Reading: Thinking in Systems

I don’t remember why I decided to ILL Thinking in Systems. I think it must have been cited in something else I read; maybe Design is the Problem?  Regardless, I did ILL it, and it was fantastic bedtime reading. Many thanks to Nazareth College for having a nearly three-month checkout period. Seriously: Much appreciated. Provided that I don’t forget to throw the book into my work bag tonight, I will even be returning the book early!  That makes me feel all accomplished and smart and stuff.

The only downside to this book was that I don’t (yet) keep a notepad and pen at my bedside, so I didn’t jot down any of the fabulous quotes in this book. And because I read it right before bed every night, I know that I’ve forgotten some of the best bits. The book is copyright 2008, but the author died in 2001, and–I mean, are we sure she didn’t have a time machine?  Because wow she had some quotes that feel very, very timely.

Anyway, what am I taking away from this book?  The “systems zoo” was interesting, with its examples and simple diagrams of various types of systems:

  • Systems with competing balancing loops
    Think thermostat heating a room. The temperature is the stock, and the thermostat tries to keep the room warm even as the temperature outside tries to cool the room down.
  • Systems with competing AND reinforcing balancing loops
    Think population. The birth rate reinforces population growth, and the death rate competes with it.
  • Systems with delays
    Think inventory in your store. You buy more inventory to respond to what your customers have bought (and what you think they’re going to buy), but it takes time for the new stock to show up. How much of a delay you put on your orders for more stock affects oscillations in what/how much you have on hand.
  • Systems with a renewable stock constrained by a non-renewable stock
    Think oil economy. The oil is non-renewable; your oil company’s capital is renewable. The amount of capital you have (after you start) both affects and is affected by the amount of oil you extract.
  • Systems with a renewable stock constrained by a renewable stock
    Think fishing. Your fishing company’s capital affects and is affected by the population of fish. (Which is a population system–so the fish’s death rate is competing with their birth rate to control how many fish there are.)

If you think about systems rather than just events, you get into why things happen, which is truly a thing that I love. But how do you figure out the limits to your system?  You don’t want to think about too small a system, or you won’t learn much. But you also don’t want to think about too large a system, because you’ll get lost in waaaaaaay too much information that’s only tangentially related to whatever it is that you care about.

“Ideally, we would have the mental flexibility to find the appropriate boundary for thinking about each new problem. We are rarely that flexible. We get attached to the boundaries our minds happen to be accustomed to. Think about how many arguments have to do with boundaries–national boundaries, trade boundaries, ethnic boundaries, boundaries between public and private responsibility… It’s a great art to remember that boundaries are of our own making, and that they can and should be reconsidered for each new discussion, problem, or purpose.” (p. 98-99, author’s emphasis)

Swoon. And then she has a section on “system traps”: resistance to policies because the goals of sub-systems don’t align with the goals of the larger system(s); everyone’s beloved tragedy of the commons, where because people get all the benefits but only part of the negative consequences for over-using something, they over-use the resource; the drift to low performance, where we all say “well, given x, can you really expect any better?”; escalation, where we all keep responding a little more strongly in opposition to each other; the trap where the rich keep getting richer because one of the rewards of success is more of whatever it takes to become successful; shifting the burden to an intervenor whose “solution” to a problem isn’t really a solution; trying to beat the rules; and seeking the wrong goal (think: assessing the wrong things).

She offers ways out of these traps, but if I’ve managed to phrase them right in my summary, I think the ways out are generally pretty self explanatory. Once you’ve realized what kind of trap you’re facing, anyway.

She also offers a list of places to intervene in a system, albeit with the caution that we often have a tendency to “pull the lever” in the wrong direction. That reminds me of an obstructionist co-worker I once had, and how everyone just kept excluding her from more and more decisions because she argued about everything, but that just made her more and more obstructionist. When I shocked my boss and brought the obstructionist to the table intentionally, she worked with the team on the project instead of obstructing it. Seeing the larger system FTW!

Anyway, one of the last sections of the book is about places you can intervene in a system. Stock, buffers, reinforcing loops, delays, presence/absence of information, overall goals, and more. I liked this part, but really once you’ve gotten your mind wrapped around the system and are thinking of it as a system, I think these are also pretty obvious.

The very last section of the book is “Living in a World of Systems,” and offers a series of maxims that made me want to jump up and down and say, “This is what I’m trying to do!”  I don’t think any of them are earth-shattering on their own, but I quite like the list. This section of the book seems like it might make a good reading assignment for… something. Anyway, here are the section headings:

  • Get the beat of the system.
  • Expose your mental models to the light of day.
  • Honor, respect, and distribute information.
  • Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts.
  • Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  • Make feedback policies for feedback systems. (This one I think needs translating: Make dynamic, self-adjusting rules to control your system.)
  • Go for the good of the whole.
  • Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  • Locate responsibility in the system.
  • Stay humble–stay a learner.
  • Celebrate complexity.
  • Expand time horizons.
  • Defy the disciplines.
  • Expand the boundary of caring.
  • Don’t erode the goal of goodness.

In short: This book is who I want to be when I grow up. And you can see why it’s so chock full of quotes that feel relevant right now, even if I didn’t transcribe those quotes. So much of my problem with current events is that I feel like the people in charge are not even seeing the whole system, much less understanding how its various parts play together, how those parts affect people who aren’t the same as the people in power, thinking about the future, etc.

Anyway. Thinking in Systems is good stuff, and I recommend it.

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