Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows


The best primer on how to think about and understand complex systems—approachable, entertaining, and fascinating. I recommend this book to anyone, but especially anyone involved in managing human organizations (corporations, non-profits, etc.) which are themselves complex systems.

In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows shows how the behavior of complex systems often surprises and beguiles us under intense scrutiny, often because any attempt to understand a system requires us to build an incomplete model, a simplification, a drawing of boundaries around the system where often such boundaries don’t exist. Systems often behave in counter-intuitive ways, especially if we try to apply traditional methods of analysis. But Meadows shows us how we can develop an /intuition/ for how systems work, look for common patterns and feedback mechanisms across systems, avoid common systems “traps,” and seek out different points of leverage for changing them. Developing this intuition and practicing systems thinking allows us to see the world and its behaviors in new ways, and opens up otherwise unseen opportunities for change. As Meadows writes towards the end of the book:

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!