<-- home

A Systems Approach

Whatever it is that you do, if you have wondered about increasing productivity, improving outcomes or creating more long lasting value, you owe it to your self to learn a little about the study of systems.

Okay, starting with the most banal definition of a system:

A system is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole.[1] A system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning. 1

Couldn’t be more clear, right? That describes everything! I find definitions like that useful because it shows how universal systems thinking is.

Oh, fun side note. the study of cybernetics is where a lot of systems thinking started:

Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary[1] approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine."[2] In other words, it is the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other. 2

Given how universal systems thinking is if you can understand the system around you, or the one that you work in, you can find its leverage points, and enact change.

That is the most potent aspect of systems thinking. Who doesn’t want to change their environment and how often do we feel powerless to do so.

Okay, so now what. Well, fortunately what I have for you is a reading list.

“Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Donella H. Meadows 3

This is the most widely regarded introduction to systems thinking. You can find a PDF of this if you look hard enough.

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge 4

This book puts systems thinking into more of a buisness context, and I found it to be more accessible then Donella Meadows book. I especially appreciate the chapter on the Shell Corporation. It’s focus on active listening was and still is important for me to read and reflect on.

The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox 5

And it’s modern re-telling The Phoenix Project 6

Both books describe the system of work flowing through an assembly line. Which it turns out has an amazing amount of parallels to how software development is done now days.

The Wire

Yep, a TV show.

Set and produced in Baltimore, Maryland, The Wire introduces a different institution of the city and its relationship to law enforcement in each season, while retaining characters and advancing storylines from previous seasons. 7

It’s a show about a city. It’s about the systems in that city and the effects it has on the inhabitants. Not only is it an amazing show, it can change your perspective.

People and Blogs

  • lethain.com by Will Larson brings a systems frame to a number of issues in software enginnering
  • John Allspaw former CTO of Etsy, Flickr before that. Just a good in general follow, but in particular his talk about the “Line of Representation” introduces a powerfull model for understanding the world in which engineering takes place text video

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/System ↩︎

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetics ↩︎

  3. https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/1603580557 ↩︎

  4. https://www.amazon.com/Fifth-Discipline-Practice-Learning-Organization/dp/0385517254/ ↩︎

  5. https://www.amazon.com/Goal-Process-Ongoing-Improvement/dp/0884271951/ ↩︎

  6. https://www.amazon.com/Phoenix-Project-DevOps-Helping-Business/dp/1942788290/ ↩︎

  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wire ↩︎