System Archetypes: Stories that Repeat

System Archetypes: Stories that Repeat

Source: Archetypes

Archetypes in stories express patterns.

While plots may be “archetypal” when they exhibit certain forms, in this post we are concerned with character archetypes.

In modern storytelling, to consider them as archetypes might suggest a bit of a corset, perhaps even a straightjacket for the characters. For today’s author, to present a character as an archetype does not seem conducive to achieving psychological verisimilitude.

But an archetype is not the same as a stereotype. An advisor or mentor does not need to be a wise old man like Obi-Wan Kenobi. And an antagonist does not need to be a baddy.

Consider archetypes as powers within a story. Like planets in a solar system, they have gravity and they therefore exert force as they move.

Archetypes denote certain general roles or functions for characters within the system of the story. There is ample room for variation within each role or function. Boundaries between one archetype and another may be fuzzy. And it is possible for one character to stand for more than one archetype.

Archetypes Through The Ages

Certain archetypes are ancient and have been around as long as stories have been told. Others may have a Christian background. Some are modern interpretations of ancient archetypes seen in the light of dramaturgical principles.

We may distinguish between three sorts of archetypes.

  • Ancient – archetypes that we find in the very oldest stories, and in very modern ones
  • Classical – archetypes that we find in works of literature of the past two thousand years
  • Role-based – modern variants that consider the dramaturgical function of characters

This categorisation has overlaps. The ancient, original archetypes, such as the Mentor, are of course also classical. And certain role-based archetypes, such as the Protagonist, may correspond to ancient ones, such as the Prince.

The Protagonist is sometimes called the Hero, a word which in terms of ancient archetypes might refer to a number of archetypes, for instance Warrior (Achilles) or Trickster (Odysseus). In the modern sense of role-based archetypes, this is the person (or rabbit, or robot, or whatever) the story is primarily about, the one whose travails the recipient, the audience or reader, follows through to the end of the story.

The Protagonist’s opposing power is the antagonism, which may be personified in an individual Antagonist. It helps to remember that in terms of function within the story, an antagonist does not necessarily have to be a villain, but is a counterforce to the protagonist (for an ancient example, consider Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad).

The antagonistic force is sometimes referred to as the “Shadow”. This can be misleading, since really almost every archetype has its own shadow side. A Patriarch may be presented as benevolent or “light”, or as tyrannical and “dark”. Indeed, in one story the character (or characters) representing such an archetype might show signs of both.

Characters Wearing Hats

Several of the roles or functions that you find in all sorts of stories – such as the Mentor, the Ally, the Patriarch – do not always have to be riveted to one specific character. For instance, it is quite possible that one character may have the Mentor hat on at one point in the story, and the Ally hat at another.

The point is that such forces or functions tend to be present in stories, and characters express these forces through their role or function within the story at each point in the narrative.

There is even an archetype for a character that explicitly changes roles in the story, where it becomes part of that character’s function to jump role at one or more points along the story. That is a Shapechanger.

Some archetypes are gender specific. The Patriarch/Father/King stands for different values from the Matriarch/Mother/Queen. For other archetypes, whether the character is male or female is not the point. A Shapechanger or a Trickster is defined by what the character does in the story.

So archetypes are really little more than signposts. Assigning a character an archetype is not to pressure that character into behaving in a certain way. Calling a character an archetype is merely to give us a pointer to that character’s role and function in the story. Characters that can be labelled as several archetypes tend to be multi-facetted. Hamlet, for instance, fulfils the criteria for several archetypes. So thinking about characters in terms of which archetypal roles they may play is actually a way of making the characters richer, giving them more depth, making them appear psychologically real and ultimately human.

System archetypes are the pattern which are recurrent.

Key Terms

  • Systems
  • System Archetypes
  • Feedback
  • Causal Loops
  • Delays
  • Leveraged Networks
  • The Systems Thinker
  • Daniel H Kim
  • Peter Senge
  • Barry Richmond
  • STELLA
  • VENSIM
  • ITHINK
  • Ventana Systems
  • Isee Systems

WHAT IS A SYSTEMS ARCHETYPE?

Source: Systems Archetype Basics : From Story to Structure

Without having to climb beanstalks or push anyone into an oven, children learn lessons from fairy tales about how to hide from powerful, cruel beings, build solid dwellings, and be respectful of old people. Literary themes also show us the hero’s journey, the trials of hard work, the outcomes of faithful love and misguided passion, and the ennui of a materialistic life. In these examples from literature, the term archetype signifies a recurring, generic character, symbol, or storyline. In systems thinking, the term has a very similar meaning. It refers to recurring, generic systemic structures that are found in many kinds of organizations, under many circumstances, and at different levels or scales, from internal personal dynamics to global international relations.

Captured in the stories, structures, and behavior over time of the archetypes are similar teachings about competition, addiction, the perils of quick fixes, and the high flyer’s downfall. And as we do with stories and fairy tales, we can use the archetypes to explore generic problems and hone our awareness of the organizational dramas unfolding around us. We can even use archetypes to sharpen our ability to anticipate difficulties, communicate about them with our colleagues, and find ways to address them together.

The systems archetypes, as a group, make up one of the 10 current categories of systems thinking tools. (See Appendix B for a complete list of these tools.) Each archetype features a storyline with a distinctive theme, a particular pattern of behavior over time that can be graphed, and a unique systemic structure that can be depicted in a causal loop diagram. The value of archetypes is that we can study them apart from a specific story, problem, or organizational situation and take away generic, transferable learnings that we can then apply to many situations in our own lives.

WHERE DID ARCHETYPES COME FROM?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jay Forrester, Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, and other pioneers of systems thinking observed several recurring systemic structures. In the 1980s, Michael Goodman, Charles Kiefer, Jenny Kemeny, and Peter Senge built on that work, in part with the help of notes developed by John Sterman, by describing, diagramming, and cataloguing these generic systemic structures as systems templates. When Peter Senge authored The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, he referred to those structures as systems archetypes. Since then, the notion of systems archetypes has become quite popularized, and systems thinking practitioners have continued to teach, apply, and write about these recurring generic structures as well as investigate and test the potential of identifying new ones.

List of Key System Archetypes

  • Drifting Goals
  • Escalation
  • Fixes that Fail
  • Growth and Underinvestment
  • Limits to Success
  • Shifting the Burden/Addiction
  • Success to the Successful
  • Tragedy of the Commons

Source: Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide

Source: SYSTEMS ARCHETYPES I

Source: Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide

Source: SYSTEMS ARCHETYPES I

System Archetypes and Their Storylines

Source: SYSTEMS ARCHETYPES AND THEIR APPLICATION

Archetypes and their Applications

Source: SYSTEMS ARCHETYPES AND THEIR APPLICATION

Source: Systems Archetype Basics : From Story to Structure

Source: Systems Archetype Basics : From Story to Structure

Source: Systems Archetype Basics : From Story to Structure

Source: Systems Archetype Basics : From Story to Structure

Growth Archetypes

Source: A theory of spatial system archetypes

➤ A Glossary of Systems Thinking Tools

Source: Systems Archetype Basics : From Story to Structure

Systems thinking can serve as a language for communicating about complexity and interdependencies. To be fully conversant in any language, you must gain some mastery of the vocabulary, especially the phrases and idioms unique to that language. This glossary lists many terms that may come in handy when you’re faced with a systems problem.

Accumulator 

Anything that builds up or dwindles; for example, water in a bathtub, savings in a bank account, inventory in a warehouse. In modeling software, a stock is often used as a generic symbol for accumulators. Also known as Stock or Level.

Balancing Process/Loop 

Combined with reinforcing loops, balancing processes form the building blocks of dynamic systems. Balancing processes seek equilibrium: They try to bring things to a desired state and keep them there. They also limit and constrain change generated by reinforcing processes. A balancing loop in a causal loop diagram depicts a balancing process.

Balancing Process with Delay 

A commonly occurring structure. When a bal- ancing process has a long delay, the usual response is to overcorrect. Over- correction leads to wild swings in behavior. Example: real estate cycles.

Behavior Over Time (BOT) Graph 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. BOT graphs capture the history or trend of one or more variables over time. By sketching several variables on one graph, you can gain an explicit understanding of how they interact over time. Also called Reference Mode.

Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. Causal loop diagrams capture how variables in a system are interrelated. A CLD takes the form of a closed loop that depicts cause-and-effect linkages.

Drifting Goals 

A systems archetype. In a “Drifting Goals” scenario, a gradual downward slide in performance goals goes unnoticed, threatening the long- term future of the system or organization. Example: lengthening delivery delays.

Escalation 

A systems archetype. In the “Escalation” archetype, two parties compete for superiority in an arena. As one party’s actions put it ahead, the other party “retaliates” by increasing its actions. The result is a continual ratcheting up of activity on both sides. Examples: price battles, the Cold War.

Feedback 

The return of information about the status of a process. Example: annual performance reviews return information to an employee about the quality of his or her work.

Fixes That Fail 

A systems archetype. In a “Fixes That Fail” situation, a fix is applied to a problem and has immediate positive results. However, the fix also has unforeseen long-term consequences that eventually worsen the problem. Also known as “Fixes That Backfire.”

Flow 

The amount of change something undergoes during a particular unit of time. Example: the amount of water that flows out of a bathtub each minute, or the amount of interest earned in a savings account each month. Also called a Rate.

Generic Structures 

Structures that can be generalized across many different settings because the underlying relationships are fundamentally the same. Systems archetypes are a class of generic structures.

Graphical Function Diagram (GFD) 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. GFDs show how one variable, such as delivery delays, interacts with another, such as sales, by plotting the relationship between the two over the entire range of relevant values. The resulting diagram is a concise hypothesis of how the two variables interrelate. Also called Table Function.

Growth and Underinvestment 

A systems archetype. In this situation, resource investments in a growing area are not made, owing to short-term pressures. As growth begins to stall because of lack of resources, there is less incentive for adding capacity, and growth slows even further.

Learning Laboratory 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. A learning lab- oratory embeds a management flight simulator in a learning environment. Groups of managers use a combination of systems thinking tools to explore the dynamics of a particular system and inquire into their own understand- ing of that system. Learning labs serve as a manager’s practice field.

Level 

See Accumulator.

Leverage Point 

An area where small change can yield large improvements in a system.

Limits to Success 

A systems archetype. In a “Limits to Success” scenario, a company or product line grows rapidly at first, but eventually begins to slow or even decline. The reason is that the system has hit some limit— capacity constraints, resource limits, market saturation, etc.—that is inhibiting further growth. Also called “Limits to Growth.”

Management Flight Simulator (MFS) 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. Similar to a pilot’s flight simulator, an MFS allows managers to test the outcome of different policies and decisions without “crashing and burning” real companies. An MFS is based on a system dynamics computer model that has been changed into an interactive decision-making simulator through the use of a user interface.

Policy Structure Diagram 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. Policy structure diagrams are used to create a conceptual “map” of the decision- making process that is embedded in an organization. It highlights the fac- tors that are weighed at each decision point.

Rate 

See Flow.

Reference Mode 

See Behavior Over Time Graph.

Reinforcing Process/Loop 

Along with balancing loops, reinforcing loops form the building blocks of dynamic systems. Reinforcing processes com- pound change in one direction with even more change in that same direc- tion. As such, they generate both growth and collapse. A reinforcing loop in a causal loop diagram depicts a reinforcing process. Also known as vicious cycles or virtuous cycles.

Shifting the Burden 

A systems archetype. In a “Shifting the Burden” situa- tion, a short-term solution is tried that successfully solves an ongoing prob- lem. As the solution is used over and over again, it takes attention away from more fundamental, enduring solutions. Over time, the ability to apply a fundamental solution may decrease, resulting in more and more reliance on the symptomatic solution. Examples: drug and alcohol dependency.

Shifting the Burden to the Intervener 

A special case of the “Shifting the Burden” systems archetype that occurs when an intervener is brought in to help solve an ongoing problem. Over time, as the intervener successfully handles the problem, the people within the system become less capable of solving the problem themselves. They become even more dependent on the intervener. Example: ongoing use of outside consultants.

Simulation Model 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. A computer model that lets you map the relationships that are important to a problem or an issue and then simulate the interaction of those variables over time.

Stock 

See Accumulator.

Structural Diagram 

Draws out the accumulators and flows in a system, giving an overview of the major structural elements that produce the system’s behavior. Also called flow diagram or accumulator/flow diagram.

Structure-Behavior Pair 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. A structure- behavior pair consists of a structural representation of a business issue, using accumulators and flows, and the corresponding behavior over time (BOT) graph for the issue being studied.

Structure 

The manner in which a system’s elements are organized or interre- lated. The structure of an organization, for example, could include not only the organizational chart but also incentive systems, information flows, and interpersonal interactions.

Success to the Successful 

A systems archetype. In a “Success to the Success- ful” situation, two activities compete for a common but limited resource. The activity that is initially more successful is consistently given more resources, allowing it to succeed even more. At the same time, the activity that is initially less successful becomes starved for resources and eventually dies out. Example: the QWERTY layout of typewriter keyboards.

System Dynamics 

A field of study that includes a methodology for constructing computer simulation models to achieve better understanding of social and corporate systems. It draws on organizational studies, behavioral decision theory, and engineering to provide a theoretical and empirical base for structuring the relationships in complex systems.

System 

A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements form- ing a complex whole. Almost always defined with respect to a specific pur- pose within a larger system. Example: An R&D department is a system that has a purpose in the context of the larger organization.

Systems Archetypes 

One of the 10 tools of systems thinking. Systems archetypes are the “classic stories” in systems thinking—common patterns and structures that occur repeatedly in different settings.

Systems Thinking 

A school of thought that focuses on recognizing the inter- connections between the parts of a system and synthesizing them into a unified view of the whole.

Table Function 

See Graphical Function Diagram.

Template 

A tool used to identify systems archetypes. To use a template, you fill in the blank variables in causal loop diagrams.

Tragedy of the Commons 

A systems archetype. In a “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario, a shared resource becomes overburdened as each person in the system uses more and more of the resource for individual gain. Eventually, the resource dwindles or is wiped out, resulting in lower gains for everyone involved. Example: the Greenhouse Effect.

The above glossary is a compilation of definitions from many sources, including:

  • Innovation Associates’ and GKA’s Introduction to Systems Thinking coursebooks
  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge
  • High Performance Systems’ Academic User’s Guide to STELLA
  • The American Heritage Dictionary and The Random House Dictionary.

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Source: THE “THINKING” IN SYSTEMS THINKING: HOW CAN WE MAKE IT EASIER TO MASTER?

Source: Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide

Source: Systems Thinking Tools: A User’s Reference Guide

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Source: SYSTEMS ARCHETYPES I

The Systems Thinker

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The Language of Links and Loops

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Archetypes

Author: Mayank Chaturvedi

You can contact me using this email mchatur at the rate of AOL.COM. My professional profile is on Linkedin.com.

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