honestly this chapter is the part to read.

What was unique about our search was not our answers, or even our questions, but the fact that the tool of systems thinking, born out of engineering and mathematics, implemented in computers, drawn from a mechanistic mind-set and a quest for prediction and control, leads its practitioners, inexorably I believe, to confront the most deeply human mysteries. Systems thinking makes clear even to the most committed technocrat that getting along in this world of complex systems requires more than technocracy. (p 167)