Thinking in Systems: A Primer

by Donella H. Meadows, Diana Wright

22 Dec 2020 ★★★★★

Why I read it: Some time ago I was googling for books that could build the ability to think like a software architect. And this was one of the recommendations that came up several times.

What I liked about it: It was a lot easier to read than I expected. I think this book had the best summaries of the main ideas I’ve ever seen. Every time I highlight an idea I find a coloured box with it in the next page.

I think this book abstracts a lot of truths about life. And they can be applied in different context – from personal life to managing teams and organisations. For example ‘Guidelines for living in the world of systems’: -Get the beat of the system (observe before you act) -Expose your mental models to the light of day (invite others to challenge your assumptions) -Honour, respect and distribute information -Use language with care and enrich it with systems concepts (We don’t talk about what we see. We only see what we talk about). -Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable -Make feedback policies for feedback systems (re-evaluate as you learn) -Go for the good of the whole (don’t maximize parts of the system while ignoring the whole) -Listen to the wisdom of the system (Aid an encourage the forces and the structures that help the system run itself) -Locate responsibility in the system (design the systems to experience the consequence of their actions) -Stay humble – stay a learner -Celebrate complexity -Expand time horizons (you need to be watching for both the short term and the long term – the whole system). -Defy the disciplines -Expand the boundary of caring -Don’t erode the goal of goodness.

I also found parallels with other ideas, books I’ve read this year. The Guideline ‘Expand the boundary of caring’ aligns with some Buddhist ideas of not self. There was also a chapter on ‘Transcending paradigms’ that actually mentioned Buddhist enlightenment. Author also said ‘Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity – our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision and our morality’. And this was basically the message of the book ‘Deep Human: Practical Superskills for a Future of Success‘. It is nice to see the same core ideas expressed in multiple places. Too bad it is hard to internalize them fully still.

What I disliked: I came here looking to improve my software architect thinking. From the very first chapters I tried to questions myself ‘do I notice these systems outside of the book’. And I did. In my team dynamics, in news, in people responding to stricter lock-down rules. But not in technical systems. But it could also be that I’m more keen on contemplating social systems than technical ones.

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