Dancing with Systems – Donella Meadows

The late Donella Meadows wrote an interesting article titled ‘Dancing with Systems’ that provides a fourteen recommendations on how to approach the change of complex systems.

Newtonian thinking says by breaking down a system into smaller parts, and then understanding them, we will understand the system as a whole. Thinking about it in this way assumes that the system is certain, predictable, obeys known rules and laws, and has linear causation.

The problem is however, that most systems we deal with as managers do not meet these assumptions. Some examples are the workplace culture, company performance, or even an individual’s performance. All are complex systems that cannot be controlled by Newtonian thinking. Our toolkit to understand and deal with this needs another approach.

This is where complex systems theory can help. Complex systems are said to contain uncertainty, unpredictability, non-linear causation and emergent behaviour.

The core idea being that complex systems cannot be properly understood in the Newtonian way we are so used to thinking in. This is where ‘Dancing with Systems’ comes in.

Meadows states that “We exaggerate our own ability to change the world”, and that “the idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best”.

You can’t understand, predict and control a complex system.

So if you want to influence or change a complex system, whether it is the performance of a small team, the workplace culture or the company as a whole, how should you go about it? Meadows puts forward the notion that you should not try to force a system to behave in a certain way, instead you should seek to dance with the system. Observe and work with it. The Meadows dance is as follows:

The Dance

1. Get the beat

2. Listen to the wisdom of the system

3. Expose your mental models to the open air

4. Stay humble, stay a learner

5. Honour and protect information

6. Locate responsibility in the system

7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems

8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable

9. Go for the good of the whole

10. Expand time horizons

11. Expand thought horizons

12. Expand the boundary of caring

13. Celebrate complexity

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness


Each of these items is worthy of a post in itself. If you are interested in reading more on this let me know, or go straight to the source, it’s well worth the your time :



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  1. Pingback: Systems and Change | www.mbanights.com

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