5.2.3 System Archetypes


Adapted from Senge, P. et al. 1994, the fifth discipline field book, p. 165-172


Archetypes are accessible tools with which credible and consistent hypotheses can be constructed. Kim and Lannon (Kim and Lannon 1997) rightly point out that they can be used in at least for different ways:

  • As “lenses”: it is not about which archetype is “right”, but rather about what unique insights each archetype offers.
  • As structural pattern templates: archetypes can help focus a group’s attention on the heart of an issue. After a group has drawn a causal loop diagram of the problem at hand, they can stand back and compare their diagram with the pattern of an archetype.
  • As dynamic scripts (or theories): each archetype offers prescriptions for effective action. Once we recognize a specific archetype at work, we can use the theory of that archetype to expel a particular problem and work toward an intervention.
  • As tools for predicting behavior: systems archetypes can help us identify predetermined outcomes of a particular situation.

To find out which archetype applies, a good strategy is to look at your situation through the lens of several different archetypes. Two or three may fit together, each highlighting a different aspect.

You can start by drawing just a simple balancing or reinforcing loop. Then add more elements, one link at a time. About each element ask what is causing changes in this element, and also what is the effect when this variable changes.

In what follows, three archetypes are presented. However many more archetypes are described in

  • Senge, P. et al. 1994, The fifth discipline field book, p. 125 – 150.
  • Meadows, D. 2008, Thinking in Systems. p. 110 – 141.     The “fixes that backfire” archetype

The central theme of this archetype is that almost any decision carries long-term and short-term consequences, and the two are often diametrically opposed. A problem symptom cries out for resolution. A solution is quickly implemented (the fix) which alleviates the symptom (balancing loop), but the unintended consequences of the fix (reinforcing loop) actually worsen the performance or condition which we are attempting to correct.

Example: child abuse is underreported to authorities. In the US they made reporting mandatory. However, child protection services were not reinforced, hence were overwhelmed by the number of reports, and could only investigate a small part of all reports. By consequence they got the reputation of being untrustworthy. In response, people decided not to report (although mandatory) and tried to find solutions themselves or did not do anything. Number of reports decreased again, hence the problem of underdetection was reinforced.


Figure X: System dynamics model for “Fixes that backfire” – example     The “Limits to growth” archetype

We never grow without limits. In every aspect of life, patterns of growth and limits come together. In this archetype the growth process is usually shown as a virtuous reinforcing loop. The limiting process is usually shown as a balancing loop, which reacts to imbalances imposed on it by the growth loop. The balancing loop is also driven to move toward its target – a limit or constraint on the whole system, difficult to see because it is so far removed from the growth process.

By pushing hard to overcome the constraints, we make the effects of those constraints even worse than they otherwise would be. Typically, there has been an acceleration of growth and performance, usually the result of hard work, but the growth mysteriously leveled off. A natural reaction is to increase efforts that worked so well before. However, the harder you push, the harder the system seems to push back. Some source of resistance prevents further improvements. Instead of the expected growth, performance remains in equilibrium or completely crashes.

The limiting force may be within the organization, within ourselves or it might be external (e.g. a saturated market).

Example: Quality improvements within an organization often start with the quick wins. This may lead to significant gains in the quality of services or processes. But as the easy changes (known as the low hanging fruit) are completed, the level of improvement plateaus. The next wave of improvements are more complex and tougher to make. The lack of organization-wide support may become a limiting factor.


Figure X: System dynamics model for “limits to growth” - example     The “Shifting the burden” archetype

A ‘shifting the burden’ situation (like a ‘fixes that backfire’ situation) usually begins with a problem symptom that prompts someone to solve it. The solution(s) relieve(s) the problem symptom quickly. However the solutions divert the attention away from the fundamental source of the problem.

The ‘shifting the burden’ model has two balancing loops, each representing a different type of fix for the problem symptom:

  • The upper loop is a symptomatic quick fix
  • The bottom loop represents measures which take longer (note the delay) and are often more difficult, but ultimately address the real problem.

In many ‘shifting the burden’ situations there are additional reinforcing loops. Like the “unintended consequences” loop in ‘fixes that backfire’, these loops represent unintended consequences that make the problem worse.

Example: Many cases of child abuse remain undetected (= problem symptom). An attempt to fix this underdetection could be to increase detection skills of general practitioners and pediatricians. However, if physicians detect more cases of child abuse, they often rely on child protection services for support, advice or to report the case. This means more work for the already overburdened protection services. They cannot manage the overwhelming demands of physicians and restrict uptake criteria or respond with ‘you are doing fine’. Physicians get discouraged and feel let down. As trying to handle cases of child abuse is very time and energy consuming, physicians go back to their former management of bruised children. A more fundamental solution would be to invest in the capacity of child protection services. This way physicians could get the support they need in the detection of child abuse and reported cases get the specialized care they need.


Figure X: System dynamics model for “shifting the burden” – example of the detection of child abuse     Links to other archetypes