Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access and a downloadable/printable version of the summary.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

Elegant presentation of the various systems that exist in the world. This book is a distillation of thirty years of systems modeling. Completed in 2001, Thinking in Systems doesn’t see the light of day till 2008 because of the unexpected death of the author. With her work, Meadows wants to enhance our ability to navigate around the increasingly complex feedback loops that are running the world. To help us spot damaging patterns in our behavior and institutions. Discover the true cause of the problems we encounter in order to make the right adjustments in both the way we think and act.

The Core Idea:

Thinking in Systems allows you to see under the hood of different groups, organizations, and even individuals. According to Donella H. Meadows, everything is a system – yes, even individuals. Once we understand what motivates people, what drives certain behavior, we can uncover the main system fueling their actions. And once we spot these patterns, we can predict behaviors, work better with these people and help them make changes to their current approach, so they can make progress, faster.

Reason To Read:

Understand what is systems thinking and why you need to think systematically, not linearly. This book will help you see how things relate to each other and figure out what is the best tactic to make a lasting change in your life and/or in your business.


  • Systems are everywhere around us. We are part of different systems whether we realize it or not. That’s why spending time unveiling the various components of the systems you’re part of is crucial.
  • Consider the limiting factor in your system to make positive changes. For instance, companies won’t become more profitable if their product sucks, no matter how good their marketing is.
  • We tend to fill the gap between how we feel now and how we want to feel with quick solutions that eventually become addictive. This is a trap. Instead, we need to focus on strengthening our inner systems.

7 Key Lessons from Thinking in Systems:

Lesson #1: A System Is More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Imagine a football team. You might think that it’s just 11 dudes running on the field, but it’s more than that.

A football team is a complex system. We have players, coaches, the field, and the ball. A single player, regardless of his skills and ambitions, cannot win the game alone – he’s bound to be part of the system if he wants to prevail against the other team. This practically means that all players are connected. The whole team is obeying the rules of the game and also following their coach’s strategy.

The purpose of the team?

To win the game. Get famous. Get rich. Or simply enjoy an afternoon ball-kick.

This is, of course, an oversimplified example of what is a system.

Donella Meadows explains that there are systems everywhere and a system is more than the sum of its parts – 11 people play better when they play together in a team, not when each of them plays for himself. Furthermore, to explain system-thinking better, the author adds, “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.”

If we look at the example of the football team again, we can differentiate the following components:

  • Elements: Players, coach, field, ball, crowd.
  • Interconnections: Rules of the game, communication, strategy, the crowd cheering or shouting.
  • Purpose: Win the game. Or, for example, have fun.

Remove or change a single part of the above description, and you will then have a completely different system with a completely different purpose.

For instance, if the purpose is not winning but having fun, then the way people play will change. Or, if you change the ball, the physical laws that govern the motions of the ball will be different. Then, we might have rugby or baseball – or something completely new.

In short, the system causes its own behavior. All the elements in a system are leading to certain expected actions. If what you’re doing is not related to the rules of the system, then you’re out.

Hopefully, now, you can see why it’s important to invest more in system thinking.

You not only see how things connect, note the relationships between the different elements, but you can also reveal the true purpose of the systems in which you participate.

The categorization of what is a system the author makes will help you identify the players and their purposes. This, undoubtedly, will assist you in making better future decisions.

But above all – the most important part I believe – is that this knowledge will help you spot the individual goals of the different players. As noted, while a system is more than the sum of its parts, many players are playing solo – intentionally or not. Once you know who is playing what type of game, you can make proper improvements to your strategy.

“Systems can be nested within systems. Therefore, there can be purposes within purposes. The purpose of a university is to discover and preserve knowledge and pass it on to new generations. Within the university, the purpose of a student may be to get good grades, the purpose of a professor may be to get tenure, the purpose of an administrator may be to balance the budget.” Donella H. Meadows

Lesson #2: If You Want To Make A Change, Focus On Changing The Purpose

If we continue with the example from above, what do you think will happen if we change all the players in a football team?

What do you think will change besides the bodies beneath the expensive ad-rich uniforms?

Not much. As the author writes, “If you change all the players on a football team, it is still recognizably a football team. (It may play much better or much worse—particular elements in a system can indeed be important.)”

The behavior of the players will still be strongly related and aimed at the goal – winning the game.

And while we as a society don’t need to think about changing the purpose of a football team. We, collectively, need to think about changing the purpose and the way governments and institutions think.

Donella Meadows explains how an oil-based economy should approach the consumption of oil. Instead of focusing on finding more oil, she explains that we should simply burn less oil and create a world where less oil is required in general.

A similar way of thinking can be applied to other situations, of course. For instance, you can hire more people if your workload increases. Or you can find ways to reduce the workflow – by automation, removing unnecessary tasks, or simply fire fewer people.

People rarely think like that. At least that’s what the author states.

Donella Meadows notes that we focus mainly on the inflows. We focus on making more money, we don’t think about reducing our costs. And while this is not bad per se, we forget about one important thing: change happens slowly.

Even if you are working on ways to change your system for the better – learning new skills to get a new, higher-paying job – this won’t happen overnight. There are always delays. Lags. If you don’t consider the time it will take you to benefit from the changes you’re implementing now, you might “burn all of your oil” before you reach the desired outcome.

This leads me to the following conclusion for this lesson: Even if you are working on making positive changes to your life so you can become financially healthy, these corrections won’t be long-term solutions if you don’t adjust your purpose. You can strive for more money, but if you don’t consider reducing the outflow of your cash, you can still be poor.

Similarly, you can demolish a factory because it’s underperforming, but if you don’t change the way people think about doing business, they will simply produce another factory doing the same mistakes – simply on a different location.

That’s why governments don’t make lasting changes. People in the government switch, but their purpose stays the same – shortsighted.

“Once an economy has a lot of oil-burning furnaces and automobile engines, it cannot change quickly to furnaces and engines that burn a different fuel, even if the price of oil suddenly changes. It has taken decades to accumulate the stratospheric pollutants that destroy the earth’s ozone layer; it will take decades for those pollutants to be removed.” Donella H. Meadows

Lesson #3: Try To Find The System In Everything Around

There are systems everywhere. And they don’t operate singly.

Our world is complex and as A causes B, it is also possible for B to cause A.

Think about it…

The lack of jobs can cause poverty. But also poverty reinforces the lack of jobs. After all, it will be extremely hard for a poor community to produce enough big corporations that can create jobs. And even more importantly, the way a poor community thinks is usually not that ambitious. People will focus on the here and now. On surviving, not thriving in the future. There is simply no other way for them to operate.

Meadows includes a lot of pictures in the book full of pipes and faucets that represent the inflow and the outflows in different systems. Usually, a simple system will consist of one inflow that is generating “stock” and one outflow that is spending the amount of stock generated. For example, you gain money (inflow) and you spend money (outflow).

But as just stated, there are systems all around us that work together.

One of the examples in the book is of a thermostat mechanism that regulates the heating of a room. The inflow of heat here comes from the thermostat. The thermostat is working to change the temperature of the room. The outflow is the outside temperature. In this situation, when the room reaches the desired temperature, the thermostat will stop working – at least for a while. When the temperature falls under the tuned 18 degrees, for example, it will start working again.

Meadows calls this “Two Competing Balancing Loops.”

The thermostat is trying hard to heat the room while the outside temperature is doing the opposite.

Now imagine that you’re part of a community where there are not enough jobs for everyone. Since the inflow of jobs is not enough to shelter the big outflow – the people wanting to get a job – the result will be higher competition and people without jobs.

The problem here is how to balance the loops, right?

Creating more jobs is surely a solution. But another way to tackle this is by providing resources to the people without jobs to create their own reinforcing loops – their own businesses, for example.

“Reinforcing loops are found wherever a system element has the ability to reproduce itself or to grow as a constant fraction of itself. Remember the example of the interest-bearing bank account? The more money you have in the bank, the more interest you earn, which is added to the money already in the bank, where it earns even more interest.” Donella H. Meadows

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