Book review “Thinking in Systems”​

Last week, I read a book called “Thinking in Systems” by D.H. Meadows. It was such a good read that I decided to share a miniature review with you. The book is about ‘systems’, where a system is an interconnected set of elements that produce their own pattern of behavior over time. Examples include the company you work for, a country, the human body, and teams. After introducing some ‘figurative notation’, the author starts with an example of a simple system: a car dealer that has to maintain a sufficient inventory to cover ten days’ worth of sales. The question is thus: when should the dealer order cars, and how many? Car sales are unpredictable, and the author runs simulations of various inventory strategies when the sales suddenly increase by 10% after a fixed number of days. The results are surprising: seemingly sensible strategies by the dealer result in enormous oscillations in the size of the inventory, and sometimes even lead to ever-growing inventories.

The message is clear: even simple systems can exhibit complex behavior. Our minds are good at inferring linear relationships, but how useful is this when much of the world around us is inherently non-linear? This is where the book becomes really interesting for me, as the author leaves the modeling+numbers mindset and takes a more philosophical view. She switches to our interaction with and in systems, and how that affects us. Various common pitfalls and opportunities are discussed, and how you encounter them in everyday life. A tantalizing quote from the end of the book:

Systems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring-out rationality less, to lean on both as much as I can, but still to be prepared for surprises. Working with systems, on the computer, in nature, among people, in organizations, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don’t know.

I couldn’t agree more.