Habit #12: A Systems Thinker Pays Attention to Accumulations and Their Rates of Change

Page 1 of 6: Exploring Accumulations

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What does it mean to pay attention to accumulations? The word “accumulation” is not typically used in everyday conversations. Let’s use the illustration to the right and the birdbath scenario below to help understand why accumulations are important to the understanding of systems.

What factors are affecting the changing water level in this birdbath? If we consider the water as the accumulation in this system, the water level is being affected by several factors including the inflow from the hose, the heat from the sun resulting in evaporation, the droplets splashing over the side of the birdbath, and the birds taking water away by drinking.

Elements in systems that change over time are called accumulations. Some accumulations, like water in the birdbath, are very concrete and easy to measure, while others are more abstract, like the woman's effort at keeping a comfortable water level for the birds in the birdbath. The very nature of the word accumulation suggests change. Accumulations are things that change. They are the nouns of systems.

Examples in other systems of concrete accumulations include the number of animals in a forest, the number of students in a school or the amount of gas in a car’s tank.

Examples of abstract accumulations in day-to-day systems include your changing level of fear while watching a horror movie or the amount of stress experienced at different times during a workday or fiscal quarter. These abstract accumulations may be hard to quantify numerically, but the rate and nature of the change can be observed or felt. This type of accumulation is often grounded in perception.