System Archetypes

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System archetypes are the patterns of behaviour that we can find in complex systems. Patterns help us to get an idea of how a particular system works. Even though each system is different, and at first look it may seem unique, but it is possible to find some similarities - repetitive structures and principles of how systems work. System archetypes help to find and identify these similarities. If we know the principle how the system works, we can better understand it and explore its weaknesses.

System archetypes, that are part of systems thinking and System Dynamics, is used to detect patterns of behaviour of social systems (businesses, communities, states, economies, etc.). They can be used in two areas, namely as a tool to determines the current state - a diagnostic tool or as a tool to look at the future development of the system - a prospective tool. As a diagnostic tool helps managers to obtain the perspective of the internal structure of the system, its functioning and help them to get a better idea of the current system state. As a prospective tool it is mainly used for planning. Managers can formulate their future goals and with the knowledge of the functioning of their organization, they can better determine the procedure by which this goal can be reached [1].



The system consists of a set of elements and relationships between them. The individual elements and connections between them together form a larger value than the individual components alone. Each system can have inputs and outputs which form the interface between the system itself and its surroundings [2].


Archetype, also called prototype, represents a typical example, ideal type or perfect example. Archetype can also be a symbol or a recurrent motif occurring for example in literature [3].

Overview of System Archetypes

Family Tree [4] (If you don't see picture correctly click twice on it to reload)

There are 16 unique system archetypes in total. These 16 archetypes differ from each other and describe different kind of systems, but all have a common foundation. There are two basic archetypes, from which the remaining 14 archetypes is derived. Respectively, there are two archetypes, which can be combined to form the remaining 14 archetypes. Two basic archetypes are called Balancing Loop and Reinforcing Loop. Archetypes can be also divided into two groups the first is Fixing a Problem group and second one is Influencing Change group [5].

Fixing a Problem

  • Balancing Loop
  • Balancing Structure with Delay
  • Indecision
  • Drifting Goals
  • Escalation
  • Fixes That Fail
  • Shifting the Burden
  • Addiction

Influencing Change

  • Reinforcing Loop
  • Limits to Growth
  • Accidental Adversaries
  • Success to the Successful
  • Tragedy of the Commons
  • Attractiveness Principle
  • Growth and Underinvestment
  • Growth and Underinvestment with Drifting Standard

System Archetype Family Tree

To recognize the fact that the archetype is suitable for such a situation can be helpful the Family tree of system archetypes. Family tree is an ordered tree that based on simple questions is capable of directing the user to select the correct system archetype for concrete application.

Balancing Loop

Balancing Loop contains a negative feedback, which is helping the current state to be closer to the target state. Loop is stabilizing due to the negative feedback. When current state is deflected from the target state it helps to return to a desired state. The greater the difference between the target state and current state cause the faster convergence to final state.

Balancing Loop [5]

Example: An example might be filling of an empty glass of water. Initially, the glass is empty, and thus the difference between the actual water level (glass is empty) and the required water level (glass is full) is the maximum. Glass is filled with water and a difference of the current water level and the required water level continues to decrease. At the beginning the glass is filled quickly, and it is obvious that much water is missing, then the difference which lowers the intensity of the water flow. At the moment of achieving the required water level there is no longer any motivation to continue with glass filling. Desired state becomes state achieved –the process is terminated.

Balancing Loop with Delay

This loop is based on the previous one, except there is a delay, which plays a role in overall system responsiveness. The combination of the negative feedback and the delay in the system creates oscillations. The system is trying to achieve the target state, but because of delay, the system detects the information later. The system thus exceeds the target state.

Balancing Loop with Delay [5]

Example: An example might be a room heated by a heater equipped with a thermostat. The thermostat switches on the heating when the room temperature is lower than desired. Heating begins to heat up and the thermostat switches off the heating when the room is heated up to the desired temperature. Heating is switched off, but for some time after shutdown is still hot. The room air is heated to higher temperature than the desired one, and this principle is repeated over and over again. Room temperature oscillates around a desired temperature, and it is never stabilized on the desired temperature level.


Main character is an oscillation which is created by combining of two balancing loops with delays. One loop reaches the desired state, and the target state of the second loop moves and that in turn influences the first loop. Both loops never reach their goals together and constantly oscillate around their target states.

Indecision [5]

Example: Examples may be currency market. Currency prices on the stock exchange is determined by supply and demand. When the offer price is lower than the price that buyers are willing to pay, then the purchasers buy larger amount of the currency. The seller realizes that the price is lower than it might be, and thus they increase the price, it will discourage potential buyers and the price will again gradually decrease below what buyers are willing to pay. The whole process is continually repeated and price oscillates around an equilibrium market price.

Drifting Goals

It is relatively simple archetype, in which two balancing loops are connected, but in this case there are no delays. Loops stand in opposite of each other and the effort made by one loop cause impossibility to balance the second loop and vice versa.

Drifting Goals [5]

Example: An example might be a company that offers trips to the sea. The company decided to offer an additional service to its customers. Due to additional service costs of tours increase and the final price of trips will be higher than before. Next season customers begin to migrate to the competition, and the company decides to reconsider its initial plans and choose a compromise solution. The original goal has not been met and there has been erosion of targets.


This archetype is built on two or more interconnected loops. Increasing the target value in one loop tends to increase the second loop, and possibly other loops. The loops have a negative feedback. Due to the relatively higher value of one loop the other loops values grows. In the system as a whole, the target values continuously increasing in a cycle. Growth of the values can only be stopped by external constraints such as economic constraint, time constraint or space constraint.

Escalation [5]

Example: A typical example is the arms race. One country considers that it is threatened by another country. The first country raises its arms capacity and it forces the other country to also expand its weapons facilities. This again creates concerns among the first earth and once again raises his arms capacity, and the whole cycle repeats. Stop the escalation of the situation usually only lack of resources on one or both sides.

Fixes That Fail

Archetype is a combination of stabilizing and reinforcing loops. Stabilizing loop trying to reduce the gap between current and desired state. The difference between these states is solved in a way which does not eliminate the problems. This solution only delays the inevitable result and situation as a whole is even worse. The more often undesirable states are solved by an intervention which does not remove the problem, the faster the actual solution gets more difficult.

Fixes That Fail [5]

Example: A good example is the so-called debt trap. Situation where one loan is repaid by another. The first loan is repaid by another loan but under worse conditions, which making the whole situation worse. The situation is temporarily solved, but in the long term, the overall situation deteriorates and more loans always brings a deterioration of the situation and the only apparent solution of the problem.

Shifting the Burden

Archetype captures the situation when dealing with a problem is solved only by temporarily solution. This short-term also affects the fundamental solution. Attention is given only to short-term solution or a solution which solves only side effects.

Shifting the Burden [5]

Example: An example may be the treatment of serious illness. The patient's doctor prescribes for example medication which only relieve pain caused by serious illness. Patient for a short time period feels better, but subsequently his condition gets. Disease gets to an advanced stage and it is significantly more difficult to cure it than at the beginning.


It is based on the archetype Fixes That Fail and it appear where short-term solutions are applied. Short-term solutions gradually lose their effect.

Addiction [5]

Example: An example is drug addiction. Drug addict person after a long abstinence feels unwell and he trying to improve his condition by taking another dose of drugs. Condition temporarily improved, but on the other hand, the addiction is than stronger. Drug addict person needs another dose but this dose must be stronger to trigger a similar denial of the original problem of addiction.

Reinforcing Loop

Reinforcing Loop is the second of two basic archetypes. It serves as a building element, which appears in the other system archetypes. Reinforcing Loop describes a situation where there is a persistent increase or decrease. This loop always leads to a unidirectional development. It is basically the exact opposite of the Balancing Loop.

Reinforcing Loop [5]

Example: An example might be a savings account, which is initially deposited by an amount. The account offers a constant interest rate. After each crediting of interest, the originally deposit increases. In the next period the interest is calculated based on higher amount of money. This situation, however, abstracts from the inflation.

Limits to Growth

This archetype is a combination of two basic loops - Balancing Loop and Reinforcing Loop. Reinforcing Loop represents steady growth, which is limited by Balancing Loop. Because of Balancing Loop system cannot grow infinitely and always has its limitations.

Limits to Growth [5]

Example: A practical example might be global population growth. The population is bigger, it grows faster, but the faster it grows, the more resources it needs for its development. Demands on resources disproportionately increases in comparison with available resources on the planet. Growth is limited and cannot be infinite.

Accidental Adversaries

This archetype is composed of two Reinforcing Loops and around them is the Balancing Loop. Archetype describes the situation where two or more parties try to work, but also trying to increase their own benefit. Efforts to increase their own benefit leads to a reduction in the benefit of the other party and thus of cooperating parties become party rival.

Accidental Adversaries [5]

Example: A good example might be a company represented by its owners and top managers. Owners and managers have a common interest, which is the prosperity of the company. Even though they have a common interest, the interest of each party can be dispersed by other factors. Managers, for example, want to gain bonuses for their performance so they try to artificially inflate the growth and performance of the company. Owners may actually want to realize their short-term gains and thus can choose to pay disproportionately large dividends. This behaviour lead to the fact that the teammates become opponents and their behaviour does not lead to a single common goal.

Success to the Successful

This model consists of the two Reinforcing Loops which has mutually opposite tendency. One loop is growing and the other declining. The more one loop grows, the more the second loop decreases and vice versa.

Success to the Successful [5]

Example: A practical example is Self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine two people, a confident, successful, another vice versa lacking confidence and success. These two people are constantly reinforcing that there are those who they think they are, and the gulf between them constantly increase. First self-confidence person is going better and better which gives him the courage to push further, the second person on the contrary, confirms that he fails and his self-esteem drops.

Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons is a situation where two or more parties fighting for a common and limited resource. The fewer the resources left, the more they try to get the share.

Tragedy of the Commons [5]

Example: An example might be global fight between various states and corporations about limited oil resources - oilfields. The less new oilfields appear and the faster the current are depleted, the more resources and effort is devoted to extraction. Due to limited resources and shrinking the whole situation escalates further, the situation is tense and there is more conflict and these are more serious than before.

Attractiveness Principle

Archetype is derived from the Limits to Growth archetype. It is extended by the fact that it is listed more than one threshold. Whereby the limits may not be as big and does not have to limit the same parameter. The basis in this model are the Reinforcing Loops, which is identical with that appearing in the Limits to Growth archetype. Loop strengthens and accelerates time to grow. In the model, there are also Stabilizing Loops that will bring the current state of the coasts. Balancing act with a delay, thus it is possible to establish a short-term imbalance that is gradually stabilized.

Attractiveness Principle [5]

Growth and Underinvestment

Archetype based on the Limits to Growth archetype. The difference here is that the limiting factor or factors dynamically develops along with the development of the entire system. Limitations are therefore not constant, but varies in time. The model shows the system which not enough to invests to itself and create its own limitations in future growth. Archetype is comprised of three loops, two Balancing Loops and one Reinforcing Loop.

Growth and Underinvestment [5]

Example: An example from the life may be preparation of high school student for study at university. If the student does not pay sufficient attention to current high school studies, he can thus create restrictions of his future potential. For example, he will not be accepted to university which he wants to or will be dismissed because does not manage to keep pace with other students. Neglected the study of lower grade may bring future constraints in a higher degree.

Growth and Underinvestment with Drifting Standard

Archetype based on previous archetype, which is enriched with fourth loop. The fourth loop represents a certain standard, which change over time and reduces the need for future changes. Overall, this tendency leads to the overall growth of the system decreases.

Growth and Underinvestment with Drifting Standard [5]


Try to match each real example with correct system archetype. Quiz correct answers see below.

Real examples:

  1. Dam (with a constant water level)
  2. Arms race
  3. Word of mouth
  4. Humanitarian assistance (sending food)
  5. Burning rain forests for palm trees (palm oil)

System archetypes:

  1. Shifting the Burden
  2. Reinforcing Loop
  3. Balancing Loop
  4. Tragedy of Common
  5. Escalation

See Also


  1. Braun, William. The System Archetypes [online]. 27. 2. 2002 [seen 21. 1. 2016]. Available at
  2. Palán, Zdeněk. Systém [online].[seen 21. 1. 2016]. Available at
  3. Slovník cizích slov ABZ. Pojem archetyp [online]. 2016 [seen 22. 1. 2016]. Available at
  4. isee systems. Archetype Family Tree [online]. 2006 [seen 20. 1. 2016]. Available at
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 Sherrer, J. Alex. A Project Manager's Guide to Systems Thinking: Part 2 [online]. Project Smart. 24. 7. 2010 [seen 21. 1. 2016]. Available at

External Links

  • Insight Maker - A free dynamic modelling and simulation web application.

Quiz Correct Answers

There are correct answers from quiz hereinabove.

Correct Answers:

  1. c.
  2. e.
  3. b.
  4. a.
  5. d.

Xkrep33 (talk) 20:38, 24 January 2016 (CET)