Applied Systems Thinking

Curt McNamara (
Based on a paper presented at the 1998
International Society for the Systems Sciences Conference

What is a system? We all have an idea of what a system is, and these ideas range from the simple (a furnace), to the complex (the economy), to the elegant (your heart). So what do these things have in common?

  • First, they all keep their form even if the external world changes. This is called pattern integrity, or the ability to maintain structure while the environment changes.
  • Second, they all are separate or distinct from the world around them, and this distinction is a boundary. The boundary keeps the system and the universe separate yet allows material and energy to pass.
  • Third, each system has inputs (where it senses or accepts energy from the world) and outputs (where it interacts with the world).
  • Fourth, each system has a structure that connects the inputs and outputs and allows connection to the external world at the boundary. The nature of the structure determines the systems’ response to external events.

If we apply these principles to the previous examples, some properties appear more clearly than the others. For example, the heart and the furnace show pattern integrity very clearly as each reacts to changes in the external world (your furnace stays on longer as the temperature decreases, your heart beats faster as your body exercises). Each of these also has a distinct boundary. On the other hand, the economy clearly has inputs and outputs, but the structure can seem very diffuse and changeable. It may also be harder to define the boundary of the economic system or how to characterize its’ pattern integrity. One of these systems is a natural system(the heart), one is a human-designed system (the furnace), and it would appear that the economy is not explicitly designed (even though its parts may be!).

Some readers will know more about particular types of systems than others. The engineer knows about the furnace, the doctor knows about the heart, and the economist and politician know about the economy. This is normal and expected. But each of us encounters systemic behavior every day, and will benefit from deeper knowledge of what is going on.

So how do we learn about systems? We can “bang into” them (systems push back), we can think about them and make descriptions or models of them, or we can create (design) them.

The first path is that of experience. When we experience resistance to our actions we include this resistance into our view of the world (worldview). We don’t necessarily understand the system that is resisting us, but we know from the results of our actions that something is there.

If we want to understand the “why” of the system we need to make a description or model of the system and test it out. For example, what if you were in a room with a working furnace but you didn’t know about the thermostat? Spring would come and the furnace would keep running even though it was warm outside. It would seem like something was keeping the house at a certain temperature, but you wouldn’t know what. You could open the windows and find that the temperature would change near the windows, but the furnace would keep running as it tried to keep the temperature in the room constant.

If you investigated the warm air coming out of the vents you could find the furnace itself. Looking at its’ structure, you might note that it was connected by wires to different parts of the house, and follow these back to the control (thermostat). Of course, you might be inspired to disconnect the furnace from its power source as a first experiment! What other experiments could you devise to find out how this system works?

While this example is simple, try and contrast it to an island which maintains a stable population of wolves. In many ways this constant level is the same as the temperature in the house. But where is the power source and the thermostat on the island? We will come back to this example later after we talk about the other paths to system knowledge.

The next two paths involve thinking and making models or descriptions. This has been called “mental modeling” (Senge). On these paths we think about the actions of the system (stable temperature or population) and imagine what inputs, outputs, structure, and energy sources could be combined to achieve this response. Sometimes we enter this information into a computer program and test the model to see if the actions of the real system can be mimicked.

The last path is creation or design, and often involves translating an image from our imagination into reality. As an example, suppose you had to incubate a bird egg and had a thermometer, a cardboard box, and a light bulb that gets hot when it is turned on. How could you simulate the actions of the furnace in this smaller environment?

Each of these paths involves a thought process (how we represent the world inside our heads), and a change process (how we alter our thoughts and models to fit the real world). Working in this fashion, our abilities improve as we test new techniques and remember the ones that work.

Our thinking process can be like solving a problem (what is the answer to this puzzle?) or like art (transfer an image from your brain to the real world). As you can imagine, we often make one attempt, test it out, and then use the results of the test in a second attempt. This is an example of a loop, another fundamental property of systems.

Thinking about Systems

Our topic in this section is “thinking about thinking”, a process which will make the reader more aware of the ways they think. As awareness of thinking increases, so does the ability to change or improve thinking skills. This paper will look at thinking tools from a systems view. Using the systems viewpoint has proven very powerful, and appears to be the way that life is structured (Miller). It follows that using a systems approach at the level of thought will bring our thought (mind) into alignment with our physical body, and therefore the material world.

  • From a structural perspective, this paper incorporates the following high level topics:
    • Define our common terms (e.g. “thinking“)
    • Capture a thought
    • Transform the thought with a mental tool
    • Map a set of mental tools
    • Use systems thinking to enhance the tools
    • Increase your range of thinking tools.

Figure 1 (McNamara)


The topics are shown here as the vertexes of a tetrahedron, a shape made up of four triangles called a regular polyhedra. This object is the simplest one which encloses a three dimensional volume. Three points define a triangle, which separates space in two dimensions (a piece of paper). Four points define a tetrahedron. By mapping topics in the simplest possible arrangement we can easily see the interconnections between the topics. For example, the way you capture a thought will depend on what type of thought is being captured, while the way that you capture thoughts will effect the types of thought that you have.

What is thinking? Thinking is the conscious working of our brain. Our minds are engaged in many ways each day, including recollection, understanding ( includes pattern matching and focused attention), imaging (includes meditation), and navigating. Some of these activities involve matching words to our experiences, and are therefore left-brain activities (Edwards) Other left-brain activities include creating mathematical models of the world (Starfield). On the other hand some activities of the brain are non-verbal and centered around our senses, including sound, image, and smell. These are right brain activities (Edwards).

Figure 2 (McNamara)


Left brain activities constitute the major part of science and technology, and therefore are the focus in business and most schools. Our verbal and mathematical skills seem imperative for material success. Yet the world in itself is whole, and does not consist of words or numbers. Words and numbers are labels that we hang on parts of the world. Once we have done so, we are able to pass this abstracted view of the world to another person. This is a very powerful tool, and has brought humanity a host of stunning successes including dramatic increases in life expectancy, and in the worlds’ ability to support human life. Indeed it has been determined that we now have enough food and material goods to support all humanity in a high standard of living (Gabel).

There are some side-effects to our left-brain abstractions. For example, a left-brain view of the world may lead us to believe that a forest can be represented by a map of it’s boundaries and population data for the species that live within it. Yet it is clear from a walk in the forest that the world is much richer than our models suggest. To increase the richness or our representation we often model phenomena like the cycle of predator and prey (e.g. wolves and deer). We now have a feeling for dynamics of the species populations. As we add detail, each step brings us closer to representing the wholeness of the forest. Still, the only way to fully represent the forest would be to live within it, seeing the forest from the inside. Living in this fashion would be to experience the forest as a whole, using a right-brain mode. There are many other experiences best approached using the right-brain, including music or spirituality.

The model of predator and prey is a systems model, and it is often true that this is the best way to represent the forest, with cycles of energy and life, and inter-relations. This approach adds richness to our left-brain models, and brings more and more of the world (and our right-brain experience of it) into an abstraction that can be shared. This aids our goal (as designers and modelers) of creating designs that are in tune with the natural world. By aligning our designs with natural systems we increase overall efficiency and reduce the impact on the earth, leading to more sustainable systems.

Systems = Connections

A primary focus of the systems approach is to find the connections that hold parts of the world together. These connections include feedback (information of one part of a system is used elsewhere) control (the use of feedback to maintain a stable state in the presence of environmental changes), hierarchy (the levels within a system), energy flow (including embodied energy or emergy), and duality (distinctions between parts of a system, and the boundary between the system and the rest of the world). This connective thinking is a right-brain pattern-matching process which adds richness to our left-brain analytical models.

Our models of the world are sometimes simplistic (de Bono) which fail or have side-effects. An example would be a farm which succeeds in growing a large amount of food per acre, yet “uses up” the land. The farmers strive to get the maximum amount of plant material from a given acre of land using specialized plant stocks, fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides. The short-term effects appear positive as high yields are achieved. Yet over time the land is depleted and chemicals leach into the groundwater. Conversely, a sustainable farm would view the land and water as an investment, like money in the bank. This view would consider whether the health of the land and water was better at the end of the farming year than the beginning, and might use beneficial insects to control undesirable insects (integrated pest management) and the use of fertilizers that come from the land (organic). This approach looks at the higher level systems that the farm is embedded in to enhance the long-term sustainability of the farm. How can this type of insight help us create better models?

Our first difficulty is that once we set to describing the world we almost invariably use one of the many left-brain tools. Accepting this as a fact of the modeling process, let’s examine those left-brain thinking processes to see where we can expand their systems modeling ability.

“In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning clear as one can get through pictures or sensations” George Orwell in Politics and the English Language (reprinted in Edwards).

First let us return to the topic of thinking processes. We will talk about a number of these ways briefly and then look into focused attention more deeply. Each form of thought supports each other one, but the act of focusing attention is central to the topic of mental tools.

Recollection occurs when the brain retrieves a memory from its stores. Retrieval or remembering may be done intentionally (Dad, what did you play with as a kid?) or unintentionally (the smell of a favorite food recalls your childhood kitchen). The recollection is a stored memory, a set of synapses that are retained over time because of repetition, or because of the intensity of the experience. de Bono refers to this as first-hand learning.

Patterns are a part of right-brain, holistic thinking. As such they get us out of the analytical, verbal side of our information processing (left-brain) and into our artistic side (right-brain). There are strengths and weaknesses to this. Recognition is immediate, as there is no need to map the sensory information into words. The structure of the brain permits partial patterns to be matched easily. On the other hand, patterns tend to settle into place and not change. Over time this leads to automatic responses, which is dangerous if new data changes the pattern into something different. Since we have great ability to fit partial data (like half of a letter) to a known pattern, we can ignore the data that is “wrong” or changing in favor of the pattern that mostly fits. von Oech classifies this as soft vs. hard thinking. Soft thinking finds the commonalities between things, while hard thinking focuses on the differences. So patterns simultaneously help us make connections, and keep us from seeing connections. A difficulty with pattern-matching occurs when we use the surface level or appearance of a situation as the basis for the underlying structure. de Bono refers to this as the miss-out mistake.

Navigating a path. Humans are always on a path. Each path consists of a present situation and a place or a goal. The path consists of actions (physical or mental) that change us or our environment. Each action initiated by us is dependent on a decision. If these decisions are aided by pattern matching the mind will automatically make use of the match.

Understanding is the process of enlarging our set of patterns or incorporating more information into our existing patterns (de Bono). Sometimes this is prompted when we expect or desire certain outcomes in certain situations, and the desired result doesn’t happen. We may then reject the outcome, whether it be a situation or the actions of a person. Understanding is the process of incorporating conflicting information into our view of the world by enlarging our current patterns, creating new ones, or changing our expectations. Since understandings are pattern matches between internal models and external reality, they are often more gut-level and non-verbal than this paper or a set of equations. They include such things as archetypes (mother, warrior, hero, wizard, king), structures (patterns in space), ways of change (patterns in time), and whole systems. Understandings are “big patterns” and as such will guide actions, goals and plans. Understandings let us see the forest behind the trees.

Pattern matching Human mind information processing makes great use of patterns to simplify decisions. A door is a door: find the handle: open it (Pattern match: search: pattern match: action). This situation is dangerous: cross the street. Each pattern match allowed us to make a decision and proceed on our path. Patterns are created when a response to a particular situation is remembered. Examples are someone’s face or the letter A. The world presents a situation and we find a response. We remember the response and the pathways that link the situation to the response are stored.

To focus means to tune in one thing while tuning out the rest of our memory and the external world. The events that we tune out may be larger or smaller, slower or faster than what we tune in, so there is a scale and a speed to our tuning. (Fuller, especially The tuning may be conscious when we solve a problem, or unconscious when we judge a person by their appearance (tuning can be pattern matching). When it is intentionally done to incorporate new information de Bono refers to it as understanding. In this way focusing can either form new patterns or sort experience into our existing patterns. Once we focus on something we can transfer it from our internal world of thought into the external world of form. This is what we refer to as capturing a thought. Since each thought is a distinct entity, its existence defines an insideness (the thought itself and whatever may be contained within the thought) and an outsideness (the rest of the world). See Fuller’s definition of system for details. This implies that each thought defines a boundary.

Meditation may be perceived as non-thought. In some fashion meditation is “mind” operating without conscious thought (internal verbalizing or imaging). Since internal verbalizing is an outcome of matching experience or imagination to the set of words, meditation can enlarge the space of thinking or pattern matching by allowing experience without classification or matching. Meditation is right brain thinking which perceives wholes and does not use words as a tool. (Ayan)

Some focused thoughts pass into memory, some are forgotten. The thoughts that we either capture on paper or that return to us from memory may be goals (one type of image), tools, recollections, or understandings (including concerns). Since these thoughts are central to us, improvement in the way we work with them will transform our lives.

Goal. A goal is a desired future state. A high level goal may be called a vision. Supporting a goal at a lower level is a plan, consisting of a set of actions, decisions, tools and participants designed to achieve the goal or vision. As the present state and the future vision or goals change, a plan must accommodate the changes or change itself. Therefore, plans require process to keep on track. A systems viewpoint incorporates other actors and their plans, is responsive to changes that occur as the plan is unfolding, and recognizes that the planner needs to process information and modify the plan at a faster rate than the plan is being executed.

Concerns. Concerns are the embryonic state of problems, or the beginnings of knowledge about systems. As possible problems, concerns need to be addressed periodically to see if they have grown large enough to be seen as a problem. Seen as beginnings to knowledge, they need to be combined with other knowledge yet retained for their correspondence to the real world. The concern can arise when a plan or image of the future is not fitting current events. A systems viewpoint notes that concerns of one may not be those of another, and that concerns of the individual have validity regardless of concerns of the populace. Concerns arise when a pattern or understanding does not match perceived reality.

Tools. Tools are methods or strategies for change or creation. Tools can transform the external world (hammer and saw, computer) or the internal world (map-making, meditation, visualization). A systems viewpoint realizes that because tools are defined for a limited set of operations, the real world is fit into the tool by the user.

So we now have some ideas of the types of thought, and the sorts of thoughts that are significant enough to return to us time after time. We can keep these thoughts internal to our own mind, or transform them to the external world so they can be modified or shared. We will refer to this as capturing a thought.

When we capture a thought we give it a form or representation. This form is not the thought any more than the map is the land that it represents. However, it is very convenient to work with the form, as the thought may be stored and changed in a reproducible fashion this way. To capture is to map the fleeting nature of thought to words, image or equation. Capturing is achieved by using a symbol system from one of these areas and making a representation using those symbols. Before we discuss representations and forms, we need to summarize some general aspects of thoughts.

In what shape do thoughts come to us? A right-brain thought is an image. In your mind’s eye you see a parent or a house you once lived in, a goal you want to achieve, a picture to paint. Images can come from past experience or be created consciously using visualization, a technique to create images which will guide your actions and perceptions (Gawain).

If you want to transfer an image to someone else, you will need to either capture it as image, transform from the visual world to the world of words, make a mathematical model, or diagram it. In the first case you will need a medium (paper or computer) and tools that work within that environment (Edwards). Your internal image becomes an external picture with colors and shapes.

Transforming an image by mapping it into words is incomplete, as words represent the commonality of humanity and not the uniqueness. Each word represents an aspect of human experience that is communicable (Fuller note on words). By connecting many words we aim to enable another human mind to share our image. In this ways some images become stories (with beginnings, middles and ends) and other thoughts become descriptions.

Another tool for transforming an image to paper is by a diagram or map. Diagrams contain entities (defined by words or equations), and have explicit or implicit structure between the entities. So we can say that diagrams represent relations between distinct aspects of an image. Maps and diagrams represent the connections and differences between entities. This process is known as visual thinking (McKim).

Making mathematical models requires identifying or isolating variables (the kind and quantities of species in a park), measuring the values of these variables, choosing equations to represent the value (typically over time), and testing the model against the data (Starfield et al).

There is a range of structure, with the more structured being easier to communicate, while the less structured is closer to our experiences. Each style of representation has strengths and limitations. One purpose of this paper is to help make you aware of how you capture thoughts, refine them, and make representations.

The loop

Recall that many systems are structured with several levels (known as hierarchy). This implies that our thinking and models will improve if they are extended both inwards and outwards from the level they are at. There are many ways to do this. One direction is towards more structure, the other is towards less. Let us illustrate this with an example.

Imagine that you are thinking about your kitchen. You have an unsettled feeling when you think about it. Something is concerning you. What is it? This unsettled or frustrated feeling may return several times before you can sense what is underlying the feeling. The space is too small. It is hard to work there, and the utensils and tools are not laid out in an efficient manner. When this first becomes clear it just seems that you are mad about cooking there and want to feel better about it. As time goes on you may have a vision of a new kitchen (less structure), draw a diagram of your current kitchen (a form or representation, has more structure), or start re-arranging your kitchen (direct experience of the world). You will probably start with one approach and move to the next.

As you move between the vision, representation, and real world you are describing a loop. The loop is a fundamental systems process, and several loops of thought and action have been described. Some steps in a loop are decision processes. Other steps represent input (perceive the world) or output (take action or change the world). One common loop is the Shewhart Cycle (Plan-Do-Study-Act) promoted by Edward Deming.

Figure 3 (McNamara)


Another example of a loop is from Senge and is called the learning cycle (Doing-Reflecting-Connecting-Deciding). The loop is a system with inputs (perceptions of the world), outputs (actions that you make), feedback (how each step relates to each other, how the process works for you), and inter-relations (the parts relate to each other, the structure relates to the user, the inputs and outputs relate to the real world that you and the loop are embedded in). As an example, at the Plan/Decide stage of a loop you are deciding, dependent on goals or visions and the representation you have made, guided by the output of the Act/Doing stage.

Figure 4 (McNamara)


Each time we make a change in the world we are engaged in a systemic process. We may bring our actions into congruence with natural loops (sustainable farming), or take actions that are rejected by systems we are embedded in (unsuccessfully propose a project). The more aware we are of the process, and the oftener we repeat (or iterate it) the better we become. Compare the kitchen designers view of the kitchen. She has seen many more kitchens and representations of kitchens and has a larger space of possible arrangements or solutions. However, all of us can gain from viewing our actions as a looping process. Our representations become particularly clear (or difficult) when the decision process is shared with another (for example the partner that shares that kitchen!). In this case more concrete representations of your vision will help communications. Unfortunately it seems to be a corollary that the more concrete your representation, the more work you have put into it and the more “attached” you will be to it (which can interfere with your willingness to make changes to it).

In this example we see that from the level of representation (diagram) we can move up (vision) or down (moving things around in the actual kitchen). It can also be quite useful to look one level slower and faster in time when you use a tool. For example, one level slower in time reveals that the kitchen was designed before multiple counter-top appliances were common, and that in the future your use of the kitchen will change. One level faster in time may be the level of perception (as opposed to action in the kitchen). So changes to our perceptual models or needs (what do I really use this appliance for; what if I prepared food in this way) could effect your solution. This technique acknowledges the system that your tool (or form or representation) is embedded in, and enables you to see what effects the use of it will have.

We can extend this approach to the other systems fundamentals. For example, using duality will prompt us to look at the boundary between the system under examination and the rest of the world (for another view of this see the idea of via negativa in Moore). This is looking at boundary one level up. Looking one level down will show internal boundaries and distinctions.

If we map the Senge loop to our tetrahedral system, we get a picture like the following.

Figure 5 (McNamara)


We now have two representations of the wheel, one two-dimensional and the other three-dimensional. The 3-D tetrahedral representation shows us that each element connects to each other element, and that there is flow (of energy or ideas) between each element. It also shows us that the direction implicit in the two-dimensional representation is only one of many that are possible. Fuller called this tetrahedral model 4-D, with each vertex or side representing an axis of the system. Also note that while I have shown arrows indicating the circuit illustrated by the 2-D model, this is only one of the possible circuits.

You can easily make a 3-D tetrahedral model using straws. Masking tape can be used for the connections at the vertexes, or string can be threaded through the straws. Highlight the vertexes with circles of colored paper labeled with an element of the system. If one vertex seems to have many possibilities, link it to another tetrahedron where it is the theme. Use this technique to model hierarchies. If complexity is high enough, use polyhedra with more links at each vertex (like the octahedron).

Mental Tools

Now lets’ look at some common tools used as we modify our representations. This is only one part of the loop, but in some ways the most important, for we largely decide on and modify that which we have represented. Of course other things in the world will get modified along the way, and our perceptual process will allow us to change the models based on this feedback as well.

We can work on forms and representations using a variety of tools. Among these tools are ways to refine, compare, enlarge, contract, evolve, transform, solve, link, cross, enumerate, structure, split, loop, envision, shift, solidify, or precess it. There are many words here, and some of them may be new, or defined in a new way. Each is simple once we spend a few minutes with it. See the definitions section for these and more.

As we work on our ideas and images using a mental tool, we are transforming it. All transformation is change, and as such can either be provoked externally or guided by an internal process. Not that your image of the system, even the structure of the system may change during transformation. See Ayan for a guide to processes to transform your ideas.

For another point of view on some of these topics, see the discussion of action verbs in von Oech and the transform tools in Ayan. I should note that both these books are aimed at increasing your creativity, but will help you enhance your right-brain processes. The use of either book will increase the range of your responses and enlarge your patterns. In addition, following their suggestions will increase connectivity and creativity in your everyday thinking.

As with the loop, we can take each of Ayan‘s creativity enhancers and apply our systems view to it. For example, one item in Ayan is to connect with people to enhance your creativity. Briefly, he recommends networking to increase your range of ideas and creative input. From our view, each person you know is a system, and the two of you together form a new system. Looking down a level, your interactions with another reveals your internal structure. Looking up, there are the relations the two of you make to the world. For instance, someone you work could help him, someone he knows may be interested in your topic, the two of you could decide to work together as a team, or you may each represent larger groups of people (park users and park managers) that define a larger system. In a work setting, you have individual, friends, teams, company. Each set of people has their own process and their own products.

Mapping your preferred mental tools

Using these tools we can create models of current reality or a desirable future state or goal. We can examine the model or state and see if our representation has enough structure to have pattern integrity, and whether this model or state ties in with our own reality. Finally we can change our models or future states using these tools.

To see what tools fit most easily into our concept space, take a blank sheet of paper and write a topic, problem, or concept in the middle of it. Now look at the list of topics and see what jumps out at you. Write down the name of the tool, link it to your topic, and proceed to record the thoughts that the tool reveals about your topic. Add a word or phrase to describe each thought, then add links as appropriate. What are these links? What is required to make the link, what does the link tell you about your problem? When you have a handful of these thoughts and links, stop and summarize what you have done.

The exercise you just went through is called mind-mapping, and is described in detail in Buzan. From the summary above, you can identify the tools that you are most familiar with. Now look back at the list of topics and find those that seem foreign to your thought process. Working on these will increase your range of systems thinking skills the most. How can you move or change your mental tools? Obviously you can simply try and use the unfamiliar tools. Another tactic is to find out what the common element is in your set of preferred tools, and what the common element is in the less desirable tools. Use soft thinking to find the commonalities between these elements.

Here are some suggestions for adding systems properties to your models :

  • look one level up and down (or in and out) in structure;
  • look one level faster and slower in time;
  • examine the boundaries internal and external to the model;
  • ensure that plans are examined at a faster rate than they are executed;
  • search for the embodied energy;
  • use right-brain techniques to enlarge your patterns;
  • make a tetrahedral model of the four most important parts of the system and examine interconnections and cycles;
  • use mind-mapping techniques to find the radiant connections.


We have shown some fundamentals of both systems thinking and creative thinking, suggested ways that systems thinking can add to your creative thinking, and illustrated that systems thinking is a right-brain process at its’ core. Recognizing the commonalities and differences between these topics will add to the power and usability of our models.

Glossary / definitions



Abstraction Abstractions are representations of the real world expressed in equations, words or pictures. The point of an abstraction is to select the most critical elements of something and make a model of that.

Bias Bias has one of two meanings. First is somewhat negative; that person is biased in favor of recycling. This indicates a fixed opinion about part of the world, a perceptual structure that is frozen. A second meaning is related : something that moves a system away from a set-point. When a system with bias is exposed to stimulus that should result in a response, either more stimulus than is expected is required to start the response, or the response lags until the stimulus builds to a point that exceeds the bias.

Boundary Boundaries can be distinct spatial structures (the edge of a lake or meadow) or conceptual boundaries. Whenever we make a system representation (in words or equations) we extract or define certain elements. This act creates a boundary between the system we are studying and the rest of the world. Boundaries can be seen as changes in the structure of a system. At the lowest level of physical structure a boundary is a perceivable distinction. This is related to the definition of information that Gregory Bateson used : “Information is any difference that makes a difference.” There is some background information on him at :

Change Change is the only constant. However, most people and organizations are organized as feedback systems, and therefore reject or compensate change that would affect their goals. This means that most change is unseen until it gets large enough to affect system organization. Change is difficult to see when you are closely involved with a person. An example would be a growing child. Since the parent sees the child every day, change is continuous and imperceptible. When a relative sees the child every few weeks, the changes appear much more marked. On the other hand, a growing teenager often sees their parents as unchanging and fixed in their beliefs. This comes about because the teenager is growing and changing so fast that anything slower is seen as unchanging. Change is relative.

“Large changes occur in tiny increments. It is useful to think in terms of a space flight : by altering the launch trajectory very slightly, a great difference can be made over time.” Cameron

Compare Determine the similarity and differences between things. Similarity (or sameness) is a measure of how much the elements (or parts) of things are comparable. In a very simplified fashion we can imagine the form or structure (each depends on the representation) being compared like two X-ray photographs of skeletons. This is a type of soft pattern matching.

Consistency of approach Consistency of approach is one element of a quality system. Quality means many things to many people, but core parts of quality are producing without defects, and producing things that are useful to customers. Each organization learns by mistakes and successes. If these lessons are codified into a system which is followed each time a product is made, the learning is effective. Ensuring that there is a consistent process being followed is consistency of approach.

Contract To shrink the form or representation or system. Shrinking happens as we “boil down” a system to a more compact form (reducing complexity). Contracting is not the same as scaling.

Cross Cross has several meanings. One is to transcend some boundary. Another is to combine things (like plant stock) in deliberate fashion. Third is an unhappy state of mind.

Distinction Distinctions are differences. As such they are informational, and have a perceptual basis. When ornithologists divide a bird population into sub-species they do so because a set of distinctions stable across a portion of the population has been found.

Duality Every individual and every thought of an individual divides the universe in two (individual and not-individual, thought and non-thought). Bucky Fuller said “universe is plural, and at minimum two”. Each boundary divides things in two. Duality theory is the study of this phenomena. Some scholars define something by looking at the things it is not, or the via negativa (Moore)

Energy Energy is a measure of system excitation. The physical stuff that universe is made of can be at rest or excited. Excited matter jumps around (thermal energy) or has a potential to do work (potential or electrical energy) or flows (mechanical or electrical energy). Materials are transformed as energy effects them. When the transformation increases structure the material is said to have embodied energy (Odum) Embodied energy might be a wood pile stacked neatly for the winter or a set of woodworking skills that can transform raw materials into furniture.

Enlarge To grow the form or representation or system. Growth can happen spatially (things get physically bigger), mentally (we are more capable of perceiving different system types) or energetically (the system is able to process more energy). Enlargement may give more capacity or strength (or less), it may allow different actions or reactions (bigger space of response) or it may increase or decrease speed (speed of living or dying or moving or thinking).

Entity An entity is a distinct part of universe. Entities may be systems, or they may be elements of a system. A rock is an entity. While it does retain pattern integrity against some range of environmental change, most systems thinkers would not refer to an individual rock as systemic. A large collection of rock comprising a mountain range may be more readily considered systemic.

Enumerate To list or more particularly to number the items in a set. Can also be used to find or create the distinct combinations possible between members of the set. This has been termed the morphological approach.

Envision To envision is to imagine a state other then the present one. Imagination is a right-brain non-verbal form of thinking. The right brain needs ample images and down-time (time without words or media) to remain active and energized. Stephen Covey says that everything is made twice: Once in the mind and once in the real world. A vision is a possible future state, something to move towards. This movement is along a path consisting of the real world and the actions that an individual or human activity system takes. As time passes the vision changes and therefore the actions required to achieve the vision will change.

Evolve Evolution is change provoked by environmental effects and selected by success in maintaining pattern integrity in the face of that change. It can be seen as selective change, where the selector is system success in the face of external change. In human activity systems often refers to changes that are driven from within and that occur without disagreement. Contrast this to change driven from outside the system. Each results in system change, but the internal process is more incremental and gradual. The external process often results in massive and rapid change to the internal systems. Internal evolution occurs when the external environment is gradually changing and the stakeholders realize this and respond to it. Evolution that is driven by external events (not from the internal perception of those events) is more cataclysmic. An example from the natural world would be the weather change precipitated by meteoric impact that lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Feedback Because systems are loops the results of actions are sensed. This sensing often changes the system response, and is called feedback or closed loop control. Examples of system elements involved in feedback are the pilot of a ship and the thermostat in your house. All systems make use of feedback to stay intact as a system. This is because as time progresses, environmental change occurs, eventually affecting the system.

Form Form is the underlying structure of a system. For example the economy is a very large interconnected system, but its’ form is one of production (someone makes something) and exchange (exchanging one thing for another).

Fuller Bucky Fuller was a self-taught mathematician and designer. Responsible for popularization of the geodesic dome and the idea of tensegrity (with James Snellson). Designed many highly efficient appliances like a car that got 200 miles per gallon and a shower that uses a few ounces of water. Championed the idea of ephemeralization, or doing more with less. Perhaps his greatest teaching was that each of us is important and can make a difference.

Geodesic Geodesic is a definition of a system that uses the smallest possible paths to interconnect two points. An example is the great circle routes that airlines use for travel between cities. A second example is the geodesic domes that Bucky Fuller designed to enclose the maximum amount of physical space with the minimum amount of material.

Goals Goals are a subset of vision. They refer to a particular state of something or someone (I will get a degree) or to an amount of something (I will have a house on a lake). They are therefore some element of a preferred future state. Edward de Bono refers to this as possibility space, the set of things that a person could experience. Vision is a superset of goals, and may entail goals to be achieved.

Hierarchy Hierarchy refers to systems structured with levels. Many systems can be considered hierarchical, with different types of structures (or different manifestations of a given type of structure) depending on what level of the system you look at. Other systems are collections of similar objects (committee members?).

Levels Levels refer to the divisions (real and perceptual) that we divide systems into. Levels are the layers of system structure. At the lowest level representations tend to the physical (although physics gives us statistical models as well). As level increase more organization is seen, and more information and energy is processed. The term levels may also refer to the level of discourse or discussion. Levels range from the ethereal/metaphysical to informational structures to human activity systems to physical structures to the atomic nature of nature. For example a farm has cash coming and going at the level of money. Slightly below that level are the actual purchases of seed, fertilizer and tools. Below that we have the plants and their cycles. In the human body there are organs at a level below the whole body, and cells within the organ.

Link To connect two different things in time or space. Much of this paper is linkages. Ideas are linked, the authors reality is linked to a set of words and pictures, and the readers reality is linked to the words. Hopefully some portion of the authors reality is transferred to the reader. In addition the author has linked the ideas to other people, publications and tools.

Living systems Living systems are those biological entities that grow, evolve, and decay over time.

Loop To iterate or repeat something over and over again. Looping is the nature of nature. The seasons loop as do the planets and our lives. Ecological analysis of a system often studies the loops and identifies their function. By definition a process is a loop or loops. If we design our system by taking loops into account, overall efficiency is increased, and the load on the external systems is decreased. Looping systems are learning systems. A learning system acquires knowledge, then tests that knowledge against the world. The results of the test are fed back, which modifies the knowledge, and the process is repeated. When learning stops looping, responses get set and we can have large errors in our representation of systems.

Map Mapping is creating a representation. Capturing is part of mapping. Mapping implies a higher level of organization that connects systems in one domain to those in another. It has been said that “The map is not the terrain” One example of mapping can be found at :

Mental tool Mental tools are constructs that allow thoughts to be captured, maps to be created, decisions to be made. Just like the tools we use to transform the physical world, mental tools create and transform our internal and informational world.

Meta (adjective) Indicates a level beyond, above, or encompassing the level under discussion.

Minimal system Minimal systems are those with the smallest number of components (structural view) necessary to perform a function. One definition of minimal system comes from Bucky Fuller, who viewed the minimal system as something which divides the universe in two. This implies something with volume, as the universe is three-dimensional in nature. Dividing the universe into volumes requires at least four points, or a tetrahedron. For details, see


Naming The act of associating an experience or feeling to an element of the set (or space) of written words. (Fuller)

Plans A plan is a set of actions, decisions, tools, and participants designed to achieve a goal or vision. As the present state and the future vision or goals change the plan must accommodate the changes or change itself. Therefore plans require process to keep on track.

Precession Precession is the movement of a system or system component at “right angles” from the apparent force being exerted on it. Example is the gyroscope, whose most prominent force is rotational motion. Surprisingly it is the reaction of the gyroscope to changes at right angles to it’s rotational motion that is the most useful aspect of a gyroscope. Fuller stated that precession illustrates that the easiest pathway is the one uncontrolled by other systems. An example would be the honey bee, which provides pollination as a result of its’ food gathering.

Problem Solving Solving problems implies a present state and a desired future state. The solution represents one pathway from the present state to a solution state

Process (verb) A series of steps or sequence of activities. Processes are often looped, or repeated in a consistent fashion to produce a desired result. For example, many processes are mapped as a circle (Senge), with actions or events linked in time. This connection gives great power to a process as each step feeds into the next, until the final step is fed back into the first. This is how all natural systems are organized. Process allows or demands learning as each step can effect each subsequent step. Process can be a codification of change. Many processes are designed to deliver consistent outputs over changes in the environment. Another view of process can be found at :

Range A measure of how large something is, or how far something can move within an area.

Refinement Incremental movement or improvement. The direction is defined outside of the space that the object or system exists in. For example, refinement of a toaster may mean a smaller appliance, one that uses less energy, or one that “looks better”.

Representation Representation is a model or description of a system (as opposed to the system itself). Representations may change more easily than a system itself. For complex systems there are many possible representations, just as there are many possible system responses. Human activity systems often are tied to complex systems like the economy or education. By re-organizing the system representation, different ways of interacting with the actual system can be found.

Scale To take a structure and increase or decrease it along some dimension. Scaling occurs spatially when we take a small park and double its’ size. Scaling happens temporally when we reduce the time for a class from 3 months to six weeks. It appears almost invariably true that scaling has effects beyond the explicit changes that were made. For example, the larger park may need more support personnel than size would indicate, and it may not be able to support twice the species of plants and animals than the smaller park. Similarly the shorter class may not just mean that assignments need to be done in half the time. It may be true that learning occurs in a different fashion when the pace changes.

Sequencing Linking events in time. Sequencing is one step in creating a process.

Set point A set point is the desired value of some system observable. In your home heating system the set-point is the desired temperature. In your financial system it may be some desired quantity of money in bank accounts. At the economic level it may be a certain rate of unemployment of inflation.

Shift To move up, down, or sideways. Shifting can be spatial or time-based. In a human system with several interconnecting parts, you can deliberately move the points of connection or the function performed by an element. An example is corporate re-organization where people performing one job are asked to take on a different job. Shifting happens in natural system in response to environmental change.

Solidify. To add structure or to change state from fluid to solid. A small company may have a returns policy based on common sense. As the company grows this may get harder to communicate to support staff, so a written policy is created to solidify the process.

Solve Provide an answer to a problem. Problems are unmet needs, conflicts, desires, or expectations. Problem implies awareness of a situation. This awareness is matched to the current set of needs or desires for the individual or organization. If the awareness doesn’t match, we have a problem. We can accept the difference between the situation and our expectations, or we can decide that something needs to be changed. One persons problem (don’t have time to make lunch) is another persons opportunity (fast food outlets). Of course the first individual could decide to make food early and bring it along. Alternatively they could decide to change their schedule so that lunch is not so harried.

Space The experience of emptiness within or outside of a defined volume or vessel. Also used as a label referring to the range defined by a set of operations, terms, or concepts.

Split To separate something into more than one piece. Big ideas can be split into smaller ideas. The split becomes a boundary and needs to be treated as such. For example, the flow of energy in a system is distinctly different when it crosses a boundary — it may become limited or controlled in some fashion. An example would be products made in one country and exchanged for money in another.

Stasis Stasis indicates a state of rest or stagnation. If nothing is (perceptibly) changing we feel that the system is in stasis. In reality nothing in the universe is at a state of rest. We might consider a geologic formation like a mountain to be in stasis, but that is only true when our perceptual time-scale is much faster than the rate of change of the mountain. If you have ever seen a time-lapse film of a flower growing and opening you can visualize this difference in perceptual scale. In human activity systems, growing kids (especially adolescents) may consider their parents to be in stasis. To the parents, however, change is going on at a rapid rate. Each has their own scale and rate of change.

Structure Structure is how things are stuck together. It is often seen as mechanical in nature; the structure of a bridge, house, or person. In organizations structure is the explicit linkages between people and their work. Structure, seen as internal organization, is distinct from appearance or form. System response depends on structure. System efficiency is a function of structure. There may be minimal structures necessary for certain tasks.

Synapses Connections made within the brain as the result of experiences. They represent a physical connection that allows the transmission or storage of specific electrical patterns. A set of such patterns represents a stored experience or pattern.

System A system is a distinct part of universe that displays pattern integrity (Fuller) i.e. it retains form despite external environmental changes. A minimal system is one with the smallest number of components (structural view) necessary to perform a function. One definition of minimal system comes from Fuller, who viewed the minimal system as something which divides the universe in two. This implies something with volume, as the universe is three-dimensional in nature. Dividing the universe into volumes requires at least four points, or a tetrahedron. In addition to four points, a system may need a structure like feedback to retain integrity.


Ayan, J. 1997. Aha! New York, Crown Publishers.

There is a list of creativity links at Ayan’s web site :

Buzan, T. 1993. The Mind Map Book. New York, Plume

You can see an example mind map at :

Cameron, J. 1993. the Artist’s Way. New York, Tarcher/Putnam

You can find book excerpts at :

de Bono, E. 1971. Practical Thinking. New York, Penguin Books

The official de Bono page is at :

Edwards, B. 1989. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York, J.P. Tarcher.

An exercise using methods similar to Edwards’ can be found at :

Fuller, B. 1975. Synergetics. New York, Macmillan.

Synergetics text is on the web at
Other resources on synergetic geometry can be found at

Gabel, M. 1979. Ho-Ping — Food for Everyone. New York, Doubleday.

Home for the world game folks is at :

Gawain, S. 1983 Creative Visualization. New York, Bantam

A summary of the technique is at :

McKim, R. 1980. Experiences in Visual Thinking, 2nd Ed. Monterey, Brooks/Cole

Some details of this thinking style can be found at :

Miller, J. 1978. Living Systems. New York, McGraw Hill

An exposition of the 19 levels of hierarchy in living systems can be found in the paper at :

Moore, T. 1994. Care of the Soul. New York, Harper Perennial

An excerpt can be found at :

Odum, H. 1983. Systems Ecology. New York, John Wiley

A brief biography of Howard Odum can be found at :

Senge, P. 1994. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York, Doubleday.

Many materials on systems dynamics are available at
A list of other references can be found at:
An introduction to systems dynamics is available at :

Starfield, Smith and Bleloch, 1990. How to Model It. New York, McGraw-Hill

Find a discussion of using the text at :

von Oech, R. 1990. A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York, Warner

The principles behind this work and others can be found at :