top of page

Five Maxims About Systems

In my years of conducting complex problem-solving workshops, I realize just as a fish swimming in water does not see the water, many of us working in systems don’t really see and grasp the essence of systems. As a result, we approach systems in a simplistic way characterized by linear thinking.

We end up confused by the system, or worse, we become frustrated by our inability to comprehend and manage the system. To illustrate how simplistic, linear thinking fails when it comes up against systems, here are five maxims about systems:

1. Dividing An Elephant In Half Does Not Produce Two Small Elephants

Systems are force multipliers; they produce results that are greater than the sum of their parts. For example, if you dissect a human cell, there is no way you can detect emotion or desire. Yet these are powerful drivers of human behaviours. Therefore, good analysis must go hand in hand with systems-level thinking, in order to appreciate the situation.

2. The Harder You Push, The Harder The System Pushes Back

In the 1960s, there was a large-scale project in the US to build low-income housing, yet the low-income group ended up worse off. Why? One reason was that as the poor (unemployed, uneducated) flocked to these housing projects, they overwhelmed the city, which struggled to provide employment at short notice. As a result, the unemployment rate rose, the houses fell into disrepair, and the crime rate increased. Unwittingly, the government had set up a vicious cycle.

3. The Cure Can Be Worse Than The Disease

In 1935, sugar cane farmers in Queensland, Australia imported toads from South America as a natural pesticide against the beetle eating their sugar cane. These ‘cane toads’ loved the Australian ecosystem - they had no natural enemy. The local predators had not evolved to cope with the cane toad’s poison. From a mere 105, there are now 200 million cane toads today. Unfortunately, they constitute the biggest threat to Australian wildlife.

4. The Easy Way Out Usually Leads Back In

We love quick fixes. Our modern culture celebrates the hero who puts out the fire, but rarely acknowledges the thinker who prevented fires in the first place. As such, we have a propensity to react to a situation. This causes us to focus on the symptoms, rather than the root cause. A customer service manager instituted a clever plan of rewarding corporate gifts for customers who walk in with complaints as a quick fix to appease them. Customers were happy, but over time, the team paid more and more attention to ordering and stocking gifts, and less attention to handling the actual complaints. The result? More customer complaints.

5. Cause And Effect Are Not Closely Related In Time And Space

Because we love quick fixes, we often look for causes in the immediate vicinity of the symptoms. For example, when a customer complains about After-Sales, it makes sense to arrange for Customer Service Training, doesn’t it? No attention is paid to whether the problem might have been caused by other departments, such as Sales team overpromising the customer. If we limit our spotlight only to the vicinity of the symptom, we may never find the real cause of the problem.

Written by Tan Hong Wee

- Author / Affiliate & Senior Consultant / Flame Centre - Future Skills Institute

“This workshop was a very good blend of theory and practice, where Hong Wee as a trainer/facilitator helped me gain a new learning experience and a better perspective with regards to solving a complex problem by applying the Systems Thinking approach. The depth of knowledge he demonstrated is immense and the comfortable atmosphere created made me feel worth travelling from so far and be part of this workshop. A learning experience I am without no doubt taking back home with me.” - Mr Alejandro Marin, PSA, Panama


If this topic is useful to you, let’s schedule a chat. Feel free to share this blog with others in your network. Thank you!


Other Blogs:

Information on Sense-Making And Problem Solving Workshop:


Recent Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page