Monday, April 16, 2018

11 Laws of Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is one of the main themes of Peter M. Senge's best-selling book, The Fifth Discipline, which I reviewed back on November 22, 2016. Family systems therapy - which is at the heart of my form of psychotherapy for personality disorders - is based on systems thinking, and looks at the role of the interactions of all family members over at least three generations in the genesis, triggering, and reinforcement of self-destructive behavior in individual members. 

Senge's book discusses eleven “laws” that apply to the behavior of individuals within groups who are engaged in trying to solve a variety of difficulties that affect the achievments of the group’s goals. The laws look at how a wide variety of different variables interact over the long term, and discuss the folly of efforts to try to reduce problems down to just simple relationships between only two or three variables over the short term.

In this post, I list the eleven laws from the book, with a few minor changes or additions I made to make them more relevant to problem solving specifically in dysfunctional families—as opposed to just any organization.

11 Laws of Systems Thinking.

#1: Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions." In our desire to avoid conflict, we solve problems by avoiding them. Inevitably, the problem comes right back more intensely and in an even more frightening aspect. Solution: Learning to negotiate and solve problems cooperatively in a win/win manner.

#2. The law of reversed effort: the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. Attacking the people in the system creates resistance. For example, the more you lecture children about something, the more likely they will be to keep doing whatever you are complaining about.

#3. Dysfunctional family and other problematic interpersonal group behavior gets better before it grows worse, and conversely, it grows worse before it gets better.

When we sacrifice our own needs in order to give the family or group what it seems to need, this stabilizes it over the short run, but since structural problems and ongoing shared intrapsychic conflicts are never dealt with or even addressed, this soon starts causing more problems over and over again.

Conversely, when problems are finally addressed, people often escalate their previous dysfunctional behavior in order to test whether everyone else really wants change - but if everyone sticks to their guns, the problematic behavior eventually subsides and then starts to go away altogether (except for occasional relapses which must then also be openly addressed).

#4. The easy way out usually leads back in. Quick and easy solutions often lead to weak and poorly thought out approaches that backfire. Solutions that come from a desire to avoid conflict or difficulty overlook the deep listening required to reveal the emotional core of family issues.

#5. The cure can be worse than the disease. Without thinking about ALL of the interacting variables, we often fix the wrong problem or approach the right problem inappropriately. Reactions and counter-reactions often leave us in a worse place than we where we started.

#6. Go slow to go fast. Rushing to completion leads to a lack of thoughtfulness and reversals of direction to go back and pick up missing pieces.

#7. Cause and effect are not necessarily closely related in time and space. We often assume the solution to be close to the problem, but most often, today's problems were caused by decisions made long ago but forgotten.

#8. Small changes can produce big results -- but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious. Taking the widest possible systemic view allows us to see the small changes that will have long term and beneficial outcomes.

#9. You can have your cake and eat it too -- but not at the same time. Patience is its own reward. Rushing produces compromise such as "I'll cut off my leg if you cut off yours." Taking the long view allows you to accomplish more and reap the benefits of the work.

#10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. One must look at groups as a whole. Simply dividing people in a family or organization into separate, smaller groups will not produce the same dynamics, nor double the value. The right hand has to know what the left hand is doing.

#11. There is no blame. Perhaps the most critical of the laws of systems thinking, stopping blame eliminates the fear that turns employees or family members against you. Don't try to change people, change systems. Discover the systems problems and you can change the entire direction of a work group or family.


  1. Great post; I'm spending some time thinking about how each of the eleven "laws" relates to a BPD/codependent relationship. Seeing some interesting parallels.

  2. I agree and certainly this problem isn't limited to psychology. Witness the collapse of sixty years of conventional thinking on basic nutrition.