Principles for detecting and responding to system overload

On now to recognize the somewhat universal responses to system and relationship overload, as strains resulting in loss of resilience and a risk of sudden disruption; replying to Helene on Systems Thinking World on her “UN Call for Revolutionary Thinking” thread.

The most general pattern is resilient relationships becoming rigid, like the surface of a balloon does *before* it can be easily pricked by a pin, or as people become rigid before losing patience.  I think that comes directly from resilient systems generally being organized as networks of things that share their resources, and when all the parts run out of spare capacities to share at once the system can’t be flexible, and is then vulnerable to sudden failure.


@Helene – Thanks for the reminder. Here are some principles for detecting and responding to the inflection point. Mathematically it’s “passing it’s point of diminishing returns”, when increasing benefit of expansion starts to decrease. Long successful habits of expanding a system become a liability, and strain their internal parts and environments.

It means about the same thing for a whole economy as for a little girl outgrowing her only party dress. Ignoring strain on one’s limits brings an unexpected end to the parties. The problem for systems operated by abstract rules of thinking, is that responding to change isn’t in the rules. So there’s a need to revive common metaphors for responding to the unknown, like for “overdoing it” or “crossing the line”, as strategic signs of externalities needing close examination.

Overload is a surprisingly common feeling, with visible effects

The most common signs of “overdoing it”, and needing new strategy, are formerly stable and flexible sub-systems

becoming “unresponsive”,
developing “the shakes” or “become rigid”

When we sense someone in our personal lives starting to hesitate in responding to us, it’s a sign something’s wrong. It really pays to quickly respond to find out what the disturbance is. It could be a hundred things, some incidental others real threats or real gifts of insight . All parts of all systems have limits of responsiveness, and pushing them too far is generally visible as changes in the timing of things. You can be asking an old friend for too many favors. You might be pushing your luck trusting an enemy in making secret deals to keep the peace. What alerts you to it in personal matters is your “whole system awareness”. It sets off alarms for “warning patterns”, often hesitations, that turn up. The same applies to other kinds of complex systems of relationships.

So you become sensitive to looking for the hidden sub-systems causing it. They are what lead to the instability of the whole if not responded to. Like when going too fast the steering of your car becomes erratic. It’s the steering sub-system becoming unresponsive that does it. It’s small steering errors that self-amplify to produce “fish tailing” too. It’s also sub-systems becoming unresponsive when inflating a balloon, pushes it to and then past its limit of elasticity. Then the fabric of the balloon fails, bursting destructively at some totally unpredictable point. For formerly stable and flexible sub-systems to develop either “the shakes” or “become rigid”, is probably the two most common sign of “overdoing it” and a need for new strategy.

From an economic viewpoint the accelerator of the system is self-investment, using profits to multiply resource use. It relieves internal and external strains to switch from investing in your own expansion (and consuming your host) to investing in your own maturation (and integrating with its host as a partner). It’s generally *the earliest possible time* to anticipate the waves of “emerging externalities” in “overdoing it” that lets growth climax at the system’s peak of vitality. So its recognizing the approach of relentlessly swelling environmental issues that is the signal to watch for, as many people increasingly did starting at the turn of the 19th century.

Today we’re recognizing the systemic eruption of complications, conflicts, as well as constraints… undermining both current and future investments as well as all past investments. Just as to keep the business profitable as it saturates its markets, it calls for a total change in investment strategy, to using the resources for development to secure our future instead of for counterproductive efforts to grow. It ends their immature growth to begin maturing toward the ‘adult’ stage of development at the beginning of their lives.

I have a collection of related short discussions on natural system models for economics on my blog at: or last year’s most popular ones

Search my site for:

blind spots, overload, confusion, back fire, functional fixity, complication



Also from recent emails.

9/1/12 to Jim Kunstler –  a curious asymmetry in defining problems & solutions – One of the things I’ve found most curious about the staggering intellectual failures is a curious asymmetry. Their problem analysis is often brilliant, demonstrating rigorous attention to detail, but their solution proposals are to quickly throw some kind of “Hail Mary pass”.    For example they all see we’re running out of stuff and that there are tipping points being approached.   Then they leap at the urban myth that efficiency would reduce consumption and impacts, even though there’s almost no other claim easier to disprove given the clear ratio of 2.5:1 between the “backfire” and “conservation” effects of economic efficiency worldwide. see Inside efficiency

So, if you see great problem analysis and hopeless solutions, is a sign of intellectual overload, of being in a circumstance “over your head”.  Think of all the times you’ve felt out of your element, and the strange gut feeling that causes, and use that to help you recognize when you yourself or others are bluffing instead of admitting a new approach entirely.    I’ve also discussed that in relation to the 3/1/2012 40th Anniversary meeting on the Limits to Growth. Approaching 30 days from the 40th Anniversary

12/24/2010 blog post Complexity too great to follow what’s happening… ??

11/29/11 blog post The trap at the end of “Low Hanging Fruit”

6/29/12 blog post Emotionally proof reading your logical models…

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