Gerald M. Weinberg: Writer  -  Consultant

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An Introduction to General Systems Thinking

     Silver Anniversary Edition

     ISBN: 0-932633-49-8     304 pages   softcover

     Dorset House Publishing

     (translated into Japanese, , Chinese)

This effective approach to problem solving has been used for years with people in all walks of life. These guidelines include a novel collection of "laws" such as the eye-brain law, the strong connection law, and the used car law, plus such principles as the principle of invariance and the principle of indifference. Through these and other laws and principles, you'll see how to identify the problem, observe and interpret observation, and approach the solution to the problem.

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Editor's Comments (from the Neglected Books Page:

This is the most mind-opening book I have never read. Never read, that is, from beginning to end, as I have every other book I've featured so far.

I first came across this book while browsing through the stacks of the engineering library at my graduate school. Even though An Introduction to General Systems Thinking has plenty of equations, graphs, and diagrams, it stood in dramatic contrast to all the other volumes, wholly and humorlessly technical in content. In just the first few moments of thumbing through its pages, I could see that this was an attempt to step away from the entire range of scientific and technological endeavors and ask, "What's going on here?" As most of my waking hours at the time were devoted to such endeavors ‹ physics, orbital mechanics, statistics, and linear programming ‹ the book had the effect of someone opening up the window in an grim, airless cell. I couldn't escape the need to stick with the curriculum, but at least, with Weinberg's help, I could put it all in some kind of perspective.

When one gets deep into a particular scientific or engineering subject, the depth and breadth of details, theories, and methods can easily come to fill one's whole field of vision. The discipline becomes the way we approach a great range of problems. However, we also quickly learn to define away any of the problems that fall outside the means of the discipline to solve. "But what," ask Weinberg, "of the problems that refuse to be avoided? What of the depletion of our natural resources by an ever-increasing population in an ever-more-wasteful economy? Sˇ What of grisly wars and impoverished peace? What of death, and what of me, dying?"

"Such problems," he continues, "fall outside any discipline." An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, is, fundamentally, an attempt "to teach an approach to thinking when the labels are missing, or misleading." Weinberg takes the basic principles of General SystemsTheory, as introduced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and then developed by Kenneth Boulding and others, and shows how they can be applied, in various ways, Sˇ well, not exactly to solve such problems, but at least to recognize and understand them. He doesn't presume to have all the answers: "Sˇ[D]o not take this book too seriously," Weinberg warns his readers. "It is not a bible, nor a proof, nor even a cohesive argument. It is, indeed, my first few thoughts, a collection of hints, nudges, pushes, and sometimes shoves, which aim to assist your first few thoughts on any 'systems' problem."

In mapping out his territory, Weinberg early on divides (and, as he notes repeatedly in the book, any act of dividing things up has inherent dangers) the space of problems into three regions:

* "Organized simplicity" ‹ the region of mechanical laws

* "Unorganized complexity" ‹ the region of sufficient diversity or randomness for statistics to be reliable

* "Organized complexity" ‹ the region "too compex for analysis and too organized for statistics"

For problems that fall into this last space, he argues, "there is an essential failure of the two classical methods." Weinberg is not opposed to the use of scientific methods. "Science, too, is a most useful tool ‹ probably the most useful tool that man has ever discovered," he writes. But we are continually stymied in our attempts to tackle problems where the simplifying tools of mechanics or statistics don't seem to work. And, unfortunately, we have a tendency to persist in hammering away at the coalface with these tools even when they don't work.

Weinberg compares the situation to the story of the boy who said, "Today, we learned how to spell 'banana,' but we didn't know when to stop." Or, as he elevates the idea into the Banana Principle,

Heuristic devices don't tell you when to stop.

Take, as Weinberg does, the example of the two classic approaches to understanding a system: the black box and the white box. On the one hand, in the black box approach, we run the risk of not understanding the limitations of our tools for observing (e.g., the uncertainty principle in quantum physics) or of the act of observing on the black box (e.g., the Hawthorne effect in social sciences). On the other, with the white box approach, he writes, "because of our own limitations, no box is ever entirely revealed to us, even if we construct it ourselves."

Understanding the limitations of our tools is a recurring theme in An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. As in the excerpt above, Weinberg stresses that any scientific tool must have a simplifying effect to have any value. Awareness of a tool's limitations does not undermine its value, however ‹ or, as he proposes in the Count-to-Three Principle,

If you cannot think of three ways of abusing a tool, you do not understand how to use it.

Weinberg compares scientific methods to a handyman's box of tools. It's been highly effective at solving many problems in the first two regions. What lies in the third region might be "situations in which present scientific methods could work, but have not, either because they have never been tried or because they havebeen tried without proper imagination and understanding." But it's also possible that there are situations where we're unlikely to stumble across the breakthrough that pulls the problem into a space where our tools can solve them completely or effectively, at least anytime soon.

One of Weinberg's strongest messages in the book is the importance of recognizing when problems don't respond to known methods and approaches. Or, as he puts it, "[A]fter we have been fishing in a small pond for a while, most of the easy fish will have been caught ‹ and it may be time to change bait." Because we are human, we resist change. We stick with what's worked in the past even when it doesn't seem to be working. Only extreme frustration, disaster, or some other crisis, forces us to step back and rethink what we're doing. Weinberg calls this the Used Car Law:

1. A way of looking at the world that is not putting excessive stress on an observer need not be changed.

2. A way of looking at the world may be changed to reduce the stress on an observer.

"In other words," he writes, "why do we continue pumping gas into certain antique ways of looking at the world, why do we sometimes expend mammoth efforts to repair them, and why do we sometimes trade them in?"

Such questions are one of the great delights of An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. At the end of each chapter, Weinberg offers a set of "Questions for Further Research." Questions such as:

* Tagore said, "By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower." Many poets are similarly renowned for their celebration of wholeness and complexity. Choose a particular poet and several representative works to discuss in light of the Law of Medium Numbers ["For medium number systems {i.e., those that fall in the third region-Ed.}, we can expect that large fluctuations, irregularities, and discrepancy with any theory will occur more or less regularly."].

* The French Academy is reputed to have debated for 40 years over whether it was "le voiture" or "la voiture. How does an English speaker learn the sex of a feather? How does a French child learn the same thing? How does the French Academy know the sex of automobiles?

* Go out into a large open field ‹ if you can still find one ‹ lie on your back, and gaze up at the clouds for an hour or so. Make notes of the figures you see there, and later analyze those notes to see if you can detect the influences that have shaped your vision.

Like most of the questions in the book, these are open-ended. An Introduction to General Systems Thinking is that rare book where the questions outnumber the answers. Go to just about any page, and you will find some question that can lead you to hours or days of thinking. Which is one of the reasons I've never succeeded in reading it from start to finish. For me at least, doing that would require me to set aside some great eye-opening question in favor to pressing relentlessly on, which seems contrary to Weinberg's whole point. "All general systems thinking," he writes, starts with one of three questions:

1. Why do I see what I see?

2. Why do things stay the same?

3. Why do things change?

Of our grappling with these questions, Weinberg says,

[W]e can never hope to find the end; we do not intend to try. Our goal is to improve our thinking, not to solve the riddle of the Sphynx.

Which is also why I've found myself returning to An Introduction to General Systems Thinking again and again in the twenty-plus years since I first stumbled across it. I know no better spark to revive a mind that's stuck in dead-end thinking than to open this book, dive into one of Gerald Weinberg's wonderful open-ended questions, and rediscover how one looks at the world.

(CSQE Body of Knowledge areas: General, Knowledge, Conduct, and Ethics)

Reviewed by John D. Richards

As one can tell from the title, this is not a new book - it is a classic. The author worked on the original from 1961 to 1975. He begins the preface to this silver anniversary edition with a quote from Albert Einstein: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

This book is about thinking. It is about how humans organize, synthesize, and put order to their universe. Weinberg in his original preface described his role:

    My role, consequently, is to integrate a mass of material into an introductory form. I have tried to gather insights both from general systems theorists and from disciplinarians, to arrange them in a consistent and helpful order, and to translate them into a simpler and more general language so that they become common property (pg. xi).

The book consists of two prefaces, a section on how to use the book, seven chapters, an appendix (a brief mathematical and statistical glossary), end notes, an author index, and a subject index. All are well organized and integrated. Each chapter contains a section titled "Questions for Further Research" and a list of recommended reading. The questions in the first chapter cover 10 disciplines: economics, social psychology and sociology, mechanics, archaeology, thermodynamics (or "thermostatics"), operations research, poetry, neuroendocrinology, and utopian thought.

The Problem begins the reader's journey into systems thinking with a view as to how to define and scope the problems one is going to tackle in later chapters. During this discourse the author draws on examples in physics, biology, and mechanics, to name a few.

The Approach outlines the way people go about solving problems. Weinberg examines many of the "laws" as well as the history of science and systems thinking in a humorous manner. System and Illusion focuses on the development of systems and provides some warning associated with them.

Interpreting Observations examines the interpretation of observations when a superobserver makes such observations. Superobservers see and remember all about a situation; unfortunately, they do not exist. This is followed by an examination of observations as they are affected by the role and orientation of observers. Breaking Down Observations discusses ways in which the limited mental powers of observers influence the observations they make. In reality people do not make perfect or complete observations.

Describing Behavior discusses the use of simulations and their limitations. The author cautions that simulations are limited and may not contain all the information or functionally of things or systems they are intended to represent. Weinberg views chapter 7, Some Systems Questions, not as his last chapter but rather as the end of Part 1.

It is difficult to summarize the book's broad chapters in a few sentences and even more difficult to give this book the credit it deserves in such a limited review. Suffice it to say this is one of the classics of systems or science of computing. I recommend it to all; it will cause both scientists and nonscientists to examine their world and their thinking. This book will appear on my reading table at regular intervals, and one day I hope to update to the golden anniversary edition.

    John D. Richards ( is an account and project manager for SRA International in San Antonio, Texas. He has spent more than 30 years as a manager and leader. He is an ASQ certified quality engineer and auditor and a Senior member. He has a doctorate and an advanced master1s degree in education from the University of Southern California, and master1s and bachelor1s degrees in psychology. He serves as an adjunct professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, teaching courses in statistics, quantitative analysis, management, and psychology.


A true classic in how humans set and solve problems, (Source:

Reviewer: Charles Ashbacher from Hiawatha, Iowa United States(

In computing, a timeless classic is anything that is worth reading for any reason other than to obtain a historical context after five years. If that still holds true after twenty five years, then it is truly an extraordinary piece of work. That label applies to this book. It is not about computing per se, but about how humans think about things and how "facts" are relative to time, our personal experience and environmental context.

Human thinking is a complex operation and that is the point of this book. The problems and examples presented are not those in computing, but problems in how we think about the world and how that world can be different from person to person. In many ways, Weinberg anticipates the development of the science of chaos, where small changes lead to disproportionate large changes. His example of the "small" change of a single character is a classic. A man was considering the purchase of a piece of real estate, but when told the cost was fourteen million dollars, sent the response by telegram, "No, price too high." However, somehow a character was dropped, so the agent received the message, "No price too high", purchased the property and so a classic error was invented.

Weinberg uses science and mathematics as the genesis point for most of his examples. The laws of thermodynamics, chance and simulations in state spaces are used to demonstrate the points. As someone with a wide background in science, I found his examples of how scientific thought gives us an anchor but yet alters over time excellent learning material. Thought problems are included at the end of each chapter and they cover many different areas. Some involve mathematics, others science and many could be the point of a vigorous philosophical debate. Together they form the best collection of thought experiments and points of contention that I have ever seen gathered together in one location.

This is a book that is a true classic, not in computing but in the broad area of scholarship. It is partly about the philosophy and mechanisms of science; partly about designing things so they work but mostly it is about how humans view the world and create things that match that view. This book will still be worth reading for a long time to come and it is on my list of top ten computing books of the year.


Reviewer: A reader from San Jose, CA (on

If I had to select a book that has influenced my thinking most, it would be this one. This book alone spurred my interest in Systems Research, and is one that I have gone back to re-read many times.

Gerald Weinberg has taken the essence of General Systems Theory and formatted it for the masses. His insight into the methodology, and his ability to combine humor with explanation makes this a must-read in the field. While many of the examples are programming-based, that does not detract from the usefullness of this work.

The publisher needs to understand the importance of this work, and put it back into print!

[Ed. Note: Well, that publisher didn't, but Dorset House did, and now you have your wish.]


A primer of good and fearless thinking. (Source:

Reviewer: from San Diego, Ca.

This book is a quiet little masterpiece, where its author shares his observations of his world in a personal way. With the same light touch, he also delves into the thought structures behind these observations. This is practical scientific philosophy with a folksy, conversational, almost homespun, style that never gets lost in abstractions or strays far from living examples in everyday life. Its lack of academic bluster and techo-pomposity is refreshing and informal, yet the insights have a power that cannot help but affect your own thought processes. An example ( for me) is the classification of all systems into three types: Determinate, Medium-number, and Statistical. This notion has proven to be fantastically useful over the years. Several other observations took some nerve to put into print. The net effect of the book is, at its end, also inspirational. Here is someone showing all of us how we can deal with the big, bad world in a friendly, humourous, courageous, and empowered way.


I believe this is one of the most important books I've read. (Source:

Reviewer: David F Walter ( from Grosse Pointe, Michigan

I have re-read this book at least five times over the past 15 years. At each reading, it stimulates new thoughts and insights on diverse topics. It is a shame this book is out of print. It should be part of the general education curriculum for any college degree.

A reader asks:

>>Please help me understand how your four systems (thinking) books differ, namely:

1 -- An Introduction to General Systems Thinking

2 -- General Principles of Systems Design (with Dani)

3 -- Rethinking Systems Analysis & Design

4 -- QSM Volume 1: Systems Thinking

Of these, I own and have read only the QSM book, but am interested in reading the others. Perhaps your reply might also be useful on the books section of your website, where the short description blurbs of the four books did not suffice to answer the question for me. <<


Good question and good suggestion. Here's my best answer:

1 -- An Introduction to General Systems Thinking

2 -- General Principles of Systems Design (with Dani)

are two books, best read in sequence, that give the deep theoretical basis for General Systems Thinking, not specialized to any particular field of application. (It is "general" systems thinking, after all.)

3 -- Rethinking Systems Analysis & Design

contains applications of GST to systems analysis and design, plus some other stuff about SAD.

4 -- QSM Volume 1: Systems Thinking

applies General Systems Thinking to the field of software management. Neither 3 nor 4 cover the whole field of GST, but only applications of some parts of it to some particular fields.

Order any of these four books now from Dorset House Books!

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