• John Gall
  • March 31, 2021
    Read, recorded or researched
Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you're likely to find your time and effort consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself. This is a short and entertaining book that packs a punch. It's difficult to refute any of what Gall wrote in 1975. Beware of systems. Find out why below.

The Best Points

Systemantics: How Systems Work & Especially How They Fail


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Systems create and pose seven core problems:


New problems are created by a system's presence.

Example: When a system is set up to accomplish some goal, a new entity has come into being-the system itself. No matter what the "goal of the system", it immediately begins to exhibit system behavior; that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems. Now the system itself has to be dealt with. Whereas before, there was only the problem - such as warfare between nations, or garbage collection - there is now an additional universe of problems associated with the functioning or merely the presence of the new system.

In the case of garbage collection, the original problem could be stated briefly as: "What do we do with all this garbage?" After setting up a garbage-collection system, we find ourselves faced with a new universe of problems. These include questions of collective bargaining with the garbage collectors' union, rates and hours, collection on very cold or rainy days, purchase and maintenance of garbage trucks, millage and bond issues, voter apathy, regulations regarding separation of garbage from trash, etc., etc.


Once set up, the system won't go away. Instead, it grows and encroaches.

Example: The system of government, at its basis a system for protecting the people, encroached upon them until it became their worst oppressor. In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service not only collect our taxes, they also make us compute the tax for them, an activity that exacts an incalculable cost in sweat, tears, and agony and takes years off our lives as we groan over their complicated forms.


The system begins to do strange and wonderful things.

Example: Many backward nations, whose greatest need is food to feed their people, sell their crops and bankrupt themselves to buy-not food—but advanced military hardware for the purpose of defending themselves against their equally backward neighbors, who are doing the same thing.


It breaks down in ways you never thought possible.

Example: This is perhaps most clearly displayed in the construction of the largest and most complex examples of man-made systems, whether buildings, ships and planes, or organizations:

The largest building in the world, the space vehicle preparation shed at Cape Kennedy, generates its own weather, including clouds and rain. Designed to protect space rockets from the elements, it pelts them with storms of its own.

The reality is; a large system, produced by expanding the dimensions of a smaller system, does not behave like the smaller system.


It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function.

This happens in two ways.

First, people in systems do not do what the system says they are doing.

  • Example: What is the real-world function of a king? Answer. In theory kings are supposed to rule their country, that is, to govern. In fact they spend much of their time and energy—and their country's treasure fighting off usurpers. In democratic countries, a newly elected President may find it expedient to begin planning immediately for the next election.
  • Example: What is the real-world function of a university scholar? Answer. University scholars are supposed to think and study deeply on basic intellectual problems of their own choosing. In fact, they must teach assigned courses, do "research" on problems for which research money is available, and publish, or perish.

Second. The system itself does not do what it says it's doing. And related to this, most of the things we human beings desire are non-system things.

  • Example: We want a fresh apple picked dead ripe off the tree. But this is precisely what a large system can never supply. No one is going to set up a large system in order to supply one person with a fresh apple picked right off the tree. The system has other goals and other people in mind.
  • Example: Doesn't the auto industry supply us with millions of new cars each year, even tailoring them to our changing tastes in style and performance? Answer. The reason we think the auto industry is meeting our needs is that we have almost completely forgotten what we originally wanted, namely, a means of going from one place to another that would be cheap, easy, convenient, safe, and fast.


Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system.

People in systems never deal with the real world that the rest of us have to live in but a filtered, distorted, and censored version which is all that can get past the sensory organs of the system itself.

The bigger the system, the narrower and more specialized the interface with individuals. In very large systems, the relationship is not with the individual at all but with his social security number, his driver's license, or some other paper phantom.

Example: in a medium-sized hospital, taped to the wall of the nurses' station, just above the console that enables nurses to record whether the patient is breathing and even to take his pulse without actually going down the hall to see him was the following hand-lettered reminder: The Chart Is Not The Patient.

As we know, sensory deprivation tends to produce hallucinations. Similarly, immersion in a system tends to produce an altered mental state that results in various bizarre malfunctions, recognizable to us but not to the people in the system.


You become anxious and push on it to make it work.

Amidst all these problems, it's important to remember that some complex systems actually work. How that happens is still mostly a mystery but as of this writing, a partial and limited breakthrough can be reported, as follows:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.


A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

Eventually, you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time. At that point encroachment is complete. You have become absorbed. You are now a systems-person.

So...what's the solution?

The truth is, many functions are intrinsically unsuited to the systems approach. The great secret of Systems Design is to be able to sense what things can naturally be done easily and elegantly by means of a system and what things are hard-and to stay away from the hard things.

Thus, the first principle of systems-design is a negative one:

Do it without a system if you can

If you really must build a system, remember the Systems Law of Gravity:

Systems run best when designed to run downhill

In human terms, this means working with human tendencies rather than against them.

For example, a state run lottery flourishes even in times of economic depression because its function is aligned with the basic human instinct to gamble a small stake in hopes of a large reward. The public school system, on the other hand, although founded with the highest and most altruistic goals in mind, remains in a state of chronic failure be cause it violates the human principle of spontaneity. It goes against the grain, and therefore it does not ever really succeed.

Finally, don't make the system too tight. This is usually done in the name of efficiency, or (paradoxically) in the hope of making the system more permanent. Neither goal is achieved if the resulting system (a) doesn't work at all; (b) disintegrates; or (c) rapidly loses steam and peters out:

Loose systems last longer and function better

Advice for managers in systems:

Focus on friction. Trying to make something happen is too ambitious and usually fails, resulting in a great deal of wasted effort and lowered morale. It is, however, sometimes possible to remove obstacles in the way of something happening. A great deal may then occur with little effort on the part of the manager, who nevertheless gets a large part of the credit. But a warning is in order. This will only work if the System is so designed that something can actually happen - a condition that commonly is not met.

Know that system's don't solve problems. Systems can do many things, but one thing they emphatically cannot do is to Solve Problems. This is because Problem solving is not a Systems-function, and there is no satisfactory Systems-approximation to the solution of a Problem. A System represents someone's solution to a problem. The System does not solve the problem.

Once a problem is recognized as a Problem, it undergoes a subtle metamorphosis. Experts in the "Problem" area proceed to elaborate its complexity. They design systems to attack it. This approach guarantees failure, at least for all but the most pedestrian tasks.

A system that is sufficiently large, complex, and ambitious can reduce output far below "random" levels. Thus, a federal Program to conquer cancer may tie up all the competent researchers in the field, leaving the problem to be solved by someone else.

Solutions usually come from people who see in the problem only an interesting puzzle, and whose qualifications would never satisfy a select committee.

  • Example: When Pasteur accepted the challenge of the French silk producers to discover the cause of silkworm disease, he had never seen, much less studied, a silkworm. He was not even a biologist.
  • Example: The Wright brothers, who built the first successful heavier-than-air machine, were bicycle makers.
  • Example: The molecular structure of the gene-closest thing to the true "secret of life"-was revealed through X-ray crystallography, a technique having little to do with biology. And James Watson, who solved the puzzle, was not an X-ray crystallographer. He was not even a chemist. Furthermore, he had been refused a renewal of his research grant because his sponsors felt he wasn't sticking to the point.


Great advances do not come out of systems designed to produce great advances.


Complicated systems produce complicated responses (not solutions) to problems.