Thinking in Systems

Donella Meadows, Diana Wright (ed.) | 2008

In the years following her role as the lead author of the International bestseller, Limits to Growth – the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet – Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001.

“So, what is a system? A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.”

– Donella Meadows (2008)

Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institutes Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.

Some of the biggest problems facing the world-war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation-are essentially system failures. they cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking. While readers will learn the conceptual tools and methods of systems thinking, the heart of the book is grander than methodology.

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. . . . Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.”

– Russel L. Ackoff (1979)

Donella Meadows was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as she was for delving into the science behind global dilemmas. She reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble, and to stay a learner. In a world growing ever more complicated, crowded, and interdependent, Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.

Ackoff, R. (1979) ‘The Future of Operational Research Is Past’. Journal of the Operational Research Society 30, no. 2: 93–104.

Meadows, D. (Wright, D. ed) (2008) Thinking in Systems. Vermont, US: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Picture: © Jack Kruf (2021) System fibers. Breda: Private collection.

Systems Thinking for Curious Managers

Russell L. Ackoff | 2009

This gem of a book introduces the extraordinary world of systems thinking and its ‘Dean’, Russell L. Ackoff, to curious and enquiring managers, teachers, business people – anyone, anywhere who works in an organisation.

Finished just before Professor Ackoff’s death late in 2009, “Systems Thinking for Curious Managers” opens the door to a joined up way of thinking about things that has profoundly influenced thinkers and doers in the fields of business, politics, economics, biology, psychology.

Although Systems Thinking was ‘invented’ early in the 20th century, even the 1990 Peter Senge’s best-selling The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Systems Thinking is the fifth discipline) failed to popularise the term.

But now, in business and academia, in the public sector and in the search for solutions to the environmental problems we face, systems thinking is being talked about everywhere. In the same way, it’s only since his death in 2009 that management thinker, writer and guru Russell Ackoff has achieved the reputation he deserves.

This timely book presents 40 more of Russ Ackoff’s famously witty and incisive f-Laws (or flaws) of business – following on from his 2007 collection “Management f-Laws”. In this collection, find out:

  1. Why it is better to dissolve a problem than solve it?
  2. The best place to begin an intellectual, strategic or planning ‘journey’.
  3. Russ Ackoff’s contribution to the discussion on how organisation can best bring about ‘continuous improvement’…
  4. … and his thoughts on benchmarking.
  5. The relationship between consensus and agreement… and how best to reach agreement.
  6. What makes a successful business author.
  7. And much more besides…

The book also includes:

  1. The 81 f-LAWS from the first collection (just the f-LAWS, not Russ’s commentary or Sally Bibb’s responses)
  2. An extended essay written by Andrew Carey (and edited and approved by Russ Ackoff) which presents a thumbnail sketch of Ackoff’s approach to Systems Thinking and Interactive Design and ties them in to his collection of f-LAWS. For anyone new to Ackoff’s work or simply looking for a handy introduction to Systems Thinking in organisations, this is the ideal starting point. Separate sections cover:
    • Systems Thinking in the Crossfire Definitions
    • The Feedback Loop
    • Tropisms
    • Self-Organisation
    • Interconnectedness
    • Equifinality
    • Events vs Systems
    • Parts vs the Whole
    • Mess
    • Analysis vs Synthesis
    • Failure to Learn
    • Change
    • Aims and Intentions
    • People

All those in this collection are new and previously unpublished. Andrew Carey’s extended introduction ties these f-Laws into the rest of Ackoff’s work and gives the reader new to Systems Thinking a practical guide to the implications of Systems Thinking for organisations and managers. The Foreword by Jamshid Gharajedaghi is a moving tribute from Ackoff’s friend and business partner of many years.


Ackoff, R, Addison, H and Carey, A  (2009) Systems Thinking for Curious Managers. Charmouth Dorset, United Kingdom: Triarchy Press.

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. London: Random House UK.

Picture: © Jack Kruf (2021) System fibers. Breda: Private collection.