When Metaphors Backfire – Ackoff’s 4 Types of Systems

As a learning aid, metaphors are extremely useful. They help us understand something that’s new and unfamiliar by using something that’s familiar and better understood as a model.

But metaphors can also backfire. When they over-simply the system they intend to describe, they can lead to the wrong conclusion as to what would be an effective intervention in improving the system’s behavior.

This is exactly the point the Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi made in their essay:

On the Mismatch Between Systems and Their Models

They first define what a system is:

  1. It’s defined by its function(s) in one or more containing systems
  2. It contains at least two essential parts that:
    1. Can affect (change) their own behavior / properties
    2. The way they affect the behavior /  properties of the whole depends on the behavior of other parts in the system
    3. They way groups of essential parts (subsystems) affect the behavior / properties of the whole  depends on the behavior of other subsystems

They then define four types of system based on whether the whole, and its parts can display choice and the purposeful behavior which derives from it:

  • Deterministic systems: neither the parts nor the whole can display choice. Example: a Clock – both parts and whole are completely mechanistic)
  • Ecological systems: the parts can display choice but the whole cannot. Example: Nature – some parts of it (the animate parts – like people) can display choice. We can affect our environment, but the way the environment reacts to our actions is determined (though not always fully understood).
  • Animate systems: the parts cannot display choice, but the whole can. Example: a Person – we can make choices, but our organs cannot – their behavior is determined in a similar way to the behavior of an engine in a car. They do not make choices.
  • Social systems: both the parts and the whole can display choice. Example: Organization – but the parts (people) and the whole (organization) make choices.

Metaphors backfire and lead to wrong conclusions when they use a model of one type of system to describe a different type of system.

A recent example that I covered in this blog is Holacracy. Holacracy often uses the “operating system” metaphor to describe the way it interacts/affects the organizations in which it is implemented. When this metaphor is taken too far, it models the organization (social system) as a computer (deterministic system). And this is when things start to fall apart / diverge from reality.


When Metaphors Backfire – Ackoff’s 4 Types of Systems

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