Uncovering System Archetypes (Systemic Structures)

First, some rules:


  • Links (arrows)
  • S’s and O’s
  • S = same direction
  • O = opposite direction
  • If odd number of O links, that makes the structure a balancing (B) loop
  • Otherwise it must be a reinforcing (R) loop


  • Is an element in a situation which may act or be acted upon
  • Is not an event
  • Is something you can discuss as either tangible such as “Level of …”, “Qty of …”, or intangibles such as “Need for …”, “Allocation of …”, “Interest in …”.
  • Its value can vary up or down over time
  • Key test – it’s a variable if you can make a time plot of it


  • Short
  • Neutral
  • Should be nouns or noun phrases
  • NOT action words (don’t use increasing, decreasing, higher, etc.)
  • Fit into a phrase starting with “the level of ….”, “the quantity of …”


Now you are ready.  Let’s, get down and get our hands dirty!



Part I:  Practice Diagramming

The General Manager of a planning / manufacturing division periodically finds herself facing budget crises as revenues and costs get out of line.  She is told that her facility must run “lean and mean” or face a budget pressure.

Facing this cost-cutting pressure, she decides to reduce her headcount.  She gives permission for some employees to leave one’ duties or job for a period of time and lets go of others to hit her budget target in the next quarter.


  1. Re-draw the following template on to your worksheet.
  2. Put variable names on self-stick notes.
  3. Arrange them on the worksheet to complete a diagram of this system.
  4. Add S’s and O’s.
  5. For now, consider only the short-run effects of the manager’s action.
  6. Is the loop reinforcing or balancing?




Part II:  Practice expanding the balancing loop

New information:  To reduce costs further, she also decides to reduce preventive maintenance and cut back on marketing activities.


  1. Add to your diagram on this page to include the manager;s additional action.
  2. HINT:  Consider multiple loops, not just one loop.
  3. Add S’s and O’s.  Label ALL the loops in the system as R or B.
  4. For now, consider only the short-run effects of the manager’s action.


Part III:  To examine and diagram the longer-term consequence of the budget crisis

Information:  Look at the manager’s solutions to her budget problems.  Are there longer-term consequences of those actions that significantly affect costs or revenue? What are they?


  1. Review your own extended diagram of the case.
  2. Represent any longer-term consequences of your previous budget loop diagram.
  3. Add S’s and O’s.  Label ALL the loops in the system as R or B.  Note any significant delays.


Part IV:  Understanding Systems Thinking


  1. In what ways is causal loop diagramming and workflow diagramming similar?  In what ways are they different?  Who or what “invented this system”?  Was it designed deliberately or exists regardless of the “systems we design”?
  2. Do we invent systems thinking or is the thinking that is needed to uncover system archetypes?
  3. Which came first?  The problem (declining revenue) or the systemic structure?
  4. Which came first?  The manager’s action or the systemic structure?
  5. Did the manager ‘create the system’ or did the system lead her to take the actions  that she took?  Who do you think was leading whom?
  6. So do we solve the problem (“zoom in” to the details of the tree – as in problem-solving?) or treat the structure (“zoom-out” to deal with the dynamic nature of the forest)?  Which language is more appropriate?
  7. Which description on the system archetype list best fits this template?
  8. Weekly Assignment.  Prepare and present your choice structure at each intersession works:
    • Search and present the BOT graph of a persistent issue facing you at your workplace, home or community.
    • Draw and present a likely system archetype that maps the BOT?
    • What did you notice happen for you as you do so?
    • Were you learning to zoom in on details of the complexity or zoom out to discover dynamics of the complexity?
  9. What do you notice happen for you, from the experience?