Thinking in Systems

 Donella H. Meadows
“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. 

A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.

We know a tremendous amount about how the world works, but not nearly enough. Our knowledge is amazing; our ignorance even more so… 

You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure. 

Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own.

Thou shalt not distort, delay, or withhold information.”

― Donella H. Meadows, 

Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Donella H. Meadows (March 13, 1941 – February 20, 2001) was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She is best known as lead author of the influential book “The Limits to Growth” and “Thinking in Systems: a Primer”

( from the excellent: )

Old management whine in VUCA bottles…

Paradigm shift/leadingedge/bluesky/fad cycle/ same old same old.Yada


Yada yada.

Buy our stuff.

Yada Yada


I’m sure they are lovely people doing lovely things, andnotbut™, I’m afraid I have to say: old management whine in VUCA bottles…



This is why you should say no to Big Data

The following is taken directly from the link, with the tacit approval of the owner, who wishes to widely disseminate these views and information:

Competency Based Education: The New Reformer Scheme for Collecting Common Core Aligned Data from Children Every Single Day of the Week…

“CBE (Comptency Based Education) is a data driven education system that follows a set of prescribed standards and requires demonstration of “competency” before advancement. It has embedded testing within the curriculum that collects hidden streams of data via unknown algorithms. Stealth, continuous data–collected by vendors, can be shared with third parties–parental consent not needed. The goal is to digitalize education so data can be collected and, remember, data is gold.” 

~Sue Kingery Woltanski 

Competency Based Education: Destroying Public Schools One Profitable Data Point at a Time

Competency Based Ed- the culmination of the common core agenda.

CBE Online is Neither Personalized Nor Higher-Order Thinking! (Nancy Bailey)

Great Schools Partnership and the Covert Agenda of Assessment Reform (Emily Kennedy Talmage)

Competency Based Education (Read with care, this reformer website puts you inside the Mothership of the new Common Core aligned Snake oil the reformers are selling)

Digital Learning Now- From Cohorts to Competency – “provides specific guidance regarding the adoption of Common Core State Standards and the shift to personal digital learning.”

Nailing the managerialist lie: management is not generic

“In the 1960s, an interesting series of experiments was done on air-traffic controllers’ mental capacities. Researchers wanted to explore if they had a general enhanced ability to ‘keep track of a number of things at once’ and whether that skill could be applied to other situations. After observing them at their work, researchers gave the air-traffic controllers a set of generic memory-based tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that, when tested on these skills outside their own area of expertise, the air-traffic controllers did no better than anyone else. Their remarkably sophisticated cognitive abilities did not translate beyond their professional area.” 


 Alistair Crowley’s Organisational Pentacle

The notion that there are general thinking skills is closely allied to the managerialist notion of the the generic manager, moving effortlessly from managing a supermarket to managing an opera house or a hospital. From Barclays to the BBC.

I have an equation I like to share at this point:

P+A ≠ M+T

That is to say that the model of professionals supported by administrators is not replaceable by the model of managers directing technicians.

When was the last time you heard the term ‘managerial judgement’?

Why do birds suddenly* appear…

…to flock?

Google ‘why do starlings flock’.

Actually, I’m being a little unfair, as I haven’t provided you with any ‘starter’ reading. Try these:

And here is the famous Boids simulation developed by Craig Reynolds:


Then we can have a discussion about what constitutes an explanation. For you. For scientists. For others…


*Regrettably, it isn’t because, 

“They want to be

Close to you.”

(insert thing here) will transform… 

No, it won’t. “Transforming” isn’t.

The only things that transform are loads of comic book characters like poor benighted Doctor Bruce Banner. When he gets Ang Lee*, he turns into a big green monster dubbed The Hulk. There’s another big monster in the Fantastic Four, only he’s orange and called The Thing.


“A new artistic approach to virtual reality: as artists blur the boundaries between real and virtual, the way we create and consume art will be transformed.”

Oooh, sounds really innovative. No it doesn’t, and no, it won’t.**

In the art world, it means some uninteresting combination of old hat and new hat, desperate to be noticed.

Thing is, virtual reality has been The Next Big Thing for the last 25 years. That’s a whole bloody human generation. Maybe that’s how long it actually takes, a point which both anticipates one major implication of my punchline below, and won’t be explored here, though it should be. From memory, I think I have mentioned Permaculture before. And Beth Chatto. Google both and then imagine what I would’ve said in the blog you aren’t reading.

In government, transforming always means making cuts (disagree, I dare you).

NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans, I rest my case.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to come up with more examples from other fields of human endeavour.

That S-word. The everyday meaning of ‘sustainable’ is something like ‘reliably keeping going’. Is this sustainable? Can we keep it up (Ooer, modern matron), can we keep it going? Another word for it, in the context of systems labeled ‘human’ (as opposed to systems labeled ‘biological’) would be maintainable, as in ‘maintenance’.

A small number of pundits, including myself, some blokes on the internet and Ben Taylor of RedQuadrant, a bijoux public sector consultancy here in the UK***, have become disenchanted with the whole notion of innovation. We’re more interested in keeping things going and not chucking them out or smashing them up. Maintenance. Bo-ring.

Innovation is sexy and cool, we are told. But would you want to marry one? Here’s hoping innovation stops being cool in 2017. The signs are good. Google iPhone 7 launch parody. Ooh, it’s slightly faster.

Ted Gioia has a book called The Birth (and Death) of the Cool. I’ve ordered it. When it arrives I’ll quite probably blog about it. Let’s kill cool! Does that sound cool? Drat, it does. Boring is the new cool. What.Ev.Er.

Let’s make 2017 The Year Of Maintenance. 

I’ve ordered my brown coat and flat cap. 

* “You wouldn’t like me if I’m Ang Lee”. Lee, Stuart that is, made Lee (Ang), the director of the first Hulk movie, the butt of one of his unfunny jokes that are supposed to be funny if he goes on about it long enough. I thought it was, in this case.

**Well, it is panto season. Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is… Enough.

***Disclosure: they employ me to do a bit of maintenance now and then.

Promoting Play. Promoting Good Things when other folk don’t want to pay for them.

The photo is murky, the image indistinct and semantically unfocused, the typeface is a let’s make it look like handwriting but not comic sans (2 marks for that) and most of all, the quote is bogus. 

Why was this chosen to promote “Play”?

What does it mean? It’s fuzzy, didactic and unmemorable. Something about a spark. The words are dead cliché words. 

Who is the It? Is it the spark or the child? Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be the spark, but the subject of the sentence is the child. 

Lighting the path? Only one path? Really? Not many, why not? Branching paths? No, just THE PATH. The Great One* has spoken. 

For the Adult to be?!? Teleological piffle! The Serious and Ironic Crime Squad have been informed. 

Play is not preparation for adulthood, play is “that’s it, that’s what happened” to quote Miles Davis. It’s easy to understand backwards isn’t it, Søren?

*Soreen malt loaf was named after the philosopher, btw.

*The Great One would appear to be the awesome Charles Hawtrey (1914 –1988), born as George Frederick Joffre Hartree, was an English comedy actor and musician. Starred in the Carry On films and was known …