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What is a system?

Adam Kahane
October, 2023


The way I started to write my previous books was to reflect on and derive lessons from my first- and second-hand experiences with systems transformation. This approach has worked well enough—I have had a broad set of experiences, some successful and some not, and have been disciplined about learning from these—but I see a big risk, in my and others’ writing, of self-servingly exaggerating the value of our own work.

Therefore, although I will eventually include my own experiences in this book, I want to start by looking through “the other end of the telescope.” This means studying how various systems have actually gotten transformed, and working backwards from there to useful everyday habits of systems transformers. 

In my next few blog posts, I will report on my insights and wonderings from this initial exploration. Given that my topic is systems transformation, I am starting by asking a basic question: What is a system?

I own more unread books about systems thinking than about any other subject, and this last month I’ve been working my way through them. In Donella Meadows’s clear and thoughtful Thinking in Systems: A Primer, she defines a system as “a set of elements or parts that is coherently organized and inter-connected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of of behaviours, often classified as its ‘function’ or ‘purpose.’” 

Intentional systems transformation begins with a concern about the “characteristic set of of behaviours” that a system is producing. One of the most important characteristics of systems, therefore, is that they persistent. In Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works, Roger Martin and Sally Osberg explain: “An equilibrium is a balanced, stable system. Left alone, a system in equilibrium will persist in its current state, according to its current structure. The system may well be corrupt, or evil, or unfair, but its forces are in balance and will remain so without intentional action to shift it (and sometimes it will remain even in the face of such action). A system of actors can and often will produce a relatively stable equilibrium that is unpleasant and unproductive for some of those actors, typically for the most underprivileged and marginalized.” 

How do you understand social systems and how it is that they keep on producing their characteristic sets of behaviours? What does your understanding imply for what it takes to transform a system so that it produces a different characteristic set of behaviours?

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