• Robin Prospect

Dancing With Systems - Donella Meadows

Updated: Mar 5

This is my summary of a piece of writing by Donella Meadows, founder of the Academy for Systems Change. The focus of Donella’s work was creating healthy, functioning systems to address the complex problems facing humanity. The original article was her distillation of ‘systems wisdom’, and it is an inspiration to me. I hope you will read it.


The steps below are, she says, “the practices I see my colleagues adopting, consciously or unconsiously, as they encounter systems”.


The Dance

1. Get the beat.

  • Watch how the system behaves; focus on facts, not theories.

  • Dynamic understanding rather than static picture.

2. Listen to the wisdom of the system.

  • Pay attention to the value of what's already there.

  • Don't be an unthinking intervener and destroy the system's self-maintenance capacities.

3. Expose your mental models to the open air.

  • Collect as many hypotheses / models as possible and don't rule them out without evidence.

  • Put your mental models down in words or lists or pictures or diagrams: this will make your thinking clearer and you will admit your uncertainties faster.

4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.

  • Small steps, constant monitoring and a willingness to change course.

5. Honor and protect information.

  • Systems work better with more timely, accurate and complete information.

6. Locate responsibility in the system.

  • What are the ways the system creates its own behaviour (as opposed to outside influences)?

  • Design 'intrinsic responsibility' into the system: it sends feedback about the consequences of decision-making directly, quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.

7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.

  • Design policies that change depending on the state of the system.

  • Design learning into the management process.

8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

  • Noone can precisely define or measure any value (e.g. justice, democracy, security, freedom).

  • We need to design systems to produce values, or they will cease to exist.

9. Go for the good of the whole.

  • Especially in the short term, changes for the good of the whole may seem to be counter to the interests of a part of the system. But parts cannot survive without the whole.

10. Expand time horizons.

  • Watch both the short and the long term. Phenomena at different timescales are nested within each other.

11. Expand thought horizons.

  • Understanding the whole system requires true interdisciplinary working where all are committed to solving the problem rather than being correct.

12. Expand the boundary of caring.

  • Most people already know that the moral rules and the practical rules turn out to be the same rules (because of our interconnectedness). They just have to bring themselves to believe what they already know.

13. Celebrate complexity.

  • Diversity, not uniformity, is what makes the world interesting, beautiful, and work!

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

  • Don't weigh the bad news more than the good.

  • Keep standards absolute.

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