Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking Tips #3- System Archetype Traps


Delays , nonlinearities , lack of firm boundaries and other properties of systems that surprise us are found in just about any system, Generally they are not properties that can or should be changed. The world is non-linear

Donella Meadows

Whilst dealing with systems there will be often many times that you will see them be non-linear in nature. Trying to solve them with linearity often as times is just an administrative convenience and nothing more.

System troubles are mostly unique in nature and such common problematic behaviors are known as archetypes. In context to management and system design, you will see two dominant archetypes that we should be aware of

  • Tragedy of Commons
  • Seeking the wrong goal
  • Drift to low performance
  • Escalation

Understanding archetypal problem-generating structures are not enough. Putting with them is impossible. They need to be changed. The destruction they caused is often blamed on particular actors or events although it is actually a consequence of system structure. Blaming, disciplining, firing, and making fevered changes to the policy framework will never fix this. This is what is described as archetype traps.

So what can we do about them?

In simple terms, when we start changing our approach to being systems thinkers, we will and should develop the look-ahead approach that helps us to see things in advance and not get caught by them. This is an important skill that can not be taught but only through experience and doing more, one hones it to make it effective. The more exposure you have to systems, and keep this in the back of your mind, you will see that every next move is following a reinforcing loop, making you better at identifying these traps.

When we talk in my upcoming post, we will get the concepts from Feedback tips and Solving problems creatively to converge with the identification of archetypes traps to create a blueprint of sorts for solving problems with a systems mindset.

Keep watching this space!

Systems Thinking Tips #2- Feedback Loops

The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back

Peter Senge – The Fifth Discipline

As the Senge quote implies, brute force does not scale well within the context of a system. One of the reasons for systems stability is feedback. Within the bounds of the system, actions lead to outcomes, which in turn affect future actions. This is a positive thing, as it is required to keep a complex operation on course.

The presence of feedback is an integral characteristic of a system. No feedback means no system.

There are two main types of feedback:

  • Reinforcing feedback: a change in system state which serves as a signal to enhance the initial change. In other words, the system provides a big difference in the same direction.
  • Balancing feedback: a change in a system state that serves as a signal to start moving in the opposite direction to restore the lost balance.

Things to consider are as follows

  • How you are accepting and executing feedback signals?
  • How the feedback relationship with your investors is evolving, in terms of your product direction?
  • How the feedback relationship with your users is evolving, in terms of both operational criteria and product direction?

Feedback loops are a powerful tool in the manager’s hands. The initial change in the variable (process, etc) stimulates its further change in the original direction. Thus, if we succeed in changing the variable in the direction we need (reinforcing loop), we can start the process throughout the whole context, and since the variables enter several contexts (aka contours) at once, we can launch the same series of cascade effects that will now work for us. All systems are endowed with a balancing feedback mechanism that ensures their stability. But — in order for balancing feedback to work, measurement is necessary (f.e., to define when should we switch to a balancing loop). This measurement must be accurate enough for the feedback to work adequately.

Systems Thinking Tips #1- Help solve problems creatively

A systems thinking perspective and approach is key to effective roadmap integration and action. We should think in terms location and type of system ‘Leverage Points’ when we think of sustainable intervention and action.

For solving problems creatviely using systems thinking approach following three points are important to consider and keep in mind

Identify Points of Change

The first step is to understand the system you’re working with, and then identify its “leverage points”—in other words, the points in a system where “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything,” as Thinking in Systems Meadows puts it.

Changing mindsets and paradigms is also a leverage point. Meadows believes it is the highest one:

“There’s nothing necessarily physical, expensive, or even slow in the process of paradigm change,” she said. “In a single individual, it can happen in a millisecond—all it takes is a click in the mind, an epiphany, a new way of seeing.”

Finding Patterns

Every system has patterns that will emerge. By identifying them, it’s possible to figure out which parts of the system need adjusting.

These patterns can be identified from three perspectives:

The “event perspective” is reactionary—for example, by asking, “What happened?” In order to get the most out of this perspective, try telling a story. Seeing beyond each event helps you see patterns and trends, which facilitates anticipating, predicting, and planning.

The “pattern perspective” is to ask, “What has been happening?” This relates to Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory,” so-called because his writing explicitly stated only a small part of the larger story. It’s usually hard to see the underlying structures that cause events; the part of the iceberg hidden beneath the water line. A systems thinker does not assume the visible part of the iceberg is all there is to it.

The “structure perspective” asks, “What is causing the issue?” For instance, if you’re stuck in traffic, you don’t blame the person directly in front of you; you ask, “What’s causing the traffic jam?” Usually, the answer is construction or a crash. Systems thinkers make deductions based on internal structures to arrive at a conclusion.

Clarify the Issue

There’s a difference between “people problems” and “systems problems.” A bad hire that’s gossiping and distracting your team from work is a people problem. Therefore, replacing that person is a leverage point. But that doesn’t mean your people problem is not still related to a system, somehow. Maybe there’s a flaw in your interview process that allowed the bad hire to be made. In that case, the leverage point would be tweaking your hiring process.

Thinking back to the traffic jam, a potential system-based solution might be installing traffic lights, better enforcing traffic laws, or changing construction hours to a time when less people are commuting.

Getting to the core of a problem before making a decision will not only make you a better thinker, it will make you a more productive leader, too. We need to ensure that today’s solution does not become tomorrow’s problem