Remembering Jerry: An Introduction to General Systems Thinking

It’s been four years since – sadly – Gerald M. “Jerry” Weinberg passed away. Ever since then, I struggled with some public mourning about him, until recently I had just the right idea. On a weekly basis, I will publish a review of a book I read that Jerry either wrote himself or is about some of his work. Today, I picked An Introduction to General Systems Thinking in its 25th-anniversary edition published by Dorset House Publishing in 2001, the original being published in 1975.

Looking back, it’s hard for me to remember all the lessons in this book. I recall my main takeaway being that it’s futile to try to understand general systems, you can only understand specific systems. But maybe my recollection is fooling me here since I read QSM Volume 1, Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline, and Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems since then. So, let me go through the table of contents to help my aging memories.

The book comes in seven parts, or chapters if you like to call it that way:

  1. The Problem
  2. The Approach
  3. System and Illusion
  4. Interpreting Observations
  5. Breaking Down Observations
  6. Describing Behavior
  7. Some Systems Questions

I notice how the first sub-heading in the first chapter is called The Complexity of the World. There, in 1975, Jerry already became aware of the ever-emerging complexity of the world. An argument that’s still floating around about 50 years later.

Over the years, Jerry’s writing style somewhat developed. While at the time of Quality Software Management he put a list of laws in the back of his books, this one was written before that. Though, at the end of every chapter, I find a collection of deeper thoughts for the reader to reprocess the whole chapter while reflecting on the answers to the questions.

In An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, Jerry also proves his thinking points mathematically by modeling the laws throughout the book. At times, this was a bit complicated to follow along, though I think Jerry did a good job there. May this be a warning to the mathematically challenged readers out there.

Going further through the Table of contents, I notice there appears to be one law in nearly each of the chapters. Let me conclude this blog entry by pulling the Laws and Principles out from there:

Chapter 1 – The Problem
The Law of Medium Numbers (page 20)
For medium number systems, we can expect that large fluctuations, irregularities, and discrepancy with any theory will occur more or less regularly.
or, as Jerry points out in the text, it eventually becomes Murphy’s Law
Anything that can happen, will happen.

Chapter 2 – The Approach
The First Law of Thermodynamics (page 39)
Total energy in a system is constant.

When the facts contradict the law, reject the facts or change the definition, but never throw away the law. (page 41)

The Law of Conservation of Energy (page 41)
It is impossible to build a perpetual-motion machine.

The Law of Happy Particularities (page 42)
Any general law must have at least two specific applications.

The Law of Unhappy Peculiarities (page 42)
Any general law is bound to have at least two exceptions
If you never say anything wrong, you never say anything.

The Composition Law (page 43)
The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

The Decomposition Law (page 43)
The part is more than a fraction of the whole.

Chapter 3 – System and Illusion
The Banana Principle (page 55)
Heuristic devices don’t tell you when to stop.

The Principle of Indifference (page 72)
Laws should not depend on a particular choice of notation.

Chapter 4 – Interpreting Observations
The Eye-Brain Law (page 96)
To a certain extent, mental power can compensate for observational weakness.
To a certain extent, observational power can compensate for mental weakness.

The Generalized Thermodynamic Law (page 99)I
More probable states are more likely to be observed than less probable states, unless specific constraints exist to keep them from occurring.
reframed (page 100)
The things we see more frequently are more frequent:
1. because there is some physical reason to favor certain states (The First Law)
2. because there is some mental reason (the Second Law)

The Lump Law (page 105)
If we want to learn anything, we mustn’t try to learn everything.

The Generalized Law of Complementarity (page 120)
Any two points of view are complementary.

Chapter 5 – Breaking Down Observations
The Principle of Difference (page 140)
Laws should not depend on a particular choice of symbols, but they usually do.

The Axium of Experience (page 141)
The future will be like the past, because, in the past, the future was like the past.

The Invariance Principle (page 154)
With respect to any given property, there are those transformations that preserve it and those that do not preserve it.
With respect to a given transformation, there are those properties that are preserved by it and those that are not.
or (page 155)
We understand change only by observing what remains invariant, and permanence only by what is transformed.

The Perfect Systems Law (page 160)
True systems properties cannot be investigated.

The Strong Connection Law (page 161)
Systems, on the average, are more tightly connected than the average.
or (page 162)
A system is a collection of parts, no one of which can be changed.
In systems, all other things are rarely equal.

Chapter 6 – Describing Behavior
The Picture Principle (page 189)
When speaking about a dimensional reduction, insert the words “a picture of” in whatever you were about to say.

The Diachronic Principle (page 190)
If a line of behavior crosses itself, then either
1. the system is not state determined
2. we are viewing a projection – an incomplete view.

The Synchronic Principle (page 190)
If two systems occupy the same position in the state same space at the same time, then the space is underdimensioned, that is, the view is incomplete.

Count-to-Three Principle (page 196)
If you cannot think of three ways of abusing a tool, you do not understand how to use it.

The Conservation Law reframed (page 200)
The sum of the variables of this system is a constant.

The First Law of Simpledynamic (page 202)
Endigitry can neither be created nor destroyed.

The Second Law of Simpledynamics (page 202)
Eventropy can never decrease.

The Principle of Indeterminavbility (page 214)
We cannot with certainty< attribute observed constraint either to system or environment.

Chapter 7 – Some Systems Questions
The Systems Triumvirate (page 228)
1. Why do I see what I see?
2. Why do things stay the same?
3. Why do things change?

The Law of Effect (page 251)
Small changes in structure usually lead to small changes in behavior.,
Small changes in the white box usually lead to small changes in the black box.

The reversed Law of Effect (page 252)
Small changes in behavior will usually be found to result from small changes in structure.

The Used Car Law (page 254)
1. A system that is doing a good job of regulation need not adapt.
2. A system may adapt in order to simplify its job of regulating.
or (page 256)
1. A way of looking at the world that is not putting excessive stress on an observer need not be changed.
2. A way of looking at the world may be changed to reduce the stress on an observer.

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