System Archetype 8: Tragedy of the Commons

System Dynamics & Systems Thinking
Knowledge Center


Aniket Deolikar
Consultant, India

System Archetype 8: Tragedy of the Commons

Description of Tragedy of the Commons

One of the System Archetypes is "Tragedy of the Commons". This archetype tells us about what effect an unsystematic approach in an organization can have on long-term performance. Here the 'Commons' is the resource which can be money, people, time, tools that is simultaneously made available to multiple entities or teams. Here, people use a commonly available limited resource in an unsystematic way which fits their individual needs. At the start, they get high returns but as the resources are getting used up and everyone is using the resources as they like, they start getting diminishing returns and thus need to put in more efforts.

Early Warning Symptoms of Tragedy of the Commons

People might say: "Earlier there used to be plenty for everyone, but now as things are pretty hard for everyone, I will need to put more effort to make profits", or: "If that department is using 6 people they might have increased the targets, we will also increase our targets". You should take note when such things happen and know that this is a case of "Tragedy of Commons"

Structure of Tragedy of the Commons

Management Principle (What to do?)

This pattern can be handled by educating people on how to manage common resources. You will need to make them understand the importance of self-regulation in using the resources. If that doesn't work then you must create a mechanism of using the common resources which will be systematic. It is better is you involve the people who are going to use the resources in the rulemaking process.

Business Example of Tragedy of the Commons

In an organization, the IT resources are kept as "commons" so whichever department needs their support will use them. And since the various departments don't have an idea about the IT requirements of other departments and they only know the problems of their own department, they think that they can use the IT resources whenever they can. Thus, due to the multiple requests to the IT team, their performance decreases drastically because of the immense workload.

Real-Life Example of Tragedy of the Commons

One of the best examples can be the unlimited mining and usage of natural resources as many companies and countries are doing. The uncontrolled mining and use leads to pollution which causes several things from acid rains to the greenhouse effect and in the future: depletion.

⇨ Feel free to add more management situations which you might have faced and what you did to tackle them...

Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline Appendix 2: Systems Archetypes", 1990.
William Braun, "The System Archetypes", February 2002


More on System Dynamics & Systems Thinking:
Discussion Topics
Complexity in Systems Approach
System Archetypes Overview
Soft, Hard and Viable Systems
Value of System Approach
Systems Thinking is Considering Issues Holistically
Systems Thinking Schools and Approaches
Nonlinear Dynamical Systems
Strategy > SD > Performance?
System Archetype 9: Fixes that Fail
Systems Approach and Digitalization
System Archetype 1: Balancing Process with Delay
System Archetype 10: Growth and Underinvestment
System Archetype 2: Limits to Growth
System Archetype 3: Shifting the Burden
System Archetype 4: Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor
System Archetype 5: Eroding Goals
System Archetype 6: Escalation
System Archetype 7: Success to the Successful
👀System Archetype 8: Tragedy of the Commons
🔥The Systems Approach to Covid Virus Understanding
Special Interest Group

Do you know a lot about System Dynamics & Systems Thinking? Become our SIG Leader

System Dynamics & Systems Thinking
Knowledge Center

About 12manage | Advertising | Link to us / Cite us | Privacy | Suggestions | Terms of Service
2023 12manage - The Executive Fast Track. V16.1 - Last updated: 5-2-2023. All names of their owners.