Book Review: Thinking in Systems by Donella H Meadows

This is a review of Thinking in Systems by Donella H Meadows.

This book is a wonderful guide that, if read fully, will change your outlook on many aspects of life. It puts across a set of practical messages that span the realms of the environment, politics, human interaction and financial systems and can be of direct use in working with large scale interactive systems. If you work as a UXer who designs digital products and services I would consider this a vital read.

Let me explain why I decided to read up on System Thinking. By ‘System’ I mean systems any kind of system. This can be big systems, small systems, natural systems, financial systems or political and social systems. My aim was is to improve my system theory knowledge so I can better deal with the ‘Messy Middle’ of user experience - the place that is dark and dangerous and hard to explain. I will be creating a new blog post about this soon and will be talking about that in Brussels in September.

I have been interested in systems of all kinds for many years. During my degree in Interactive System Design I became interested in Artificial Life. Alife covers self organising systems and systems that use the rules of life to produce interesting artificial worlds and models of ecosystems. My knowledge has been fairly nebulas and I tracked down this book in an attempt to ground my system knowledge. I wanted to go back to basics.

I had had a couple of false starts at finding the right book for a grounding on system thinking with General System Theory by Ludwig von Bertalanffy being too technical and a rare but interesting book called The System Bible by John Gall being too flippant! It was joy that, upon starting with this book, I found that it was easy to follow and managed to communicate the points it was making without the need for verbose language and specialist maths. It was, as advertised, a primer.

The book starts by providing simple and clear introduction to what a system is by using a bath tub example. It introduces how feedback systems work and how the delay on feedback changes the nature of the system. From a simple example of a bath tub the examples become wider and cover concepts such as oil production and controlling the temperature of a room using thermostats. These are easy to understand, yet it is easy to see how there is a common misunderstanding of even these basic concepts.

It goes on to explain different kinds of systems, how recombinations of different flows and feedback elements produce radically different outcomes. And then things get more and more interesting as it goes into how systems work, surprise us and fail. In nearly all cases the role of those who design and attempt to control systems is shown along side how the system works. This illustrates how the decisions we make can either influence a system or, in other cases, have next to no impact!

As we get towards the end of the book the systems become grander and our role in those systems is highlighted. Leverage points are given which we can use to attempt to control large complex systems. The overall message is that total control of any system is futile and where leverage points do exist they are often counter to common sense and hard to explain to non system thinkers. This revelation ties into my experience of working with complex systems. The book even has some wonderful examples of people being addicted to short term interventions rather than long term system changes. This was very helpful to me as this was the hypothesis I will be exploring more.

Ultimately the book leaves the user on a moral and spiritual high point. System Thinking may sound like a soulless pursuit about the reduction of things of wonder into dull component parts, but in reality the opposite is true. It explains why a clear flow of information is vital in any system for it to function well. It talks about ‘dancing’ with a model rather than trying to control it. It explains why clear language is also vital with the workings of a system and it extols the ability to rise above any one model of the world in order to really understand what is going on. It even likening it to the concept of enlightenment. Yes the book really does reach up to a kind of spiritual level, but without it’s feet ever leaving the ground.

It took me a long while to read this book, not because it was difficult to read, it wasn’t, or that the concepts were overly complicated, they are very real world and understandable, but because I often was sent into bouts of deep thinking by a single paragraph. This book will make you think and re appraise the world around you. I have found myself recommending it to friends, people I have worked with and even during a job interview.

It is recommended to anyone who works with any kind of system and I am believe it is vital reading for User Experience people.

This book is cheapest in Kindle form but works best in print.

See Also:

System Thinking and UX Part 1

System Thinking and UX Part 2

UX books worth reading

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