"Thinking in Systems" by Donella Meadows

Review by Borodutch

Many people recommended I read "Thinking in Systems" over the years, and now I understand why. Overall, the author introduces a framework similar in nature to the Theory of Constraints by Goldratt, yet unadulterated by the necessity to make the theory more complex to squeeze the market of its money by offering consulting services. Unfortunately, the author passed away in 2001, and even though I'm glad she didn't have time to overcomplicate the system, I'm also gravely sad that she didn't have a chance to bring more theories and knowledge to the world.

I think "Thinking in Systems" is superior to the "Theory of Constraints" on many levels. Firstly, it is more versatile and applicable in the modern world (and I doubt it will ever get outdated). Secondly, it is more general because it doesn't only describe a small set of systems (i.e. factories) but tries to overtake a larger whole. Thirdly, it is more concise, on-point, complete and practical.

This time I didn't have to search the Internet for the summary of the book as I do every time I write a review. Instead, I used the handy summary that the author provided at the end. Donella divided the book into three parts:

  1. Explaining the theory of systems with stocks, flows, buffers, etc.
  2. Practical applications of systems and the most common pitfalls
  3. Common ways of influencing systems ordered by usability

I brought up the "Theory of Constraints" because the first part looks much like what Goldratt wrote — but is a bit more robust. However, when you get to the second part, the tables turn, and suddenly you're consumed by the page-turner. The third part is pure gold on how to affect an individual, a family, a workplace, a company, a country, and the global world!

Interestingly, "Thinking in Systems" does not read like a dry textbook (even though I'd love students to read it in schools). The author surprises you repeatedly with how counter-intuitive the issues and the solutions are. It all boils down to the simple concepts from the first part, but the most meat is in the following two sections.

Overall, I'd recommend reading "Thinking in Systems" to anyone asking at least once. It will help one improve their own lives and understand social policies governing them — and even point out the destructive policies that were proven not to work in the long term.