Thanks to all who responded to my query for systems-thinking exercises.
Following is a slightly edited version of what was shared. If you would like
me to send you a copy as an attacment please let me know.
People Dynamics Associates, 48 Sunset Crest
St. James, Barbados 24045
Website - http://home.caribsurf.com/rmahon/
I participate in an Engineering Leadership Program that the Boeing Company
does for it's chief engineering staff, where "system" thinking and causal
loop diagramming is an integral part of the program.
Just having people stop, put their hand on their heart and listen to their
breathing - noting that in this one action you are observing 2 major, but
separate components of the human cardio-vascular system interacting with
each other often does the trick. This is a "micro-level" view of a system.
I support the "macro" view of systems with a large drawing showing a chunk
of the earth, where above the surface, you see the hydrologic cycle at work
(where water evaporates from the sea, is blown inland in the form of
"weather" and falls in the mountains - very much like our own west winds
deposit pacific ocean rain on our Washington Cascade Mountains...
But the drawing also shows the "below the surface" or "geologic" cycle,
where magma rises, and where it breaks through to the surface-creating the
fast cooling basalting/andisitic rock of the volcano, and where it doesn't,
it forms the more slowly cooling granitic rocks, (the sort of rock that
allows mineralization). The business of erosion of these rocks, by the
weather and the resulting sorting of minerals in the streams affect the life
forms that populate the surface-and the oceans....
The drawing is pretty complicated, and by looking at it for very long, one
can get a strong sense of the "wheels within wheels" personality of
While that particular drawing is owned by Boeing (my employer) I could
suggest you dive into the National Geographic Magazine archives and come up
with some of their "visual explanations" that accompany nearly every issue,
to present "systems thinking" in a very practical and earth bound way.
In a book - "Inside Out - the best of the National Geographic Diagrams and
Cutaways" copyright-1998, ISBN 0-7922-7371-0 there are a number of "cool"
diagrams ranging from page 42 where "life in the tall grass" shows the hard
life of a prairie dog - in full ecological interaction (very systemic if you
think about it), or page 48 - where the human body is displayed and
described as "the system of the self". There is also page 58 where the
interior of the earth is shown and a description of how the earths core
creates the magnetosphere...
So there's 3 examples from one book - there's more there.
Systems thinking isn't so mysterious once a person can be shown we are
immersed in it every day. Once natural systems or body systems are
"noticed" one can then begin to get a grip on the business, or
organizational systems we also create-participate in.
I am currently delivering a series of workshops in Toronto on applying
systems thinking in outdoor education to education staff of the Toronto and
Region Conservation Authority.
I suggest that you look at The Systems Thinking Playbook - Exercises to
Stretch and Build Learning and Systems Thinking Capabilities by Linda Booth
Sweeney and Dennis Meadows (ISBN 0-966127-7-9). I have used a number of the
exercises in this binder and they are well thought out. The 3 part binder
contains about 30 different activities to help people understand systems. I
ordered mine through Amazon.com.
Peter Senge explains system diagrams in "The Fifth Discipline." "The Fifth
Discipline Fieldbook" provides additional examples and explanation.
Another useful source is "From Concepts to Causal Loops" by Virginia Anderson and Lauren Johnson.
Systems Activity(source unknown).:
A group from anywhere from about 10 up to 100 people all stand up, with room
enough to move around. Ask each person to silently choose two people in the
room as their points of reference.
Then ask everyone to stand in a place which is equidistant from their 2
points of reference people (note: no one will ever let the other people know
who their points of reference are.) It doesn't make any difference how far
apart they are from the others as long as they are equidistant from both of
their points of reference.
Typically, after a lot of initial movement, the group will start to settle
down a bit and then more movement will get triggered, and it just keeps
going. There are some good lessons about the complexity of systems and the
interdependency of various elements within a system, the delays inherent in
I first experienced this exercise as led by Glenda Eoyang, PhD, Executive
Director of Human Systems Dynamics Institute, complexity theorist, author
and founder of the field of human systems dynamics (which integrates
complexity theory and social sciences). A really marvelous woman to learn
with and from. It is possible that she originated the exercise...
My experience showing "fully formed" system models to groups suggests that
this works only when the group is already familiar with the symbols and
sytax of system diagrams. If not, the
diagram is largely unintelligible and then, not only do I have to explain
the symbols and syntax and the substantive aspects of the model, I have to
overcome the confusion I created in the first
place by putting too much information in front of them.
Even when presenting system models to groups who are familiar with systems
thinking and modeling, we typically start off with a simplified overview of
the model and then reveal the complexity.
While I have used the board game called Mousetrap more to teach process
diagramming, it would work very well as a fun way to build & demonstrate a
system. You wouldn't actually play the game, just use it's parts. Then you
can brainstorm other possible systems that interact with that one. Other
Rube Goldberg inventions that are fun to take apart or to demonstrate a
"system" can be found at http://www.rube-goldberg.com/html/gallery.htm.
These types of exercises are also great for stimulating creativity or
An exercise/game similar to the one mentioned by Douglas OLoughlin is in "99
of the Best Experiential Games we know" by Simon Priest, Sam Sikes and Faith
Evans.The exercise is called "Known Unknown" (Page 138).
The way it works is that people select someone they know well (Known) and
someone they don't know well "Unknown" and the objective is to keep the
known person between you and the unknown person.
I played this at IAF Minneapolis with Sam Sikes Facilitating - I think we
had 80 people in the room and it was the best demonstration of a
completely chaotic system I have seen.
I ask the group, "why do meetings start late," and draw a systems diagram to
capture their responses. You can see an illustration at:
"Word and arrow" diagrams are also referred to as "influence" and "cause and
effect" diagrams, with little consistent differentiation between these uses.
So a simple way to read a diagram is to replace the arrow with "influences,"
"informs," or "causes."
For example, the diagram on the second page of my "Why do meetings start
late" diagram could be read as: "The expected-start-time-of-next-meeting is
influenced by the announced-start-time (of the previous meeting) and the
actual-start-time (of the previous meeting).
An additional piece of information can be conveyed by the plus and minus
signs, which indicate the direction of the influence. A plus sign indicates
that more of the preceding thing results in
*more* of the next thing; a minus sign indicates that more of the preceding
thing results in *less* of the next thing.
I neglected to make an important point regarding the "why do meetings start
This series of diagrams shows the *development* of a system diagram, not a
"finished" model. (Even in the last diagram there is a "thought cloud" that
raises a question about the completeness of the model.)
For a group that is learning about systems thinking, it is intended to show
that it's "OK" (indeed, necessary) to start out small, sloppy, and poorly
thought out, and then make changes, rethink the elements, rearrange the
appearance, and so on.
Like many others I imagine, I found your systems diagram regarding the late
starts of meetings, fascinating. However, as noted in your and others
following posts, it is quite hard to follow and debate these diagrams
without an established "syntax and grammar" for them. Whilst I think that I
understand the diagrams you posted would it be possible to briefly give the
basic rules for composing such diagrams? I have some questions in mind
regarding the evolution of your diagrams but would like to be sure I've
understood them properly before asking!
In additon to the syntax and grammar, are there any simple Do's and Don'ts
that you or others would suggest for composing systems diagrams? For
instance in the choice of "activities".
There are some great resources online that I have used to assist in getting
people to read and build Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs). The links below are
two of the best I have found.
A good overview of CLDs from Pegasus Communications
A step by step process for building CLD's from The Portland Learning