Thinking in Systems: the book that transforms chaos to clarity

30 March 2024
Do you want to become like Neo from The Matrix, and instead of seeing random, unpredictable chaos around you, see the world as a unison of dynamic systems working together to make perfect sense? Do you want to be able to identify where a system is broken and have the ability to fix it? Then read this book.

It's essential for product managers, and I believe it's extremely useful for anyone who wants to achieve more success. I wish I had read it earlier, and I'm definitely going to re-read it to make sure I've absorbed everything.
The "Thinking in Systems" book review
The author of the book, Donella Meadows, is a pioneer in the environmental movement, one of the world's leading systems analysts, and the author of an environmental call to action, 'Limits to Growth'. She wrote a draft of 'Thinking in Systems' before her death in 2001, and then the book was finished by her colleagues, edited by Diana Wright, and published in 2008.
I absolutely loved the book! It immediately captured my attention, providing so much clarity and didn't let me go until the last page.
A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.
The title 'Thinking in Systems' might seem intimidating to those far removed from tech or science. However, I would argue that the book is perfectly comprehensible to a wider audience. It guides you through complex concepts, explaining them so clearly with vivid examples that you can't help but be totally captivated. Sometimes, you might even find yourself sitting with your mouth open.
The tub can't fill up immediately, even with the inflow faucet on full blast. A stock takes time to change, because flows take time to flow. That's a vital point, a key to understanding why systems behave as they do.
What is especially close to my heart is that many examples refer to the environment, which helps you better understand natural feedback loops and the consequences of climate change.
The more soil is eroded from the land, the less plants are able to grow, so the fewer roots there are to hold the soil, so the more soil is eroded, so less plants can grow.

Key messages from the book that resonated deeply with me

A system consists of stocks and flows
Water in your bathtub, money in your bank account, the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air, your reputation, your energy level—all of these are 'stocks.' They can be filled and emptied, and the flows responsible for them can enter feedback loops, either reinforcing or balancing each other. The rich become richer and the poor become poorer precisely because of this reason (a reinforcing feedback loop). Population growth eventually slows down and stops (a balancing feedback loop).
Systems thinkers see the world as a collection of stocks along with the mechanisms for regulating the levels in the stocks by manipulating flows. That means system thinkers see the world as a collection of "feedback processes."
If you train yourself to see where your stocks are and which feedback loops are responsible for filling them, you can attempt to influence them to get your stocks to the desired level. For instance, if you are concerned about your bank account balance, you can either enhance income flows or find ways to cut your spending.
Everything we know is a model
In order to understand how the world works, we build models and then rely on them as if they are sources of truth, forgetting that every model is a simplification and has boundaries (otherwise, it would be useless). 'Fatty food is unhealthy and causes obesity,' 'to be productive, one needs to wake up early,' 'discounts and promo codes are great for sales'—all of these are models that we've invented. In some cases, they work; in others, they don't.
Everything we think we know about the world is a model. Our models do have a strong congruence with the world. Our models fall far short of representing the real world fully.
Even though we, humans, are good at building models, they never fully describe the real world. Everything we know is only a model that works for a limited time in limited circumstances. It's only one explanation of a complex world we don't (and never will) fully understand.

One model is as good or as bad as any other until it's proven otherwise. The more hypotheses you collect by challenging your views and collaborating with other people, the more models you can build, and the more options you'll have to choose from, taking into account what works better here and now for your task at hand.
Watching what really happens, instead of listening to peoples' theories of what happens, can explode many careless causal hypotheses.
It's exactly what we [should] do in product management: gather as many hypotheses as possible, test them, and when we find something that works well enough, consider it a working hypothesis for now. Then constantly check if it still works as the situation changes. And in case we get evidence from the real world that it's not working – trust the real world over our previous assumptions.
Paradigm shift – a path to true freedom
This is probably the most powerful takeaway from the book!

Paradigms are something 'everyone knows'; they represent common sense about how the world works. Fundamental beliefs such as 'the Earth is flat,' 'growth is good,' 'God exists,' 'God doesn't exist,' 'one can own land,' and 'if you earn less, then you are worth less' are paradigms. The systems are built on them. The good news is that one paradigm is good for one thing, another for something else, and one is free to choose whatever they like.
If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help to achieve your purpose.
Moreover, paradigms can be changed, and it's one of the most powerful ways to influence systems. People like Einstein or Copernicus are paradigm-shifters. It's easy to change a paradigm or beliefs of one person but extremely hard to achieve on a national or global scale.

Top system thinkers can perform complete magic - realizing that no paradigm is true. Everything that we think and believe about the world is a result of our imagination, helping us to cope with our limited understanding of the world around us, which can never be fully understood.

'There's no spoon,' remember? This is it.
10 key questions to ask to make an impact fast if you are a product manager
No paradigm is true. There's no spoon.
There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is "true," that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.
Systems work really well
Systems are everywhere. After a little practice, you learn to identify them, and then you see them all around you and can't unsee them. The best systems are very powerful, work really well, and are hard to break. This is not by chance but because they are driven by fundamental forces: resilience, self-organization, or hierarchy.
Why do systems work so well? Consider the properties of highly functional systems—machines or human communities or ecosystems—which are familiar to you. Chances are good that you may have observed one of three characteristics: resilience, self-organization, or hierarchy.
Understanding these principles and promoting them can greatly improve the ability of a system (for instance, a business) to function well for a long time and sustain itself. These properties are often sacrificed for short-term stability and productivity, which is very risky in a constantly changing world. If a team, a business, or a society can't recover, reorganize, and restore itself after stress, it puts itself in danger.

Great product teams know how to balance central control to achieve coordination toward the high-level goal and ensure enough autonomy and ownership to keep all subsystems thriving, functioning, and self-organizing.
Correct, timely and full information is a key to success
One of the biggest problems of systems is disrupted information flow. But at the same time, it's one of the most impactful ways to fix a system—just check information flows and make sure they are immediate, complete, and accurate.
I would guess that most of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of biased, late, or missing information… You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.
It's critical for a product team to understand this: if all people involved in building the product receive immediate, clear, and complete information, the number of errors decreases dramatically, and the speed of work, along with team happiness and involvement, increases proportionally. The same applies to customers; if they receive immediate and clear feedback on the consequences of their actions, they feel more in control of using the product, become much happier, and are more willing to return.

What's next?

These are only a few things from the book that I wanted to highlight. There is a lot more! While reading it, I couldn't help but highlight a quote on almost every page and there's not enough room for all of them in this post.

The author goes through types of feedback loops, systems leverage points, discovers traps and opportunities and explains how to successfully navigate the world of systems for the one's own good and the good of the whole world. Read it, I mean it.

The book is an incredible asset for product managers, but whatever industry you are in, 'Thinking in systems' will clarify your worldview, help you make sense out of complicated processes, teach you look to the core of events and see what is broken and how to fix it.


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Watch out! If you see feedback loops everywhere, you're already in danger of becoming a systems thinker!
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Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being