Meadows defines a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” (p. 11). Hence a system consists of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose. Elements are mostly visible tangible things, and are therefore the easiest to notice. You can divide elements into sub-elements and then in sub-sub-elements. Instead of intersecting elements, it is more interesting to look at the interconnections. The interconnections are the relationships that hold the elements together. If interconnections or purposes change, the systems behavior may alter drastically. Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals. Systems can be nested within systems. Therefore, there can be purposes within purposes. Sub-purposes can come into conflict with the overall purpose. Keeping sub-purposes and the overall system purposes aligned, is essential for a successful system (Meadows 2008).
BOX: Questions to ask in order to know whether you are looking at a system or just a bunch of stuff (reproduced from Meadows, D., 2008)
A) Can you identify parts?
B) Do the parts affect each other?
C) Do the parts together produce an effect that is different from the effect of each part on its own?
D) Does the effect, the behavior over time, persist in a variety of circumstances?