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Dana died quite unexpectedly in 2001—before she completed this book.

Introduction: The System Lens

Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns

The flu virus does not attack you; you set up the conditions for it to flourish within you.

We are complex systems—our own bodies are magnificent examples of integrated, interconnected, self-maintaining complexity.

Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unem- ployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless.

At a time when the world is more messy, more crowded, more interconnected, more interdependent, and more rapidly changing than ever before, the more ways of seeing, the better.

The Blind Men and the Matter of the Elephant:
This ancient Sufi story was told to teach a simple lesson but one that we often ignore: The behavior of a system cannot be known just by knowing the elements of which the system is made.

PART ONE: System Structure and Behavior

— ONE — The Basics

More Than the Sum of Its Parts

A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

For example, the elements of your digestive system include teeth, enzymes, stomach, and intestines.
A football team is a system with elements such as players, coach, field, and ball.
A school is a system. So is a city, and a factory, and a corporation, and a national economy. An animal is a system. A tree is a system, and a forest is a larger system that encompasses subsystems of trees and animals.
The earth is a system. So is the solar system; so is a galaxy. Systems can be embedded in systems, which are embedded in yet other systems.

Look Beyond the Players to the Rules of the Game

You think that because you understand “one” that you must there- fore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and.”
—Sufi teaching story

It’s easier to learn about a system’s elements than about its interconnections.

An important function of almost every system is to ensure its own perpetuation.

What if the function of a tree were not to survive and reproduce but to capture all the nutrients in the soil and grow to unlimited size? People have imagined many purposes for a university besides disseminat- ing knowledge—making money, indoctrinating people, winning football games. A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.

A stock is the foundation of any system. Stocks are the elements of the system that you can see, feel, count, or measure at any given time. A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity, an accumulation of material or information that has built up over time. It may be the water in a bathtub, a population, the books in a bookstore, the wood in a tree, the money in a bank, your own self-confidence. A stock does not have to be physical. Your reserve of good will toward others or your supply of hope that the world can be better are both stocks.

Stocks change over time through the actions of a flow. Flows are filling and draining, births and deaths, purchases and sales, growth and decay, deposits and withdrawals, successes and failures. A stock, then, is the present memory of the history
of changing flows within the system.