Key systems thinking lessons from Donella Meadows

By Geoff Marlow

Geoff Marlow (biography)

The book “Thinking In Systems: A Primer” by Donella (Dana) Meadows (2008) offers a useful entry point into systems thinking via seven lessons.

Lesson 1: Systems are always more than the sum of their parts

Feedback loops are pivotal, as is looking beyond the players to the underlying rules of the game.

Meadows (p. 13) offers guidance as to “whether you are looking at a system or just a bunch of stuff:

  • Can you identify parts? . . . and
  • Do the parts affect each other? . . . and
  • Do the parts together produce an effect that is different from the effect of each part on its own? . . . and perhaps
  • Does the effect, the behavior over time, persist in a variety of circumstances?” 

Lesson 2: Systems are within systems, within systems

This means that choosing where to draw the boundaries when thinking about systems is important.

Meadows (p.35) explores a collection of simple systems — both in isolation and in context — that create their own behaviour:

This collection has some of the same strengths and weaknesses as a zoo. It gives you an idea of the large variety of systems that exist in the world, but it is far from a complete representation of that variety. It groups the animals by family—monkeys here, bears there (single-stock systems here, two-stock systems there)—so you can observe the characteristic behaviors of monkeys, as opposed to bears. But, like a zoo, this collection is too neat. To make the animals visible and understandable, it separates them from each other and from their normal concealing environment. Just as zoo animals more naturally occur mixed together in ecosystems, so the systems animals described here normally connect and interact with each other and with others not illustrated here—all making up the buzzing, hooting, chirping, changing complexity in which we live.”

Lesson 3: Three important system characteristics are resilience, self-organisation, and hierarchy

Meadows (p. 75) points out that:

If pushed too far, systems may well fall apart or exhibit heretofore unobserved behavior. But, by and large, they manage quite well. And that is the beauty of systems: They can work so well. When systems work well, we see a kind of harmony in their functioning. Think of a community kicking in to high gear to respond to a storm. People work long hours to help victims, talents and skills emerge; once the emergency is over, life goes back to “normal”.”

Lesson 4: We understand systems through representations — maps, schema, or mental models that are inevitably limited in comparison to the complex real world

Meadows (p. 87-88) cites economist and General Systems Theory founder Kenneth Boulding in capturing this spirit:

“A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.
Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.
If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us—heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!”

Lesson 5: There are several systems archetypes that practitioners frequently observe

These archetypes crop up again and again — making them both a strength and weakness of the system dynamics school of systems thinking:

  • They’re a strength because their familiar patterns can help guide us to points of leverage for effective interventions.
  • They’re a weakness because we risk seeing a system as an arrangement of archetype “parts” and lose sight of its uniqueness.

Meadows lists the following eight common systems archetypes:

  • Fixes that Fail (also known as Policy Resistance)
  • The Tragedy of the Commons (also known as Environmental Erosion)
  • Drift to Low Performance (also known as Focus on the Negatives)
  • Escalation (also known as Accidental Adversaries)
  • Success to the Successful (also known as Competitive Exclusion)
  • Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor (also known as The Addiction Loop)
  • Rule Beating (also known as Impression Management)
  • Seeking the Wrong Goal (also known as What gets Measured gets Manipulated).

More information on systems archetypes is provided in an i2Insights contribution by Hossein Hosseini and colleagues, Using archetypes as a systemic lens to understand the complexity of sustainable development.

Lesson 6: Twelve places to intervene in a system

Meadows lists twelve places to intervene in pursuit of systemic change, from the least impactful (level 12) to the most impactful (level 1) as follows:

  1. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
  2. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows. (For an explanation of stocks, flows and delays see: Meadows or
  3. The structure of material stocks and flows.
  4. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
  5. The strength of negative “balancing” feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
  6. The gain around driving positive “reinforcing” feedback loops.
  7. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
  8. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
  9. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
  10. The goals of the system.
  11. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  12. The power to transcend paradigms.

She observes that without systemic thinking, efforts to change systems invariably focus on points with limited leverage, which she likens to “arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” (p. 148).

Lesson 7: Beware the seductive illusion that systems thinking can equip you to predict and control an inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable real world.

Meadows (p. 166) highlights this by citing G. K. Chesterton:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is.

Concluding comments

Meadows had an enviable knack for explaining complex systemic phenomena in simple ways without dumbing down the subject, making her insights accessible to ordinary people in real-world organisations.

How does Meadows’ thinking resonate with your experience? Which other thinkers have influenced your thought and practice?

To find out more:

This i2Insights contribution is based on Marlow, G. (2023). Influential thinkers: Donella Meadows. A pioneer whose insights help inform the creation of future-fit cultures. Substack article published July 16, 2023: (Online):


Meadows, D. H. (author), Wright, D. (editor). (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing: Vermont, United States of America.
(Donella Meadows’ book was originally circulated as a draft in 1993, and versions of this draft circulated informally within the system dynamics community for years. After her death in 2001, the book was restructured by colleagues at the Sustainability Institute, edited by Diana Wright, and published in 2008.)

Biography: Geoff Marlow has more than 35 years of experience working with organisations throughout Europe, Asia and the US to help them create future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness so they are able thrive in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world. He is based in Cambridge UK. Connect on LinkedIn at:

15 thoughts on “Key systems thinking lessons from Donella Meadows”

  1. Thank you, Jeff, for the interesting and timely information.

    Aurelio Peccei described in his book “Human Qualities” a meeting of 30 prominent European scientists and representatives of the business world (April 6-7, 1968). Aurelio Peccei writes: In the course of our discussions, several very remarkable incidents occurred. So, a good hour was taken away from us by sophisticated and fervent debates about the semantic difference between the word “system” in English and French — this confirmed the idea that different languages have time to reflect the rapidly changing reality in different ways. From time to time, other similar (semantic or speculative) battles arose concerning certain secondary issues that were not directly related to the main topic of our conversation. At the end of the second day, it became quite clear that there could be no question of unanimity of the participants, even with regard to the most general, preliminary provisions. This meeting ended in a monumental fiasco.

    In the context of your post, is it possible to answer three questions?
    – has the modern scientific community adopted a generic definition of the term “system”?
    – in what relation are the terms “system” and “system thinking”?
    – if we gather 30 prominent European scientists and representatives of the business world today, will modern systems thinking and key systems thinking lessons from Donella Meadows prevent a monumental fiasco?

    • Hi Vladimir

      Thanks for your comments and questions.

      There is no “modern scientific community”. There are many communities involved in science that have their own models and concepts that members thereof regard as “the science”. Think Meadows’ leverage levels 1 & 2 (paradigms, mindsets). So no, there in no unifying definition of “system”.

      Meadows’ definition of systems thinking is set out in Chapter 1 & 2 outlined above – i.e. they are “more than sums of parts” and there are always “systems within systems withing systems”.

      I personally wouldn’t waste my time gathering 30 prominent people to debate anything, as it would just generate hot air. It could only be defined as a “fiasco” if there was any expectation that something useful could come out of such a gathering. I’d regard any such expectation as naïve. I’m more interested in people putting into practice what we already know works, not debating yet more ivory tower concepts. On the rare occasions when people descend from such towers, they hardly ever venture beyond the hall of mirrors into the real world of practice…

      • Thank you, Geoff,
        This is the first time I have met with such categorical statements! This is admirable! I ask you to take a minute and correct the conclusions that confused me:
        Did I understand correctly that one community of like-minded people who have their own models and concepts that their members consider “science” is enough to solve the wicked problems of modern society?
        Did I understand correctly that these models and concepts do not particularly need theoretical and methodological support or constructive criticism of other scientific communities, and are justified only by their practical benefits?
        Did I understand correctly that in the absence of a generally accepted philosophical definition of “system”, it is possible to combine all the observed parts with “systemic” thinking?
        And, finally, did I understand correctly that one should beware of the seductive illusion that systemic thinking can help you predict and control an inherently unpredictable and uncontrolled real world?
        I am sure that your equally categorical answers to these questions will help many of us to go to our scientific and life goals “without looking around.”

  2. Thank you, Geoff, for your concise insightful blog, and for citing our blog as an example of systems archetypes application.
    I enjoyed lesson 6 (Twelve places to intervene in a system); whatever method we use to cope with the complex nature of implementing a change (improvement) in a system, we should be aware of the impact level of our intervention. After a couple of years working as a system analyst, I believe the most effective change management strategies are those targetting the mental models/paradigms of key stakeholders who shape the system’s architecture, goals, etc. Do you have any recommendations about the approaches and tools to be used in this regard?

    Best regards,

  3. Thank you, Geoff, for the insightful blog and highlighting on the book of Donella Meadows. It was really valuable and opened the floor for more thoughts and discussions.
    To highlight the phrase: “Feedback loops are pivotal, as is looking beyond the players to the underlying rules of the game.”

    It could be different when touched values. For example Moving communities from their places to another one for a better life; it is a tragic challenge. Even when there will be incentives, these communities are living with the memories and familiar places, and would not easily give that up even for incentives. Sometimes, not willing to accept any changes, despite the difficult circumstances, in their way of living.

    On the other hand, for example working to develop the marketing for specific elements or topics, or developing the organization’s human resources in a way that is consistent with its goals, using effective tools of systemic thinking. It will be effectively applicable when the structure fits the target group (rules of the game).

    Do you agree that the system thinking tool applicability varies from one community and culture to another?

    Best regards,
    Manal Affara

  4. Thank you for this succinct summary of Donella Meadows’ seven lessons. The lessons form a very good anchor point for both personal deliberations and discussions for those of us who are interested in systems thinking.

    I have been exploring the field of systems thinking in the context of public policy for 17 years, including philosophy, methodology and practice. Over the years, I find myself coming back time and time again to Meadows’ Lesson 6: twelve places to intervene in a system, in the light of an apparent need to achieve the more impactful places to intervene. Increasingly, I believe that this is where we need to develop the competencies to function – whether in research or practice – at Levels 1-6. Yet as Meadows pointed out, “the higher the leverage point, the more the system will resist changing it.”

    It then follows that if we find these ideas compelling – how can we best learn to act upon them prudently in the everyday, often humdrum context of our daily lives?

    I still, however, feel somewhat uncomfortable about the concept of ‘intervention’, which can still imply a form of control or controlling, from one to another. It gives a sense of ‘otherness’ to a dynamic system or systems which we are all actually a part of. It thus seems to de-personalise a process that could potentially catalyse the energies, motivation and intelligence of people. I therefore prefer an idea of trying to create ripples of influence opportunistically wherever possible through (messily) creating and nurturing a more expansive process of systemic inquiry and adaptive learning. In ‘Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System’ (link above) Meadows herself described her list of twelve places to intervene as ‘tentative’ and ‘its order slithery’, drawing an important conclusion about “the humility of Not Knowing” and that “In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.”

    The lesson of ‘letting go’ always seems to me to be Meadows’ most profound conclusion. I wonder if it’s possible to incorporate Meadows’ caveats within Lesson 6, yet nevertheless find ways of not getting stuck at this point of realisation i.e. find the momentum for more impactful systemic change through adaptive learning in opportunistic ways?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Catherine.

      I’ve been heavily influenced by the resonance between Meadows’ leverage points and ancient wisdom from the Indian subcontinent, which I’ve been exploring and applying for 30+ years.

      In both cases, the highest leverage for systemic transformation is found at the level of mindset / paradigm. That’s why my professional work on creating future-fit cultures focuses on cultivating the 2D3D mindsets at the centre of such a culture.

      A couple of years ago I created a Substack channel to share what I’ve found works, and what doesn’t.

      Here’s a link to a piece on 2D3D mindsets:

  5. Thanks for this great summary – helpful to have on hand.

    I noticed you’ve got ‘boundary setting’ as a tag to your article. Can you talk about this a bit more, please, in the context of your engagement with Meadow’s work?

    Editor: It’s probably worth pointing out that tags are added by the editor not the author.

    • Hi Mariana 
      As noted, the editor added the tags, not me.

      However, if I was to be asked: “How do you see Meadows’ work relates to boundary setting? I’d point out that the observer of the system chooses the boundaries of the system in how they frame it.

      This ultimately comes down to the mindset or paradigm from which the observer is operating — which Meadows identified as the second highest level of systemic leverage.

      The ability to stand back and observe one‘s own currently active operating paradigm or mindset is her highest level of systemic leverage, which would include the ability to question whether the boundaries one has assumed are optimal, appropriate, or indeed useful for “the system” under consideration.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: