What Is a System?

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Systems are everywhere once you know how to identify them. But before we dive into why systems are important and how to hack them to optimize their results, it helps to understand what a system is and how they function.

So what is a system?

In its simplest form, a systems is comprised of three components.

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

We’ll break down the first two components individually.

But I first want to start with the end in mind and with what I believe is the most important part of this definition:  a system is established to serve a specific function or accomplish a goal. Without this purpose, a system is simply a well-organized group of elements, a collection.

People who are disappointed by lackluster results are often disappointed not because they failed to execute (create the “elements” or cross off to-do’s) or establish a strategy (“coherently organize them”), but because their outcome was unclear – or undefined – from the start.

Step 1: Define what you want to achieve.

Perhaps a more important question is, why do you want to achieve a certain goal? We won’t spend too much time deconstructing the “why” in this post, but know that it is vitally important to the success of any system.

Without clearly defining what you want to achieve and why, it is easy to allow unintended byproducts to push off the system off-course.

Step 2: Identify the necessary elements.

A system is constructed in such a way that removing any single elements from the sequence causes the system to break down and stop functioning as intended. Your heart, traffic lights at an intersection, and the pilot light on your hot water heater are all examples of elements within a system. It is easy to imagine what would happen if you removed one of these items from their respective systems.

In the start-up world, an initial set of necessary items for a system to work is know as the “minimum viable product,” or MVP. During the development process, ideas for additional features/add-ons/bells and whistles often creep in. But ask yourself:

Do I need this element in order for the system to run and achieve my goal? 

If you can answer “no” to any element, you know you can (and should) cut it from your initial round of development.

Why? The goal of a start-up is to create a product or service that customers will pay for as quickly as possible. The goal of a new blog is  to serve up content that visitors will read. Frivolous elements and features simply delay the opportunity a system has to begin making a impact. The more delays, the more time and money that is wasted.

Step 3: Order the elements appropriately.

There is a necessary progression – a sequence – that must take place in order for a system to run as intended.

Sometimes, elements are organized in a linear pattern, like an assembly line. Other times it is circular, or repetitive, or iterative, or a number of variations. We’ll explore types of system sequences in future posts, but the key takeaway is this:

What makes a jigsaw puzzle a jigsaw puzzle aren’t the pieces, but their ability to fit together in a specific order to create a cohesive image.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, each element of a system has a very specific role to fill. In isolation, elements aren’t that useful. When aligned properly, they have the potential to make a significant impact toward the goal you initially defined in Step One. When connected, the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.

This key, the way in which the elements are interconnected, is the final piece of the puzzle.


That’s really it.

There are some other ancillary pieces and effects that systems create, but these are the main components.

  • With these building blocks in mind, we’ll begin by analyzing systems that exist all around us – in our personal lives, in our businesses, in nature, in media.
  • Next, we’ll dig deeper and work to understand why certain systems flourish while others fail.
  • Lastly, we’ll take a stab at creating some of our own systems from scratch to see if we can’t successfully replicate the successes.
What are you most excited about? And what are you interested in learning?

(We’ll be using your ideas moving forward, so leave your thoughts in the comments section below.)

This blog is created and maintained by:

Matthew Russo

Learn more about Matt here, or click on his face to connect elsewhere.

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