mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

Manager Reads - Thinking in Systems

Changing gears from the usual books covered in Manager Reads today we dive into the world of systems in Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows.

Who recommended the book? In An Elegant Puzzle - Systems of Engineering Management Will Larsen calls systems thinking the “most universally useful tool kit” he’s found for effective leadership. Larsen recommends Thinking in Systems if you want a “solid grasp on systems thinking fundamentals.” Consider me sold!

Judge the book by its cover, font, page quality? Thinking in Systems is an introduction to the complexity-filled world of systems theory but the cover is simple, featuring a Slinky on a white background. The Slinky spans from the front over over the spine to the back cover of the book which looks pretty cool. The book doesn’t delay on making the Slinky relevant as it is mentioned in the first page. It’s simple but I like it.

Page quality inside the book isn’t great; it’s not bad enough that highlighter bleeds through from one side to another but lifting a page to turn it you can see the text and figures on the other side. The serif font is standard and unoffensive.

Worth mentioning is Thinking in Systems does not provide end-of-chapter summaries but it does have call-outs throughout every chapter with big takeaways in bold in the section that takeway is discussed. For those that love end-of-chapter summaries, fear not! The Appendix has a Summary of Systems Principles that covers systems concepts, traps, leverage points, and guidelines.

Thoughts on the book and the big take-aways? I really enjoyed Thinking in Systems as it was an enjoyable read and provided a very approachable introduction to systems thinking. The book provides a whirlwind tour of systems thinking:

  • An introduction to fundamental system concepts like stocks and flows; feedback loops (balancing and reinforcing) and dominance, delays, oscillations. With this deceptively small list of concepts, you’re ready to dive into systems thinking!

  • An overview of why systems work so well. They do so because they are resilient (the ability to recover after a perturbation), can self-organize (the ability to make its own structure more complex), and generate hierarchies (subsystems that can take care of themselves).

  • A tour of system traps: systems that produce problematic behaviors and how to work your way out of those traps. Like the Accidental Diminisher chapter of Multipliers learning about all the ways systems don’t work and how to pivot out of that was very insightful. This section covers traps like Policy Resistance, the Tragedy of the Commons, Drift to Low Performance, Escalation, Competitive Exclusion, Addiction, Rule Beating, and Seeking the Wrong Goal. Some (and hopefully not all) of these are problems you may encounter in your workplace.

  • The best and worst leverage points for intervening in a system and changing its behaviors? The worst leverage point? Changing constants and parameters of the system. A middling leverage point? Fix information flows so information can get to the right places. The best leverage point? Detach yourself from the shared ideas and assumptions of society and tap into the universe and its spacious possibility; choose whatever system helps you achieve your purpose from that immense pool. 😮

  • How to live (and improve) a world of systems. This includes gems of advice like observing a system and learning its beat before intervening, to encouraging putting your mental models out in the open to get feedback on them, stay humble, embrace complexity, and to expand the boundary of caring.

My wife often laughs when I drop this now recurring meme, “Aren’t fruit trees amazing? From a seed, soil, sunlight, and water we get these delicious fruits.” I can now add “This is what the world looks like to a systems thinker. Let me tell you about the feedback loops of this fruit tree.”

Favorite quote from the book? “Being less surprised by complex systems is mainly a matter of learning to expect, appreciate, and use the world’s complexity.”

Elevator pitch for suggesting (or not suggesting) the book? 100% read it! The problems we encounter vary in size and complexity but if we approach them with a systems thinking lens we arm ourselves with a set of universal tools for solving them.

Notes in Evernote? My notes don’t capture the helpful system figures but feel free to check out my notes on 🐘.

Most of the world’s wisdom is written down in its best books. Manager Reads is a series covering books on management and leadership, focusing on books that can improve your own leadership with the wisdom of others. Enjoyed this post and want to see more? Check out more at Manager Reads.