The concept of a "system" is surprisingly difficult for the average person to understand. Conversely, for people trained in complex control mechanisms or biological functions, the concept is almost self-revelatory.
A system is a functional relationship between internal elements that binds them together through self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms. A system is not simply the elements, but rather a process of interactions involving the elements such that the elements function to create a "steady state" which form a whole that is resistant to external forces. Instead of acting like a group of individual elements, a system behaves as a whole.
Perhaps more intuitively, a system BEHAVES, there is a dynamic relationship between the elements that interact to create a dynamic whole. In essence, the forces that act on the elements of a system interact in a non-linear feedback loop that amplifies changes in one element through the other elements, somewhat like a change to one element of a hanging mobile art causes all of the elements to move. Systems have three signature characteristics.
First, they appear to be more than the sum of their parts. A system behaves as a single entity even though it is made up of interacting elements. For example, a bee hive is actually the organism rather than the bee because none of the individual bees could exist independently. A live cat and dead cat have exactly the same individual parts, but it is the dynamic interactions that make the difference.
Second, systems exhibit a dynamic steady state that is called "equifinality" in that initial conditions or subsequent events can change abruptly and the system will still tend towad a common state. Thus systems can seem to violate cause and effect and even behave counter-intuitively. For example, a baby mouse can be mistreated and poorly fed but it still will grow up to be an adult mouse. A poorly fed mouse may even grow into a fatter adult mouse because its body stores energy for the anticipated periods of malnutrition.
Third, systems actively resist attempts by outside forces to alter their steady state. For example, your body maintains a steady temperature even if you swim in ice-water or sit in a hot sauna. Systems will actually counteract many attempts to change the status of the system. Each of the elements in a system has an interactive feedback relationship with the other elements such that the strength of the feedback is nonlinear and only stabilizes at the steady state.
A typical explanation of a system is to describe the identical elements without their self-reinforcing relationships as a "heap" in contrast to the structural identity of a system. But the crucial difference between a "heap" and a system is that the elements of the latter functionally interact to maintain its structure in the face of external attempts to change it.
The steady state that is characteristic of a system is not a "static" state, but rather represents some dynamically terminal state often referred to as "equifinality." In other words, the state can be perturbed, and can even respond to outside forces. But the effect of different inputs to a system is not like a non-system in which the inputs determine the output, but rather different inputs to a system merely change its path to its steady state. For example, you can predictably change the end consequences of a soccer ball by changing the force and direction of a kick, but changing the force and direction of a kick to a dog, which is a system, does not change the end consequences, but only the path to those consequences.
W. Edwards Deming had great difficulty communicating his Total Quality Management theory to American businessmen simply because they found it difficult to understand that changing inputs would not change the outputs. Deming explained that organizations were systems which would produce the same outputs regardless of employee efforts. This concept of "equifinality," a steady state, could not be accepted by American business leaders. Deming taught them they had to empower the workers inside the system to change the relationships that resulted in quality output.
The "law of unintended consequences" is almost always a consequence of people acting on elements of a system without comprehending the system and its subsequent behavior to maintain its steady state. Systems exist throughout the real world and they tend to coalesce into systems of systems. Even grasping a pile of junk occasionally will result in some trash interacting with other trash to create a whole that shaking does not dislodge. Whenever there are interacting forces there will be some that end up interacting in a feedback loop that forms a primitive system.
Those who attempt to perturb a system are often surprised to discover that not only does the system respond counter-intuitively, but other seemingly unrelated things occur also if the system turns out to be part of a larger system.
Suffice it to say that systems may be difficult for people to understand but they encounter them repeatedly. Typically, people who encounter systems attribute to the system some "spirit" or "vital force" which they mean to explain its counter-intuitive behavior. Indeed, much of what religious people ascribe to "God" is in fact the "essence" in a system that is more than the sum of its parts.
Systems have common characteristics that can be described mathematically. These common characteristics form what is known as General Systems Theory, meaning they are "general" characteristics of systems as a group and not peculiar to the specific system of note. One can begin to envision a whole new world once the concepts behind General Systems Theory are understood. Much of what seems so baffling in the world becomes understandable.
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