The Language of Systems Thinking

In systems thinking, every picture tells a story.  Peter Senge calls it the conceptual cornerstone that underlies all of the five disciplines of the work.

All are concerned with the shift of the mind from seeing parts to seeing wholes, from seeing people as helpless reactors to seeing them as active participants in shaping their reality, from reacting to the present to creating the future.  Without systems thinking, there is neither the inventive nor the means to integrate the learning disciplines once they have come into practice.  It is the cornerstone of how learning organizations think about their world.

“Seeing the major interrelationships underlying a problem leads to new insight into what might be done.”

Nothing happens without a reason.  Therefore links do not exist in isolation.  The practice of systems thinking therefore, starts with understanding a very simple concept called “feedback”.  This now cements the idea that systems thinking causality is represented as a circle; a feedback “loop”, in which every element is both a “cause” and “effect” – influenced by some, and influencing others, so that every one of its effects, sooner or later, comes back to roost.

And so, to tell a story using Systems Thinking requires learning a new language and learning any new language is difficult at first, particularly in Systems Thinking since we have been directed in formal education by linear thinking.  “John goes to the market.”  The format, in which, a subject exercises its action on an object forms the basis of most languages developed in human cultures.

As you start to master the basics of Systems Thinking, it does get easier.  Note that linear languages, like English (subject, verb, object), permit us to talk about the loop only one step at a time, as if we were following a train in a toy railroad around a track.  In reality, all of these events occur at once.  Seeing their simultaneity helps us recognise systems behaviour and develop a sense of timing.

Dr Peter Senge

There are essentially two ways actions can influence each other.  They can either reinforce or counteract (balance) each other.  From any element in a situation (or a variable), you are now able to trace arrows (“links”) that represent influence (reinforce or balance) on another element.  This basic concept now helps us build learning so as to recognize types of “structures” or cycles (systemic structures) that repeat themselves, time after time, often making situations better or worse.

And so, given the above and a third factor, there are essentially, three building blocks to all systems representations and therefore of systems language:

  1. Reinforcing Loops and;
  2. Balancing Loops
  3. Delays when things happen … eventually.

In the short term, these are consequential.  But in the long run, they only come back to haunt you.


  • Reinforcing (or amplifying) feedback processes are the engines of growth.  These loops generate exponential growth and collapse, in which the growth and collapse continues at an ever-increasing rate.
  • Don’t underestimate the explosive power of these processes; in their presence linear thinking can always get us into trouble.  These can range from issues such as terrorism, effects of extremes in weather pattern changes, the Pygmalion effects, the cold war, price wars, conflicts, wars, epidemics, sales by word-of-mouth, rapid selloffs and accelerating declines in prices of market shares.
  • When someone remarks that, “The sky’s the limit,” or “We’re on a roll,” or “This is our ticket to heaven,” or “We are spiraling into oblivion,” or “snowball effect” you know you are caught up in a reinforcing loop.


  • Balancing (or stabilizing) feedback operates whenever there is an orientation of all towards a goal (explicit or implicit) and therefore rises (or declines) towards it and then seek stability around the intended goal of the system.
  • If the goal is to be not moving, then balancing feedback will act in the way the brakes in a car do.  If the goal is to be moving at sixty miles per hour, then balancing feedback will cause you to accelerate to sixty but no faster.  The goal can be explicit or implicit, such as a bad habit, which despite avowing, we stick to nevertheless or we manage collectively, such as food security for the country (where each do just enough for our own families) as opposed to producing for export (which can grow as far as our imagination allows us beyond our borders).
  • What makes balancing processes so difficult in managing is the goals are often implicit and no one recognizes that the balancing process exists at all.  It maintains the status quo, even when all the participants want change.  Until this goal is recognized, the change effort is doomed to fail.
  • Balancing processes generate the forces of resistance, which eventually limit growth.  Whenever, there is resistance to change, you can count on there being one or more “hidden” balancing processes.  It almost always arises from threats to traditional norms and ways of doing things.  Often these are woven into the fabric of established power relationships.  The norm is entrenched because of the distribution of authority and control is entrenched.  Rather than pushing harder to overcome resistance to change, artful leaders discern the source of the resistance.  They focus directly on the implicit norms and power relationships within which the norms are embedded.
  • But they are also the mechanisms, found in nature and all systems, that fix problems, maintain stability and achieve equilibrium. They ensure that every system never strays far from its “natural” operating range.
  • Balancing loops are often found in situations which seems to be self-correcting and self-regulating, whether the participants like it or not.
  • If people talk about “being on a roller-coaster”, or “being flung up and down like a yo-yo” then they are being caught in one kind of balancing structure.
  • If caught in another type, they might say, “We are running into walls,” or “we can’t break through the barrier,” or “No matter what we try, we can’t change the system.”
  • Balancing loops are always bound to a target – a constraint or goal which is often implicitly set up the forces of the system.  Until you recognize the gap, and identify the goal or constraint which drives it, you won’t understand the behavior of the balancing loop.


  • Many feedback processes contain “delays”, interruptions in the flow of influence which make the consequences of actions occur gradually.
  • Delays between actions and consequences are everywhere in human systems; we hire a person today but it will be months before he or she is fully productive; we commit ourselves to a new project knowing that it will be years before it will pay off; the delays between eating and feeling full has been the nemesis of many a happy diner – we don’t yet feel full when we should stop eating, so we keep going until we are over stuffed; the delay between starting a new construction project and its completion results in overbuilding real estate markets and eventual free fall of the housing market pricing.  An aggressive action often produces exactly the opposite of what is intended.  It produces instability and oscillation and slow you in moving more quickly towards your goals.
  • Delays can have enormous influence in a system, frequently accentuating the impact of other forces.  This happens because delays are subtle.Sources of delays:
    • Time to recognise (measure / assess) the current state or status
    • Time to decide what actions to take
    • Time spent implementing actions or making corrections
    • Time required for the actions to alter / impact the current state / status
  • In reinforcing loops, delays can shake our confidence, because growth does not come as quickly as expected.
  • In balancing loops, when unacknowledged delays occur, people tend to react impatiently, usually redoubling their efforts to get what they want, creating unnecessarily violent oscillations.

Two things make these causal loops or structures hard to see.

First, it is gradual.  If all the changes caused by the structure happened in a month, the whole organization or industry would be mobilized to fight or mitigate it.  But gradually eroding goals and declining growth are insidious, proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with very harmful effects that comes back to affect us long after the causes have happened.  That makes it doubly hard to bear down on the causes.  This is the structure that underlies the “boiled frog” syndrome.

The boiling frog is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive.  If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out.  But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly.  As the water gradually heats up, the frog will not perceive the danger and sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unrelentingly allow itself to be boiled to death.
Version of the story from Daniel Quinn‘s The Story of B,

The boiling frog story is generally offered as a metaphor cautioning people to be aware of even gradual change lest they suffer eventual undesirable consequences.  It may be invoked in support of a slippery slope argument as a caution against creeping normality.  It is also used in business to reinforce that change needs to be gradual to be accepted.  In 1960 about sympathy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War;[12] in 1980 about the impending collapse of civilization anticipated by survivalists;[13] in the 1990s about inaction in response to climate change and staying in abusive relationships.[14][15] It has also been used by libertarians to warn about slow erosion of civil rights.  Pierce Brosnan‘s character Harry Dalton mentioned it in the 1997 disaster movie Dante’s Peak in reference to the accumulating warning signs of the volcano’s reawakening.  Al Gore used a version of the story in a New York Times op ed,[18] in his presentations and the 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth to describe ignorance about global warming.  In the movie version the frog is rescued before it is harmed.

Second, managers in the middle of the syndrome, see so many urgent problems requiring attention, and they are unequipped to see the larger patterns and their structures.  The real art of systems thinking as a management disciplines lies in being able to recognize increasingly dynamically complex and subtle structures and see their patterns amid the myriad of details, pressures and cross-currents that are present in all management settings,  Not just as events and forces that one needs to react to but be able to organize detail complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the causes of the problems and how they may be remedied (cured) in enduring ways. Systems Thinking does not mean ignoring detail complexity.


We all know the metaphor of the being unable to “see the forest for the trees”.  Unfortunately, when most of us “step back” we just see lots of trees.  We then pick our favourite one or two and focus all of our attention and change efforts on those.  Mastering basic system archetypes is the first step of developing the capacity of seeing the forest and the trees – of seeing information in terms of bread and detailed patterns.  Only by seeing both can you respond powerfully to the challenge of complexity and change.  

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