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The Systems Bible: The Beginner's Guide to Systems Large and Small: Being the Third Edition of Systemantics

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  648 ratings  ·  83 reviews
Hardcover published by Quadragle/The New York Times Book Co., third printing, August 1977, copyright 1975.
Hardcover, 314 pages
Published January 1st 2002 by General Systemantics Press (first published 1977)
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Jul 27, 2013 rated it did not like it
I think what this book demonstrates is that a certain kind of common sense isn't sense at all, but rather a cynical tyranny of half-truths. It is disingenuous, in that it attempts to borrow the prestige of technical language exactly while also writing in a register of humor, so that any attempt to see past it would provoke the guard reflect of not being in on the joke. Another frequently-used convention is to use upper-case words to make conceptual entities seem justified, well-known, and cohesi ...more
Sep 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Some parts systems theory, some parts psychology. Author has a quirky writing style and a consistent dry sense of humor which I enjoyed, but can't see it being everyone's liking.

This book reads like as if a shaman were educating you about complex systems. Very pithy, but also can come across as not rigorous enough.

I wish the author had tackled more systems post-failure scenarios and how to deal with messes, and I would be happy to add that 5th star. Author briefly touches system resiliency, but
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: complexity, essential
A simple and brilliant work that you'll probably misunderstand.

Gall, with wit and concision, advocates an attitude and mindset of deep humility and skepticism when dealing with systems. The problem is that this book really is the Tao of Systems Thinking. To receive its wisdom and recognize its profound depth, to grasp even the need for systems-skepticism, the reader should expect to meditate on these aphorisms for days, months or even years. As an intro to systems thinking, its not very good or
Otto Lehto
May 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Do not take this book very seriously. It is a quirky little comedy essay about General Systems Theory. There is really nothing to compare it to, so I really have no idea how to rate it...

Although it lacks any kind of scientific rigour or empirical accuracy, it does a pretty good job of explaining the basics of how (complex) systems work. It does so in a surreptitious way by simplifying the science behind systems theory and complexity theory into pithy slogans and anecdotes. (This is bad practic
Dec 26, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: engineering
A cross between Dilbert, Dao De Jing and Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents. Large technological and social systems lose track of their original purpose and turn self-serving; they do not function as designed because their creators forgot Le Chatelier's principle and were unaware of various feedback loops. The process of observing the systems changes them. Passive safety is better than active safety; when used mindlessly, safety devices and procedures themselves become safety hazards.

The examples
Phil Eaton
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Douglas Adams writes a book on complexity and failure.

In the top two books I've read in the last five years.
John Fultz
Aug 01, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What a very odd book. The voice is incredibly serious, yet often with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The style reminds me a bit of The Dilbert Principle, but with less overt humor and more "wink-wink-nudge-nudge, but no, this is really serious".

Also, it's an old book, and it shows through the examples and footnotes. Many of them date to the 60s and the 70s. Although this printing was released in 2012, there's a lot of the previous decades leaking through.

All of that having been said, the princi
Eric Franklin
Feb 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absurd, hilarious, and useful, this is a complete and creative toolkit for understanding and interacting with systems. Replete with humorous examples and rife with overt cynicism, a timeless representation of human futility for engaging with our own creations.
Nov 20, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
tries unsuccessfully to be flip and not very insightful, but its a quick read with an interesting of mind tickling maxims.
Mark Sanchez
Jun 05, 2016 rated it did not like it
Funny at times, but I'm not sure there was actually much I could take away from it. I did like the use of very short chapters. ...more
Oct 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read the book in one sitting on a Friday when I was taking a break from working on some annoying distributed systems issues. It speaks to the timelessness of Systems problems that a book that was first published in 1975 can have such an impact even today. There have been many Systems Theory books since this one and I had just read John Miller's "A crude Look at the whole" and expected more of the same treatment. Boy, was I surprised!? The book is broken into very small chapters that essentiall ...more
Martin Brochhaus
I'm not sure how to rate this. I wanted to learn about Systems Thinking so that I can apply it in life.

What I got from this book were a few good chuckles (decent humour) and an existential crisis (everything seems hopeless and pointless and utterly broken, and we will probably all die in a nuclear winter).

All the axioms and theorems seem to make sense to me, but of course only such examples were cherry-picked, that proved the point.

Most chapters are a headline, a few paragraphs, one or two new t
Alexander Yakushev
Mar 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
However satirical, this book presents hard questions and no easy answers. It is a very humbling experience that makes you rethink your approach to solving problems (and whether what you do solves them at all).
Jan 20, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

As a systems thinker and fan, didn't find much to recommend it.

Complex systems do what they're gonna do, and it's not what you want, was my main take away.

Abandoned after 2/3 through, but definitely feeling done with it.
Ulas Tuerkmen
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Things are not working, that much we agree about. For me, these 'things' are mostly software systems which drive me closer to the edge of insanity the more I work with them, and for the author of this book it's mostly human organizations. The arguments of the book are supposed to apply to all systems, so we can ignore this minor difference. Who or what is to blame for this state of affairs? Or even better, how can we navigate it? The culprit, according to the author,is the systems that we see ev ...more
May 30, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book on a Saturday afternoon. Small book, amusing writing, easy to follow.

This book was published in 1975. Don't be surprised if some of the examples, and some of the language, is somewhat dated.

The author attempts to be both amusing and academic in his approach. I find most academic writing to be dry and overly intellectual. While the intellectual aspects of this book annoyed me to some degree (otherwise it would have 5 stars) the humor does shine through.

What are the common charact
Nathan Glenn
Nov 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Not what I expected, but still very relevant. I expected something very academic and mathematical. The author claimed many times that his principles were "axioms", and that they were pristinely mathematical in nature and all self evident. This was a rather annoying claim, since the book was not mathematical at all, nor were the axioms necessarily self-evident (though good supporting examples were provided). Despite this, it all still rings perfectly true. A system can be a blessing or a curse, b ...more
Taylor Pearson
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business, complexity
Complex systems are one of my favorite subjects and The Systems Bible is a great entry in the genre.

Simple systems are a sum of their parts: a bike is just a bunch of parts. If you take a wheel off and replace it with another, no big deal.

In a complex system, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you take the heart out of a horse and then replace it a few hours later, it doesn’t start working again like a bike. This does not mean we can’t understand complex systems, only that they p
Feb 10, 2016 rated it liked it
"we humans tend to forget inconvenient facts, and if special notice is not taken of them, they simply fade away out of awareness", p. xx.

"The reader is hereby warned that any such optimism is the reader's own responsibility", p. xxi

"Error is our existential situation and that our successes are destined to be temporary and partial", p. xxv.

Efficiency Expert: Someone who thinks s/he knows what a given System is, or what it should be doing, and who therefore feels s/he is in a position to pass judg
George Anderson
Jun 07, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was first published in 1975 and has gone through several printings.
It is a serious book that sometimes masquerades its points with humor. The general theory supported in the book is that: "Systems in general work poorly or not at all". Two representative corollaries of this theory are: "Large systems usually operate in failure mode" and "The system tends to oppose its own proper function." The strength of the book is the examples of real world systems behaviour ranging from the adminis
Nov 07, 2019 rated it did not like it
A really weird book, I couldn’t gage how seriously it wanted me to take it. The general spirit the book is written in is easy to agree with; we should be cautious when interacting with, understanding, and designing systems. However, nothing about most of the individual rules feels profound. Many rules feel vague and arbitrary. The optimistically named “axioms” feel vulnerable to counterexamples.

The overall cynical view the book takes is disappointing, lacking substantial constructive advice to
May 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I would like this book to be required reading for all high school or college students. It would help dispel the now unhealthy wide-spread blind faith in "systems." To paraphrase the author: A large system (Congress for example) never does what it says it does. Large systems have their own goals.

"The Systems Bible" is written for the layperson. It is very witty and full of usable wisdom.
Lou Cordero
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
The copy I read is subtitled "How systems work and especially how they fail". Wonderful easy read sheds light and humor on the development of complex systems. The impossibility of solving the problem correctly and completely. I recommend this book to anyone involved in the design of complex systems. ...more
Sep 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
On the one hand, this book is an opinionated rant about how systems are unpredictable, unworkable and difficult to make work, cloaked in a (moderately clever) satire of a pretentiously-academic tone. I suspect he's sending up the confident systems-thinking texts of the era it was written in (70s). So not a lot of evidence, and his case studies are often more curmudgeonly than clearly representative. Also the way in which public-service departments fail to work feel a bit dated - computers have b ...more
Steliyan Stoyanov
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is an absolute must-read for everyone building anything (be it IT professionals, any kind of engineers, etc). So many stories (and hopefully lessons learned) are listed in this book. Now that I am thinking of it, it's really interesting from a consumer point of view as well, because exactly the consumers are using a big number of systems. This book can just give a different perspective on those.

Personally, I really like the writing style of the author, he is not ridiculing or finger-po
David Westerveld
Presented in a very humorous and entertaining way, this book is packed with ideas that make you stop and think.

Why don't things work the way you expect them to? Well, this book will tell you. It might seem discouraging to know that a "Complex System cannot be 'made' to work. It either work's or it doesn't," but when you think it about, it is easier to (principle 31) align your system with human motivational vectors, than to keep banging your head against fundamental systems laws.

And never forge
Deane Barker
Dec 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book infuriated me. I wanted a serious discussion of systems theory, but what I got was a Dilbert-esque attempt at comedy.

The book is incredibly hard to follow. I started off diligently trying to highlight stuff and make sense of it, but the writing is scattered, and is going for laughs most of the time. I gave up trying to treat it as a cogent discussion of anything.

Every once in a while, there's a centered statement in ALL CAPS, which meant to be a "principle of systemantics."

The only rea
Jan D
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
The book gives principles or rule of thumbs on the behavior of cybernetic systems (which can be almost anything: Companies, machines, nation states…).
The style is direct and dry and the assertions tend to be more cranked-up rather than careful; fittingly, what I called “rule of thumbs” is refereed to as “axioms” of system behavior.
The author gives many examples, mostly ones where things go wrong due to being unaware of the systems behavior pointed out in the rules. These examples are often sev
Mar 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
I struggled a bit getting through this book, but it was worth it. It's easy to appreciate its format and wittiness at the beginning, but I felt like it quickly fell into deep cynicism and negativity about how systems are doomed to fail and all we can do is to observe them do so. Leaving us to rejoice in the fact that we saw it coming, because all systems are terrible and we can't do much about it. That combined with the pseudo-academic writing made me doubt I would even be able to finish it.

Muneer Uddin
Oct 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A lot of wisdom behind the humor

This is a book about systems. But in the context of discussing systems, John Gall also cuts to the heart of some of the problems with humanity.

The main axiom that the book leads back to is keep things simple. Gall describes many systems that morph into grotesque and unrecognizable behemoths that don't do anything they were intended to. In a way, this book also follows this idea. Each chapter is sort and to the point. Main points are in all caps. And then, for goo
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John Gall (September 18, 1925 - December 15, 2014) was an American author and retired pediatrician. Gall is known for his 1975 book General systemantics: an essay on how systems work, and especially how they fail..., a critique of systems theory. One of the statements from this book has become known as Gall's law.

Gall started his studies in St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. He received fu

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