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Thinking in Systems: A Primer

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  8,064 ratings  ·  779 reviews
Meadows’ Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking s ...more
Paperback, 240 pages
Published December 3rd 2008 by Chelsea Green Publishing (first published 2008)
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Dec 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
As a collection of guidelines for understanding and intervening in problematic situations this book is quite useful. But I have never liked it because of two reasons, one internal to the book and one related to its effects in the outside world.

As a primer, it’s perfectly fine that a book skids over some of the finer points of the theory. But my feeling is that this informality hides a quite damaging conceptual incoherence. Epistemologically the book oscillates between a naive realism (there is
This is a nice basic text about systems. The layout is clear. The diagrams are helpful. The volume is an introduction. Much of it overlaps with what is in The Limits to Growth The 30Year Update but without the specific focus. The opening chapters here I felt could have been boiled down, I found myself skipping and sliding over paragraphs, but if you completely new to systems thinking the slow pace is probably helpful.

In chapter four Meadows argues that one of the reasons why economic modelling i
Oct 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Kent by: Mark Tattersall
Shelves: favorites
Ever read a book that you're sad to finish because you borrowed it from the library, rather than bought it? Also, you were sad you couldn't write notes in the margins or highlight passages? Yeah, that's this right here.

This is essential reading for anyone, and I say that without hyperbole. You should do it especially if you're in business, technology, or policy (god, especially policy) but also just generally if you live on this planet and care about a thing. I think perhaps it puts a lot of pe
Jonathan Yu
Feb 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
The world is unspeakably complex and unfortunately our inferior lizard-evolved brains are nowhere near capable of comprehending this. The world is complex and that is why our Hollywood movies have sucky plots, our politicians say idiotic things that idiotic people believe, and the word "accurate economist" is an oxymoron.

So here is the progression/evolution of a man who learns about the complexity of the world. He starts by watching Hollywood movies and Fox News and thinks that the world is bla
Francis Norton
Apr 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I recommend Thinking in Systems because it has changed the way I understand and relate to my world. Published after Donella Meadow's death, it introduces Systems Thinking by way of definition, illustration and application.

In Part 1, System Structure and Behaviour, Meadows uses two graphical tools to analyse systems: stock and flow diagrams to show system structure; and charts mapping stock or flow levels over time to explore system behaviour for specific scenarios. The diagrams can be used to d
Sebastian Gebski
It's not the first book on Systems Theory I've read, but even if this one is described as a "primer", it was not time wasted (definitely).

It starts very low-level (stacks & flows), but don't get discouraged by that - w/o some foundations it's really hard to get a proper grasp of the what ST is. All this stuff is supported with nice, simple examples expressed with stacks+flows notation. You learn about balancing, reinforcing, delays, corrective flows, feedback, renewable vs non-renewable stocks,
Mohamed Yehia
Jul 13, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: thinking-skills
This book was meant to grasp the basics of systems thinking, which it does but its writing style is not clear enough. Also some examples are clules and not accuratly relevant.

The number of pages could be reduced by at least 40%, without harming the content delivery. If it was will written, it would be an outstanding book, but unfortunately this is not the case.
How to see the the big picture 101: how often do you get the sense that we are too consumed with micro issues to see the looming macro tidal waves that will wash away our elaborate sand castles into oblivion?

--I have been semi-consciously learning and applying “systems thinking” as a survival mechanism while exploring the dismal realms of economics and geopolitics (in particular: global division of labor and market externalities i.e. environment, cheap labor, reproductive labor, violenc
May 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
Easy to read introduction into systems theory with several practical implementations which often goes against the naive way.
Feb 15, 2018 rated it liked it
An attempt to make holism rigorous; given holism's deep intuitive appeal for people, the attempt is worthy. But I was hostile to this at first – mostly because her field helped breed a generation of pseuds who use ‘reductionism’ as an insult (rather than as a straightforward fact, or a useful way of thinking, instances of which denote the highest achievements of the species). Let's get clear:

“REDUCTIONISM” (to the pseud): The claim that complicated or immeasurable things do not exist.
Keith Akers
Dec 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
If you're interested in "limits to growth," climate change, peak oil, and things like that, you should at least take a look at this book. It is, as the title advertises, a "primer," so anyone can read it, and it is very readable. It isn't real technical (and technical people may find it not technical enough), but the results are important and often surprising.

Donella Meadows is one of the original authors of the "Limits to Growth" study in 1972, and she shows the kind of systems reasoning that
Adam Nowak
Aug 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019, audiobook
It'a a good book to get a general understanding of what Systems Thinking really is.

My key takeaways after reading this book:
* When you create some process/initiative - add a paragraph about the way your thing will evolve over time - what kind of feedback will make it better and what kind of feedback will make it worse. Make a thought experiment in each direction and think of how your system is going to learn over time.
* Most of the time systems are complex :)
* There are a lot of systems traps li
Erin Weigel
Apr 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This book was incredible. When I picked it up I honestly had no idea how much it'd end up pulling me in.

I love how Meadows approached a very complex scientific and mathematical subject and broke it down into easy-to-understand diagrams and concepts. Reading it at times was almost like reading poetry mixed with a text book, especially near the end.

What I enjoy most about her way of thinking is that it arms you with a practical lens for viewing the world. She also advocates for constantly q
Kent Beck
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is an absolutely fundamental book if you want to understand and influence the world. I appreciate the simplicity of the language and the humility of the presentation. Just because you have a model, that doesn't mean that you know what to do. Or that what you do will have just the intended consequences. Or even the intended consequences at all.
Jun 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
This gets technical pretty quickly but I think the overall ideas and way of thinking make this a must-read for anyone working with large-scale systems today (I consider a large swathe of knowledge workers in this category.)
Ying Ying
Sep 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"Thinking in systems" just became one of my favorite books of all time. Reading it can shift your perspective and change the way you think. Learning to think in systems expands your horizon, and we very much need it in a world where we are constantly looking at the immediate present and immediate surroundings.
The author illustrates her concepts marvelously with stories and graphs. The book is an immensely enjoyable read and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand th
Jan 07, 2016 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People interested in, but very new to systems thinking.
Recommended to Eivind by: Vipassana
Shelves: nonfiction, abandoned
This book deserves a star more if the concepts and the ideas in it a completely new to you. For me, unfortunately, too much of this was too long-winded considering that it concluded with concepts that are extremely well-known to me.

The best part of this book is the first few chapters; where the basic concepts and vocabulary is explained. Stock. Flow. Balancing and Strengthening feedback-loops. After that it spends too many words for too simple concepts making it fairly boring in the latter parts
Sandro Mancuso
Sep 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Although I had looked at Systems Thinking in the past, I did it very superficially. This book really helped me understand more about it and gave me knowledge I could apply immediately in my work environment.

As I’ve been told before reading the book, I would see systems everywhere. And that’s exactly what happened while going through the book and after I finished. Systems Thinking makes you look at things in a different way and gives you tools to better deal and influence the environment around
This book should be made compulsory reading for pretty much everyone. Thinking in systems is one of the most powerful mental models to ingrain, the lack of which is the source of innumerable problems.
Katia N
Jan 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
It is the one of the areas I’ve been interested for quite a while. But I could not find concise introductory book about system thinking for social science and/or policymaking. I think, in spite of its limitations, this book is as close as you could get. It is not technical. It explains the basics very clearly. It could be claimed, that the book is representing only one part of the rapidly developing and diverse field. But I would argue, that it does not go deep into the specifics of any field, w ...more
May 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
A thought provoking read that introduces the "systems" lens to the world. Some of the concepts need a bit better explanations, but overall it was an enjoyable and compelling read.
Szymon Kulec
Aug 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
5 out of 5.

The book introduces a reader into world of systems, interconnected things. This is done in a very reader-friendly manner, starting with examples you can find in your daily life. Next, it builds up on top the already gathered knowledge introducing systems' archetypes, principles, traps. In this way you learn a lot about thinking in systems and perceiving reality in a system-aware way.

I'm amazed not only by the content of the book but also the way author conveyed the message. In less th
Jan Martinek
May 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I had big expectations and oh wow, this book is so much better than I expected in every imaginable way!

I love how every page shows how theory and practice, quality and quantity or any other methodological dichotomy needs to be bridged to arrive at clear understanding of a situation. Closing chapters add a welcome and sober reflection.

Wow. Recommended to anybody, really. I'm really sorry that I left on my shelf for almost three years. (And that I did not meet it already in my studies years befo
Sven Kirsimäe
Oct 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: at-audible
For anyone interested to look a the world through the systems paradigm. Book uses a great set of examples of how systems theory is applied by different players from governments to companies, and why not by individuals on their personal lives. It is not a book on how to apply the theory, but more about what it consists of and how to look at things through the systems theory prism, find out how they work, and why they don’t.
Tyson Titensor
TLDR of my review: Reading this book doesn't make one an expert on complex systems. In fact it probably makes one dangerously hubristic when it comes to systems thinking. It's a decent primer but it only scratches the surface. And it is flawed in a number of ways.


I first became interested in Systems Thinking a little over 5 years ago and this book was one that I used to kick start my study. It was interesting re-read it after a few years as I now have a much more comple
Eliise Peelo
Feb 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An eye-opener in every sense. An absolute essential for anyone aiming towards even the slightest understanding of this incredibly complex world we live in.
Carl Rannaberg
Mar 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
The first step to better systems thinking is acknowledging the fact that humans are never able to perfectly grasp and model the real world in their heads. The real world is just way too complex and non-linear for our simple and biased minds.
A system in it's essence is more than sum of it's parts. It's an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. Otherwise it would be just random collection of things.
As systems are usually quite complex and hav
Sep 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: self-learning
Nice introduction to systems thinking.

Warning: after reading this book you'll start noticing feedback loops all around you.

It touches on system thinking fundamentals like stocks, flows & feedback loops.
I love how it provides real-life examples (fish population, economic failure modes,...) and offers pointers on how to intervene in failing systems.
I read this work through the eyes of a consultant/software developer and a lot of the advice offered translates directly to my day job. Highly recommen
Sergey Shishkin
Sep 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Awesome introduction to systems theory. The book is well structured, containing definitions, introductions of system parts and patterns, principles, and ways of approaching systems change. Author's approach is holistic, rather than mechanistic, and examples are interesting and engaging.
Max Tolstokorov
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, systems
Despite this book was written in 1993 it deserves 6 stars even nowadays. It's an excellent primer for systems thinking.
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Donella H. "Dana" Meadows was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She was educated in science, receiving a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton College in 1963, and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard in 1968. After a year-long trip with her husband, Dennis Meadows, from England to Sri Lanka and back, she became, along with him, a research fellow at MIT, as a member of a ...more

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