System Archetypes Overview

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Ignatius D
Manager, India

System Archetypes Overview

Systems archetypes are models that describe patterns of organization that keep recurring. They are helpful to show, explain and gain deeper insights into certain patterns of behavior of a system under observation. We can use them to answer questions like: "Why are we observing some particular problem over time again and again?

History of System Archetypes

System archetypes were studied since 1960s and 1970s by Jay Forrester, Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, and others in the nascent field of Systems Thinking.
In his popular 1990 book, "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization", Peter Senge coined the term "system archetypes" and, along with Michael Goodman, Charles Kiefer, and Jenny Kemeny, documented a set of the most common patterns of behavior in organizations that have a tendency of recurring.

Below you find a list of 10 archetypes which can be observed in a typical organization. As a manager or consultant, you can compare the problem your organization is facing with the archetypes given below and then deal with them to make the system under observation more effective or efficient.

Feedback Circles in System Thinking

A major assumption of system thinking is causality: every action triggers a reaction. In system dynamics such reaction is called "feedback".
There are 2 types of feedback:
  1. Balancing Feedback
  2. Reinforcing Feedback
Note that feedback does not always occur right away as a process may contain "delays". Any system can be described by drawing a causal loop diagram, set up with circles of causality including actions, feedbacks and delays.

Components of System Archetypes

Before you can learn more about each of these system archetypes, it is useful to first learn a bit about certain key components of them and how they are made. A systems archetype is made by a causal loop diagram that consists of elements of the system and shows how these elements are interconnected.

Causal Loop Diagram: A causal loop diagram is a useful tool to represent dynamic interrelationships. It has various variables that act as nodes and has edges (or links) which connect the nodes. The arrow of the link shows us the direction of the effect of one element on another (e.g., A → B). It provides a visual representation with which we can communicate the understanding of the relationship of the variables in a better way.

Balancing (Feedback) Loop: A balancing feedback loop is a loop that seeks equilibrium. It means that the two variables will balance each other. For example, when there is a discrepancy in the desired inventory and the inventory adjustment is done, the inventory level reaches the optimum level. Thus, a balancing action is done.

Reinforcing (Feedback) Loop: A Reinforcing loop is a loop that amplifies the change. If a variable causes a little change and the next decision changes it even more in the same direction then it's a reinforcing action. This means the reinforcing loop compounds the change in one direction with even more change in the same direction. For example, If the variables are employee performance and supervisor's supportive behavior, then the supervisor's supportive behavior reinforces the employee performance and makes it even better. Also called: Amplifying Feedback.

Delays: A major problem with delays ( = ) in systems is that they cause us to perceive a response to an action (a feedback) incorrectly or not at all (especially if the delay time is long). This can then cause us to either under- or overestimate the feedback and, as a result, the needed action. This may result in oscillation, instability or even a breakdown of the system. Problems with delays can be avoided by either being patient or by accelerating reactions of the system to realized measures. A typical example of a system suffering from delays is a supply chain. Perhaps you once participated in "The Beer Game" and experienced the Bullwhip Effect in Supply Chains yourself.

The (10) System Archetypes

  1. Balancing Process with Delay
  2. Limits to Growth
  3. Shifting the Burden
  4. Special Case: Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor
  5. Eroding Goals
  6. Escalation
  7. Success to the Successful
  8. Tragedy of the Commons
  9. Fixes that Fail
  10. Growth and Underinvestment
If you know and understand the various types of systems archetypes, it will be easier for you to recognize certain patterns in organizations and to detect any early warnings signs which elements of the system will give you. And once you know the archetype, you can take steps to formulate the solution and correct any problems.

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline Appendix 2: Systems Archetypes", 1990.
Leyla Acaroglu (2017), "Tools for Systems Thinkers: Systems Mapping", Medium
Thomas Jun, "Causal Loop Diagram", Systems Thinking Lab
William Braun (2002), "The System Archetypes"

  Piero Mella
Teacher, Italy

Senge's List of Archetypes and Others

The archetypes discussed here are only those inclu (...)

  Piero Mella
Teacher, Italy

Senge's List of 10 Archetypes

The list of Senge's 10 archetypes, which many scho (...)

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