Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

Buy the book here!


Want to create real change in the world?  As individuals, we are not as in control as we may think. We live reacting to rules and cultures, whether consciously or not, subject to the forces of inherited systems we find ourselves in, birthed into paradigms not of our own making. To bring about radical change, think in systems – rise above the individual and consider the bigger picture. Learn to redesign the overarching systemic structures in which the individual humbly plays its authorised part – and empower true long-term change for the better.

Buy the book and read about system technicalities and conceptual tools, stocks, oscillations, delays, and boundaries … What follows is a summary focusing on real world problem solving through systemic level shifts.


  • Blame the system, not the individual
  • Failure must be SEEN as temporary
  • Gain power over the rules
  • Change the paradigm, change the system
  • Remember – no yeast, no bread
  • Boundaries are artificial
  • Action trumps rhetoric
  • Avoid a Tragedy of the Commons
  • Avoid Success to the Successful
  • Information is Power
  • Learn to dance


  • A system is a set of things e.g. people, cells – interconnected in such a way as to produce its own pattern of behaviour over time.
  • A system consists of 3 parts – elements, interconnections and purpose e.g. a football team is made up of players, a coach, a ball (elements); the rules of the game, communication between players (interconnections); with the aim to win, get exercise (purpose).
  • Elements do not necessarily have to be tangible e.g. team pride and reputation are examples of intangible elements in football.
  • The purpose of a system is not what is stated through goals, or declared in rhetoric, but is seen in behaviour – e.g. if a government states it wants to protect the environment but allocates little money or effort towards environmental protection, then this is not the true purpose of the system.
  • What isn’t a system? Sand scattered on the sides of a road is not a system – add sand, take it away and you still just have sand on a road. However, if you take away the football players above, you no longer have (the system of) football.
  • A system is more than the sum of its parts.
  • What makes a system different is the influence of its parts on one another. A system with many parts but few connections is detailed but not complex.
  • Systems happen all at once – like a web of many interconnected parts – a shift in one part affects many if not the whole.


  • Systems produce their own behaviours and cultures.
  • People adopt the cultures they find themselves in – to assimilate – to survive – perhaps unconsciously.
  • The famous Stanford Prison Experiment (although not without criticism) has been seen to demonstrate this point – it found that volunteers put into a simulated prison environment adopted common attitudes and behaviours of real-life prison guards and prisoners.
  • System behaviour reveals itself as a series of events over time. Long term behaviour (patterns, trends) provides clues as to the underlying system structure (which like the submerged part of an iceberg remains hidden out of sight)
  • EXAMPLE At the Events Level: There is an accident on the road. Patterns and Trends Level: There are many accidents on this stretch of road. Drivers are more stressed during rush hour, more concerned about getting to their destination quickly than avoiding traffic tickets, they are not as observant of their own driving practices. At the Structural Level: At this level, there must be a causal connection – due to many exits on this stretch of road, drivers are changing lanes often, leading to accidents;  the road is narrow with poor sight lights, causing more accidents when traffic is heavy.
  • The world’s wicked problems – hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease – are all undesirable behaviours that are produced by systems. They continue to persist despite numerous brilliant interventions because the problem remains at the systematic level – the system requires restructuring to solve these problems.
  • Blaming the individual rarely helps create a more desirable outcome.”
  • Disciplining, firing, blaming or instituting technological or policy fixes – tinkering at the margins – will not fix structural problems – the same structures will keep producing the same behaviour year after year. Wars on drugs lead to drugs becoming more prevalent than ever.
  • Solutions lie at the systems level – the overarching rules and interconnections that influence the behaviour of participants within the system.
  • Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” A different system structure therefore will produce a different result.


So, how do we change a system structure to produce more of what we want and less of the undesirable?


  • Systems generally remain unchanged by changing its elements e.g. if you substitute all football players on a team, it is still recognisable as a football team. However, if any of the interconnections or purposes change, the system may become unrecognisable e.g. changing the rules from football to basketball or changing the purpose from winning to losing – you have a whole new ball game. Changing a leader in country (element) does not fundamentally change the system unless that leader changes the country’s purpose or rules.
  • Redesigning the system is what makes the difference – changing goals, improving feedback information, changing incentives and disincentives, stresses and constraints in the system, will impact on the behaviour of actors in the system.
  • If a behaviour persists over time, it’s likely there is a mechanism within the system creating that consistent behaviour. This mechanism is something that can be changed.
  • Before intervening to make a system better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there e.g. aid agencies arriving in Guatemala came with the intention of creating jobs and increasing entrepreneurship skills through factories and assembly plants funded by outside investment  – completely ignoring the already existing and thriving local market full of small scale businesses, and existing job creation. Small scale loans from internal sources and upskilling in accountancy and literacy were found to be the real needs of existing businesses, and potential source for economic expansion.


  • Social systems are the external manifestations of cultural thinking – our beliefs and views are deeply embedded in our psyches, so much so we may be unaware of our inherent assumptions and biases. Therefore any systems change will naturally attract resistance.
  • The higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist changing it – it’s why societies often eliminate or exile truly enlightened beings.


  • A leverage point is a place in a system where a change can lead to a shift in behaviour. A high leverage point is where a small force change causes a dramatic change in system behaviour.
  • We can look at the influence of the following factors and leverage points in producing a change in system behaviour:
    • 1. GOALS – the direction setters
    • 2. RULES – who makes them?
    • 3. PARADIGMS – how we look at the world
    • 4. FEEDBACK LOOPS – information is power
    • 5. RESILIENCE – system bouncebackability
    • 6. HIERARCHY – a system is only as strong as the sum of its parts
    • 7. INDEPENDENCE – encourage self-help
    • 8. STANDARDS – raise your game
    • 9. SYSTEM MERITOCRACY – level the playing field
    • 10. BOUNDARIES – where does it begin and end?
    • 11. LIMITING FACTORS – the important ingredient


  • One of the most powerful ways to influence the behaviour of a system is through its overarching goal. The goal is the direction-setter of the system.
  • E.g. if the goal of a system is to deliver good education, measuring that goal by the amount of money spent per student will ensure money spent per student, but not necessarily a good education. If the goal of a society is to increase Gross National Product (GNP) as a sign of a thriving economy, the societal system will focus on producing GNP. It will not produce welfare, equity, or justice unless these are defined as goals of the system, and progress is regularly measured and reviewed.
  • What if we lived in a world where, instead of competing to have the highest per capita GNP, nations would compete to have the lowest infant mortality, the cleanest environment, and the smallest gap between rich and poor?
  • It is clear that goals are important, but the measures by which progress is assessed are also of vital importance, and if unaligned can lead to the measure becoming the goal or ghost victories.
  • Additionally, pay attention to what is important, not simply what is quantifiable. Otherwise this can lead to setting goals around what can be easily measured rather than around what is truly important. No-one can define or measure love, justice, freedom, or truth – but all of us have a sense of their fundamental importance in our lives. And if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, they will cease to exist.
  • People within a system often don’t recognise the goal of the whole system they are serving.
  • With awareness of the overall goal of a system, you can question your own particular role within it and determine whether your own individual efforts are aligned, or if indeed the goal is one you actually support?
  • Remember that rhetoric is important for two reasons: 1) action trumps rhetoric –  if a government states it wants to achieve Goal X but does not invest or put any resources towards it, then that is not the true goal of the system, it is purely rhetoric. 2) The language and words used within a system or organisation are not objective – they do not objectively describe an external reality – they fundamentally structure the perceptions and actions of those involved in the system e.g. a society that understands the word ‘blame’ but not ‘accountability’ practices a blame culture, and not accountability from which learning and improvement can result. E.g. Eskimos have different names for different types of snow, providing a broader range of utility and perspective than just one concept of snow.
  • To change the results of a system, focus on the overarching goal to shift the direction of behaviour resulting from the system – the goal must be set in conjunction with aligned actions, measures and language.


  • Linked to the overarching goals of a system are the rules that govern it. These rules define the systems we live in and how we as participants interact and behave within it.
  • Therefore, power over the rules is real power. Whomever gets to write the rules defines the systems underneath them. Its why lobbyists congregate when Congress writes laws.
  • When we imagine restructuring a set of rules, we come to understand the power of rules – they represent significant points for changing a system and therefore resulting behaviours.
  • E.g. imagine if you received your degree result based on being graded as a group rather than an individual – this would likely lead to greater collaborative behaviour rather than an individualistic culture. Or suppose the final salary of a political leader was based on how far they helped to improve the health outcomes of a country ranked at the lower end of the scale. What results and behaviours would this produce in the world at large?
  • “If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them.”
  • Simply put, to change the system, change the rules.


  • Paradigms describe the overall mindset of a society – the collective brain from which all systems flow and are created.
  • A paradigm is a perspective, a set of ideas, a way of looking at the world.  It includes unstated assumptions, our deepest set of beliefs of how the world should work, what is fair and unfair. These philosophies often remain unwritten and unstated because its unnecessary – they are ingrained – everyone inherently knows them.
  • Paradigms are the original sources of system – from a shared social understanding about the nature of life and reality, system goals come, and the systems underneath them.
  • Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to … their state of thought … Observe the ideas of the present day … see how timber, brick, lime and stone have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons … It follows of course, that the least enlargement of ideas…would cause the most striking changes of external things” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
  • The ancient Egyptians built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife.
  • Therefore, intervening at the level of a paradigm is an effective way of changing (multiple) systems that are producing undesirable results and behaviours – to change the hearts of and minds of nations changes the systems within which they live.
  • How do you change a paradigm? You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm. You keep speaking and acting loudly and with assurance from the new paradigm. Place people embodying the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You work with active change agents and the majority of people in the middle ground who are open minded – don’t waste time trying to convert reactionaries.


  • In a system, information is power.
  • E.g. if you are a coffee drinker, when your energy gets low (feedback) you drink coffee – it’s the gap between your actual and desired energy level that drives your decision and behaviour to do something to adjust your caffeine intake –  the information channel that informs you is an example of a balancing feedback loop.
  • A reinforcing feedback loop has an amplification or snowballing effect leading to growth or decay e.g. compound interest – the more money you have in the bank, the more interest you earn, meaning you have more money in the bank and so you earn even more interest.
  • Systems thinkers see the world as a collection of “feedback processes”.
  • Think, if A causes B, does B also cause A? e.g. if someone tells you population growth causes poverty, ask does poverty cause population growth? This helps you to see that a system can cause its own behaviour.
  • Prompt feedback loops lead to changes in behaviour. Information provided by a feedback loop can only affect future behaviour – so receiving feedback quickly allows for learning, course corrections and changes for desirable behaviour. E.g. In Holland, it was discovered that households in the same area were using a third less electricity than other households of similiar family makeup – all were charged the same electricity rate. So, what caused the difference? It was found that the households with lower consumption had their electricity meters in the front hall – family members were passing by regularly and using the information to monitor and adjust their usage daily. The meters for the higher consumption households were found to be located in their basements, out of sight – they had no prompt feedback loop to adjust their behaviour ahead of receiving bills.
  • The best policies not only contain feedback loops but also design learning into the management process, allowing for course corrections. The 1987 Montreal Protocol not only set targets for decreasing the manufacture of harmful chemicals, but also required ongoing monitoring of damage to the ozone layer, allowing for adaptions to the phase-out schedule depending on actual levels of damage. Just 3 years later, the schedule was brought forward, and further chemicals were added to the list as it was found that the damage to the ozone layer was far greater than had been predicted.
  • Feedback delays can be costly – a problem may only become apparent once the situation is more difficult to solve.
  • We can often be too distant from the impact of our actions – e.g. what if we had to deal with the non-perishable rubbish we produce by containing it in a room in our home for 3 months before it was collected for disposal? Surely we would make different choices about the items we would buy based on levels of packaging used?
  • To encourage responsible behaviour, we can design systems to encourage intrinsic responsibility – to include feedback loops that minimise distance between those devising policy and those impacted by it e.g. a great deal of responsibility was lost when rulers who declared war were no longer expected to lead troops into battle. E.g. companies that emit wastewater into a stream could be made to place their intake pipes downstream from the outflow pipe.
  • Simply delivering information to the right actors in the system can be enough to change behaviour – e.g. the release of previously withheld information led to local newspapers listing “the top ten local polluters”, and a 40% decrease in nationwide chemical emissions without any need for lawsuits, fines, nor mandatory reductions. This shows the power of information alone to shift behaviour.
  • Therefore, to generate a shift in system behaviour, include prompt feedback loops allowing for ongoing course corrections, deliver information to where it wasn’t going previously,and minimise distance between policies, actions and impact
  • Read more on the importance of timely information and feedback loops in our book summary of Upstream.


  • Systems that work well often display the characteristic of resilience.
  • Resilience is the ability of a system to bounce back, to repair itself , to restore itself to the desired state of health or behaviour e.g. the human body is a great example of a resilient system (although not infinitely so – we all eventually die).
  • Undesired results occur when system resilience is lowered. Many chronic diseases (e.g. cancer) derive from a breakdown of resilience mechanisms within the body.  Cows become less resilient – less healthy and more dependent on human management – through growth hormone injections that increase milk production but divert energy away from other vital bodily functions. 
  • Systems therefore need to be managed not only for productivity but also for resilience.
  • Think about what actions or policies can be enacted to encourage strong resilience mechanisms , to enhance a systems own restorative powers e.g. holistic healthcare does more than try to cure a disease – it aims to build up a body’s own internal resilience and resistance to disease.
  • The ability of a system to self-organise can be seen as a type of resilience. “A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself”. A decentralised or distributed movement can survive through the presence of self-organising chapters, limiting the need for a centralised leader for its survival.


  • Hierarchy is the arrangement of subsystems within a larger system. E.g. a cell in your liver is a subsystem of an organ, which is a subsystem of your body.
  • Hierarchies evolve from the bottom up – the purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve and support the functions of the lower layers. E.g. A life evolves from a single cell, workers come together to form unions to enhance their welfare and common interests.
  • The fundamental purpose of a hierarchy is to help its originating subsystems do their job better. There needs to be an effective balance between central control by the upper levels of the hierarchy to achieve coordination towards the overall larger system goal, and enough autonomy for lower subsystems to carry out their functions and flourish. Think of teams or departments within an organisation.
  • If a system is not meeting its goal, a malfunctioning hierarchy could be the reason. E.g. if a body cell breaks free from its hierarchical function and starts multiplying wildly, we call it cancer.
  • Successful systems ensure harmony between the goals of subsystems and those of the overarching system, with a greater focus on the long-term welfare of the entire system rather than the short-term goals of individual parts/subsystems. E.g. too much of emphasis on competition to foster performance within an organisation could lead to teams subverting each other’s efforts and less collaborative working, lowering the overall performance of the organisation.
  • As well as effective interrelations between parts, there is also a need to ensure that each subsystem is stable and resourced to carry out its own individual function, to ensure the whole system is strong.
  • The parable of the two watchmakers – Hora and Tempus made fine watches made of 1000 parts each. Both had eager customers, calling them for orders. Hora prospered, whilst Tempus lost his shop. Why? Each time Tempus stopped mid-assembly to take a customer’s call, his watches would fall apart – he would have to start assembling from scratch. Hora instead built his watches in sub-assemblies of 10 parts each, which could be put down without falling part. His system was composed of a modular design, of stable intermediate parts.
  • To enable a system to produce desired behaviour and results, ensure each subsystem is stable and can maintain itself to conduct its core function, alignment of the goals of subsystems with the overall goal, and effective relations between parts of the hierarchy balancing sub-system autonomy and central coordination.


  • A well-meaning party watches the struggle of a system and intervenes to help take some of the load – it appears to work – the intervention brings the system back to the desired state. Then the original problem appears again – as nothing has been done to solve the problem at its root cause. So the intervenor applies more of the solution, again disguising the real state of the system, and this cycle continues on again and again. The intervenor has set up a dependence on the intervention, undermining the original capacity of the system to re-balance itself.
  • Look to support and enhance a systems self-correcting and self-reliance mechanisms – don’t create long term dependence on an intervention as a way of achieving desired behaviour from a system.
  • Examples of dependent systems include someone who becomes addicted to drugs and a dependence on using evermore pesticides to control pests  (overtime pesticides can actually lead to an increase in the pest numbers as its natural predator is also killed off by the pesticide).
  • Instead help the system to help itself.
  • To do this, do not rush in with an intervention – instead ask “Why are the natural correction mechanisms failing? How can obstacles to their success be removed?”
  • If intervening, make it as short term as possible. The best way to avoid the dependency trap is to avoid intervening in the first place. Beware of symptom relieving that does not resolve the underlying problem. Focus on long term restructuring rather than short term relief.


  • At times, a system will produce results below previous success levels – the way this is perceived is vital to the long-term success of the system.
  • If a slip in performance is viewed as anything other than temporary – this performance now becomes the new expectation – the original goal or standard is allowed to slip. Less corrective action is taken to get it back to its original performance, so the system state becomes lower. If this loop is allowed to run unchecked, this can lead to a downhill spiral and continuous degradation of the system’s performance. It can explain how schools move from excellent to underperforming, and why the quality of hospitals is allowed to degrade. Another name for this system trap is “eroding goals” or the “boiled frog syndrome”.
  • Danger lies in small changes over time rather than large quick changes in performance. If a system state’s performance changes dramatically, a corrective process would immediately be put in place, but when it drifts slowly enough to erase memory of the original state, all actors in the system get pulled into lower expectations.
  • View a dip in performance as temporary so you can focus efforts on rising back up e.g. taking on additional work to pay off a small debt, rather than becoming accustomed to debt and taking on even more debt.
  • To avoid a downward spiral in performance: 1. Keep standards absolute, regardless of performance; 2. View the worst results as a temporary setback – then the same system structure can focus efforts on pulling the system state back up to better and better performances.


  • “This system trap is found whenever the winners of a competition, receive, as part of the reward, the means to compete even more effectively in the future.”
  • Example: A neighbourhood runs a contest with a $100 prize for the best Christmas light display. The winning family goes on to use that additional money to buy more Christmas lights. The competition is eventually suspended, after the same family goes on to win year after year.
  • The more the winner wins, the more he, she or it can win in the future.”
  • This phenomenon has been known to go further – the winning competitor can drive the loser to extinction, by appropriating all the resource, leaving none for the weaker competitor.
  • The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. E.g. the poorest children often receive the worst educations in the worst schools, that is if they can go to school at all. Having gained few marketable skills, they only qualify for low paying jobs, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Poverty can often mean less resources, time and access for effective lobbying and political organising to affect change at governmental level – meaning a disproportionately small part of government expenditure is allocated to their needs.
  • How to break out of the “success to the successful” system trap to ensure a system can produce benefits for all?
    • 1. Diversification e.g. a small company can create a new product or service that does not directly compete with existing ones owned by more powerful, established and resourced companies.
    • 2. Level the playing field – diversification does not work as a strategy against poverty – instead, design systems that equalise the impact of advantages and privilege e.g. taxation on inheritance, social welfare, equal access health care and education, taxing the rich at higher rates. “These equalizing mechanisms may derive from simple morality….or they may come from the practical understanding that losers, if they are unable to get out of the game of success to the successful, and if they have no hope of winning, could get frustrated enough to destroy the playing field”.


  • Any boundaries you may draw around a system are inherently artificial. Systems are always part of ever larger boundaries. The world is a continuum of systems.
  • E.g. attempting to tackle urban traffic problems by building more motorways attracts the building of new housing developments along them, meaning more cars using these motorways from those households, meaning roads become just as clogged up as before the intervention. E.g. a nation unilaterally trying to tackle ozone depletion must realise that greenhouse gases know nothing of national boundaries.
  • If you want to encourage more desirable results, consider how wide of a system landscape you are considering, to ensure a workable solution, paradoxically knowing that you will never be able to determine a perfect boundary.


  • At any given time, the input or element that is most limited is the most important to the success of a system.
  • E.g. Bread (the system) will not rise without yeast (input/element), no matter how much flour you add. E.g. “Rich countries transfer capital or technology to poor ones and wonder why the economies of the receiving countries still don’t develop, never thinking that capital or technology may not be the most limiting factors”. Other factors could be lack of clean water, clean air, raw material, energy.
  • The growth of a system can in fact change the factor that is limiting.
  • E.g. A company hires more salespeople, who are so good they generate orders faster than the factory can produce them leading to delivery delays and lost customers – the production capacity has become the most limiting factor. The company then invests in its production capacity and hires new people to produce orders, but as they are hired in a hurry they receive little training and so quality suffers, leading to lost customers – labour skill has become the most limiting factor to the success of the system.
  • To gain real control over the growth process, you need to focus on the next potential limiting factor in the system.
  • However, in physical systems there are always limits to growth –“the choice is not to grow forever but to decide what limits to live within”. E.g. if a city meets the needs of all its inhabitants better than any other city, people will flock there until some limiting factor brings down the city’s ability to satisfy people’s need e.g. overcrowding/lack of housing.
  • Tourists flock to the most beautiful undiscovered destinations and then complain that these places have been ruined by all the tourists. Fishermen overfish and destroy their own livelihoods. If people within systems do not enforce their own limits to keep growth within the capacity of the supporting environment, the environment will choose and enforce limits.
  • People choose to fulfil their short-term best interests but produce aggregate longer-term results that no one likes. If you are a fisherman with a loan on your boat, a family to support and imperfect knowledge of the state of the fish population, you will overfish. Within the bounds of what a person in that part of the system can see and know, their behaviour is reasonable (from that perspective – not excusable but understandable).
  • If a herdsman profits from the sale of each additional cow, the incentive is to increase their stock of cows. With limited resource – grassland for grazing (the commons), if each herdsman increases their stock of cows, each individually benefits (initially), however the effects of overgrazing are shared by all, and therefore over time, all will lose out.
  • How do we harmonise subsystem short term goals with longer-term sustainability of the system? To avoid a Tragedy of the Commons?
  • EDUCATE – help people see the consequence of unrestrained use of the commons. Appeal to their morality.
  • PRIVATISE THE COMMONS – divide it up so that each person reaps the consequences of their own actions e.g. divide up the land for each herdsman.
  • REGULATE THE COMMONS – e.g. bans on certain behaviours, quotas, taxes, permits, penalties, limit the number of users of the land, tax use of the land to help maintain it.
  • Through these examples of limiting factors, we can see it’s not possible to control a system completely – one change leads to another change and to another – a true balancing act. Instead we need to learn to dance with a system as it changes.


  • Ultimately no system can be controlled completely.
  • Systems are dynamic, ever changing. Systems are connected to other systems – they have no real boundary.
  • We can’t know everything, even collectively, there will always be gaps. A system is like a complex web of interlinked parts, no one part being able to see the whole – even systems thinkers.
  • Everything that anyone ever knows is only ever a model – just as a map is not reality – so always be aware of your assumptions and challenge them.
  • We can’t impose our will on a system. We can instead learn to listen to what a system tells us, watch its behaviour, discover its intrinsic attributes and values, and work together to bring forth something better.
  • Systems thinking can actually raise more questions than it answers. This in a sense reflects the fundamental awe and wonder of life and its natural order and paradoxes.
  • The only way through, therefore, is to learn to dance with systems, in all their complexity and glory.

Find out more about systems and learn how to design systems and prevent problems before they start – read our book summary of Upstream here.

%d bloggers like this: