Influential Thinkers: Donella Meadows
A pioneer whose insights help inform the creation of future-fit cultures
“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” — Sir Francis Bacon 1
I’m by no means a voracious reader, either for business or pleasure.
In fact, I’m in broad agreement with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that reading too much risks stifling one’s own thinking. 2
That said, some authors have had a significant impact on my professional work over the past 35 years helping organisations throughout Europe, Asia, and the US create future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness.
Donella (Dana) Meadows was one such author — well-known in the field of systems thinking, environmental science, education, and author of Thinking In Systems: A Primer, which, as its name suggests, offers an entry point into Systems Thinking.3
In the book she describes her thinking as enriched by fellow members of the MIT Systems Dynamics Group Jay Forrester and Peter Senge, luminaries such as Gregory Bateson, Albert Einstein, and E.F. Schumacher, and sources of ancient wisdom including indigenous Americans and Sufis of the Middle East.4
She admits these are “Strange bedfellows, but systems thinking transcends disciplines and cultures and, when it is done right, it overarches history as well.” 5
The book has seven chapters:
Chapter One — The Basics
In this chapter, Meadows sets out that systems are always more than the sum of their parts, describes the pivotal role of feedback loops, and of looking beyond just the players to the rules of the game.
She asks: “How to know whether you are looking at a system or just a bunch of stuff..? 6
Can you identify parts? . . . and
Do the parts affect each other? . . . and
Do the parts together produce an effect that is different from the effect of each part on its own? . . . and perhaps
Does the effect, the behavior over time, persist in a variety of circumstances?
Chapter Two — A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo
Here she explores simple systems — both in isolation and in context — that create their own behaviour.
“This collection has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as a zoo. It gives you an idea of the large variety of systems that exist in the world, but it is far from a complete representation of that variety. It groups the animals by family—monkeys here, bears there (single-stock systems here, two-stock systems there)—so you can observe the characteristic behaviors of monkeys, as opposed to bears. But, like a zoo, this collection is too neat. To make the animals visible and understandable, it separates them from each other and from their normal concealing environment. Just as zoo animals more naturally occur mixed together in ecosystems, so the systems animals described here normally connect and interact with each other and with others not illustrated here—all making up the buzzing, hooting, chirping, changing complexity in which we live.” 7
In other words, systems are within systems, within systems — so choosing where to draw the boundaries when thinking about systems is important.
Chapter Three — Why Systems Work So Well
Meadows highlights three important system characteristics: resilience, self-organisation, and hierarchy.
“If pushed too far, systems may well fall apart or exhibit heretofore unobserved behavior. But, by and large, they manage quite well. And that is the beauty of systems: They can work so well. When systems work well, we see a kind of harmony in their functioning. Think of a community kicking in to high gear to respond to a storm. People work long hours to help victims, talents and skills emerge; once the emergency is over, life goes back to “normal”. ” 8
Chapter Four — Why Systems Surprise Us
The way we understand systems are always through representations — maps, schema, or mental models that are inevitably limited in comparison to the complex real world.
As statistician George Box famously observed “All models are wrong but some models are useful”. Inspired by Meadows, I’d add “…in some circumstances some of the time.”
This inherent limitation in understanding calls us to remain alert to situations where our representations are no longer adequate, and we’re called upon to go deeper.
Meadows cites economist and General Systems Theory founder Kenneth Boulding in capturing this spirit: 9
A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out
Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.
If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us—heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!
Chapter Five — System Traps and Opportunities
This chapter explores a number of systems archetypes that systems dynamics practitioners frequently observe, including:
Fixes that Fail (aka Policy Resistance)
The Tragedy of the Commons (aka Environmental Erosion)
Drift to Low Performance (aka Focus on the Negatives)
Escalation (aka Accidental Adversaries)
Success to the Successful (aka Competitive Exclusion)
Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor (aka The Addiction Loop)
Rule Beating (aka Impression Management)
Seeking the Wrong Goal (aka What gets Measured gets Manipulated).
These archetypes crop up again and again — making them both a strength and weakness of the Systems Dynamics school of systems thinking:
They’re a strength because their familiar patterns can help guide us to points of leverage for effective interventions.
They’re a weakness because we risk seeing a system as an arrangement of archetype “parts” and lose sight of its uniqueness.
Chapter Six — Leverage Points - Places to Intervene in a System
This chapter — also well-known as a standalone paper — had a huge impact on my own practice, specifically the leverage achieved by focusing on mindsets, and the emergence of my understanding of organisational culture as system of mindsets. 10
Meadows lists 12 places to intervene in pursuit of systemic change, from the least impactful (level 12) to the most impactful (level 1) as follows:
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows.
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative “balancing” feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive “reinforcing” feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
She observes that without systemic thinking, efforts to change systems invariably focus on points with limited leverage, which she likens to “arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.
Chapter Seven — Living in a World of Systems
The final chapter warns against the seductive illusion that systems thinking can equip you to predict and control an inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable real world.
Meadows highlights this by citing G.K. Chesterton: 11
“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is.”
Overall, Meadows had an enviable knack for explaining complex systemic phenomena in simple ways without dumbing down the subject, making her insights accessible to ordinary people in real-world organisations.
It’s something other academics would do well to emulate, because knowledge that lacks this practical accessibility for real-world application might just as well not exist…
Questions for reflection
How does Meadows’ thinking resonate with your experience?
Which other thinkers have influenced your thought and practice?
Do you read too much and thereby stifle the emergence of your own thinking..?
Meditationes sacræ (1597) “Of Studies”. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) was an English philosopher, statesman and essayist widely regarded as the father of the scientific method.
Arthur Schopenhauer Counsels and Maxims “Reading is merely a substitute for one's own thoughts. A man allows his thoughts to be put into leading-strings (a kind of harness to control children’s steps)… A man, therefore, should only read when the source of his own thoughts stagnates; which is often the case with the best of minds. It is sin against the Holy Spirit to frighten away one's own original thoughts by taking up a book.”
Friedrich Nietzsche Ecce Homo p88: “The state of my eyes alone put an end to all bookwormishness, or, in plain English—philology: I was thus delivered from books; for years I ceased from reading, and this was the greatest boon I ever conferred upon myself! That nethermost self, which was, as it were, entombed, and which had grown dumb because it had been forced to listen perpetually to other selves (for that is what reading means!)”
Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems — A Primer on Goodreads. The book was originally circulated as a draft in 1993, and versions of this draft circulated informally within the systems dynamics community for years. After the death of Meadows in 2001, the book was restructured by her colleagues at the Sustainability Institute, edited by Diana Wright, and finally published in 2008.
Ibid Thinking in Systems preface page ix.
Meadows, although an MIT scholar in Jay Forrester’s Systems Dynamics group, rightly recognises Systems Thinking as a broad field encompassing multiple perspectives and approaches. For a good overview of various schools see Professor Mike Jackson’s book Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity on Goodreads.
Ibid page 13.
Ibid page 35.
Ibid page 75.
Ibid page 87-88. From Kenneth Boulding General Systems as a Point of View in proceedings of the Second Systems Symposium, Case Institute of Technology, Cleveland, April 1963 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964).
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1927).