C. Hollis Crossman's Reviews > Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows
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At first glance, it's hard not to be dismissive of systems theory. Oh, the world is comprised of various interrelated systems that can only be manipulated for different outcomes with great care if they aren't to end in collapse and chaos? Tell me something else I already know. But that's not really the point of systems thinking—though it is the starting point.

Donella Meadows was a Harvard-educated scientist who worked at MIT and taught at Dartmouth, and was among the vanguard of systems thinkers. Technically, systems analysts use computer-processed mathematical models to analyze systems and attempt to forecast best practices; Thinking in Systems, however, offers a non-technical introduction to the fascinating discipline, and provides readers with enough information and detail to guide reflection, analysis, and activity.

According to Meadows, there is no end- or starting-point for any system: the universe itself is a vast integrated system of innumerable subsystems that overlap ad infinitum. Systems thinking, then, is not about analyzing closed systems, but about describing parameters around as much of a set of subsystems as is necessary or worthwhile for the desired discussion. A human being, for example, might be seen as a closed system, until one considers the other human beings in the subject's vicinity with whom she interacts, the environment in which she lives, etc. These are all subsystems working together to form a larger whole.

The value of looking at systems is chiefly in its capacity for facilitating understanding, and for observing and manipulating the elements of systems to effect change. A system, to truly be a system, must have three aspects: elements (the individual parts such as inventory for a business, oil for a refinery, etc.), interconnections (how the elements relate), and purpose (the reason for the system to exist in the first place). Systems that work well are resilient, self-organizing, and employ hierarchy within their structure.

The value of this book is chiefly in its capacity to help you adjust the way you look at any given system (your business, your community, your national government). Understanding how the parts of systems interact or are likely to interact, and realizing that much of systems operation is surprising and even counterintuitive, can be a powerful tool for anyone involved in organizational decision-making, management, or projection and guidance.

Meadows's ideas are clearly presented and defined, though the writing style is a bit stilted and there are a number of typos throughout the text; this may be the fault of the editor, however, who adapted the content of the original pamphlet form of Thinking in Systems for this book. Getting past the style isn't hard, though, since the ideas themselves are fascinating, practical, and ultimately self-defending. If you're involved in management or part of a steering committee, read this book.
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Reading Progress

April 24, 2017 – Started Reading
April 24, 2017 – Shelved
April 24, 2017 – Finished Reading

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