Book review: The Systems Bible

Readability (how easy to digest) : 10

To-the-point (succinct, no fluff) : 9

Assumed knowledge (need to know stuff to appreciate it) : 10

Egoism (author writing for themself?) : 3

Get-into-ness (gripping from the start?) : 9


This book is great. John Gall creates a system in which we can think at a system level of thinking. A discussion at the high level leads to pertinent truisms that are hiding just in front of us: we all have experienced chaos in systems and now we have a lore to guide us.

Systems thinking is unintuitive. You cannot think of a system as being a single person, acting in reasonably predictable ways.

  • When a system is set up to solve a problem, you have two – the problem and the system.
  • A large system created by expanding a smaller one does not act like the smaller one.
  • Repeating what worked in the past does not guarantee success in the future. Interestingly Futureology fails to account for the future of Futureology.
  • Perfection of planning is a symptom of decay.
  • Systems tend to sustain and perpetuate themselves. Thus a temporary patch is often a permanent weakness. EG 30 years of nuclear power followed by 500,000 years to decommission the plant.
  • The System is not what it’s called. The name is most emphatically not the thing. EG Shipbuilders are in fact made up of carpenters, lawyers, engineers, etc but not shipbuilders.
  • A System is as good as its sensory organs. Thus things are what they are reported to be. EG services, APIs are as good as their protocols/ mutual understanding.
  • Systems keep systems-people. Prolonged selection selects survivors. Fierce competition results results in bizareness.
  • Pushing on a system doesn’t fix it. Trying to be helpful is dangerous and subtle. EG adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
  • Success for a system can only be conceived within a system boundary. What is success? EG Charlemagne divides his Kingdom equally between 3 children: Germany, France and Alsace-Lorraine then enter 1000 years of war. Is success that we survived? Or failure that we divided the Internationalism of Rome into the Nationalism of Europe.
  • Error correction is the default for a system. Don’t concern yourself with what the system should be doing if it’s working correctly because it never is. What happens when it’s not? How does it cope with failure? This is so important that you must cherish your bugs.
  • As Systems expand, basic functions falter. EG Concorde can barely land without a huge runway whereas a biplane can land in a small field.
  • Colossal errors tend to escape notice. EG 50,000 automobile deaths per year in the US is seen as a fact of life not a defect of the transportation system. EG research into mental illness being literally a disease of the brain has led this area down a blind alley for a century.
  • In setting up a new System, tread softly, as you may be disturbing another that is actually working.
  • The message sent is not the message received. It is impossible NOT to communicate. The meaning of a communication is the action that follows. “Once we clear this hurdle, the rewards are great; the dispelling of Illusion; stark clarity in our relations with other people and other Systems; the pride of acting responsibly. In place of the passive luxury of complaining and blaming others or external circumstances, we… shall more promptly get on with changing our strategies.
  • The System is its own best explanation. EG Code as documentation. The most urgently needed information decays the fastest.
  • The person who has a problem but doesn’t realise it in fact has two problems: the problem itself and a Systems Delusion: things have to be the way they are EG until FDR mentioned that 1/3 of the population are ill-houses, ill-fed and ill-clothed, the nation (the other 2/3) assumed we were in a state of normalcy.
  • Destiny is a set of unquestioned assumptions.
  • Bad design cannot be overcome by more design. Plan to scrap the first System you build, you will anyway. EG Agile + Lean!
  • If things are acting very strangely consider that you might be in a feedback loop or when problems don’t yield to common sense solutions, look for the thermostat. EG Increase in food production capabilities has made it possible for a larger fraction of humans to starve at much higher population density levels. The thermostat needs to be disengaged: the feedback loop between nutritional status and reproductive rate.

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