Why Systems Work So Well

In the book “Thinking in Systems”, Donella Meadows dedicates an entire chapter to explaining why functioning systems seem to work so well. In it, she recognizes three characteristics: resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy.


We can use the standard definition from the Oxford English dictionary to describe resilience:

re·sil·ience /rəˈzilyəns/ noun

  1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. “the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”
  2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity. “nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience”

According to Donella Meadows this definition can be translated to systems as the “ability to survive and persist within a variable environment. The opposite of resilience is brittleness or rigidity.”

The key feature that creates resilient systems is effective feedback loops. In response to system variations, these feedback loops work in different ways to restore a system to a stable state. To be most resilient, a system should have several feedback loops that operate through different mechanisms, respond to different stimuli, and that operate different time scales. In response to an impact to the system, the feedback loops take effect and work together to drive the system back to a stable “normal” state.

An excellent example of a resilient system with multiple feedback loops is the human body. The body is able to respond to temperature changes, infections, cuts and scrapes, and broken bones by deploying multiple feedback loops that respond to stimuli.


Another characteristic of complex systems is their ability to learn, diversify, and evolve over time. As an example, nature has the remarkable ability to create millions of unique species out of a group of organic chemicals. This capacity of a system to make its own structure is called self-organization. You can see this effect at work in the formation of snowflakes, or the sprouting of a seed into a plant.

The challenge in developing self-organizing systems is that they can often product unpredictable results — whole new structures, and new ways of doing things. To allow this to happen requires freedom and experimentation to encourage self-organization to occur. This can often be scary to the individuals involved and it can often threaten the existing power structures of the system.


Self-organizing systems often generate hierarchy. In the human body, a cell in your liver is a subsystem of the liver itself, which is a subsystem of your body. In turn you as an individual are a subsystem of a family or community, town, or nation. It is no accident that corporations, military systems, economic systems, and living systems all are arranged in hierarchies.

Why are hierarchies a natural occurrence of functioning systems? If a subsystem is healthy it can largely take care of itself by regulating and maintaining itself. If this subsystem also serves the needs of the larger system, the larger system can coordinate, maintain and enhance itself as well. This creates a stable, resilient, and efficient structure with re-enforcing parts. Hierarchies create stability and resilience, and they also reduce the amount of information that each part of the system has to keep track of.

The beauty of systems is that they can work so well, providing a sense of harmony and balance in how they operate through feedback loops, and how they exhibit the characteristics of resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy.

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