Systems thinking archetypes

Systems archetypes are recurring generic systems structures found in many kinds of organisations, under many circumstances, and at many levels and scales. They are distinctive combinations of reinforcing and balancing processes. These system archetypes teach how to diagnose recurring problems and to design effective interventions. Eight common archetypes are:

  • fixes that fail
  • shifting the burden
  • limits to success
  • drifting goals
  • growth and underinvestment
  • success to the successful
  • escalation
  • tragedy of the commons.

Five guides provide descriptions of these archetypes and work through them in detail. For the tragedy of the commons archetype, for example, this involves diagnosing the commons, identifying the incentives that need to be managed and relevant timeframes, and analysing issues that may interfere in successful action.

Systems archetypes can be applied as lenses, structural pattern templates, dynamic theories and tools for predicting behaviour.


  1. Kim, D. H. and Anderson V. (1998). System archetypes basics: From story to structure. Online:
  2. Kim, D. H. (1992). Systems archetypes I: Diagnosing systemic issues and designing interventions. Online:
  3. Kim, D. H. (1994). Systems archetypes II: Using systems archetypes to take effective action. Online:
  4. Kim, D. H. (2000). Systems archetypes III: Understanding patterns of behaviour and delay. Online:
  5. Kim, D. H. and Lannon, C. P. (1997). Applying systems archetypes. Online:

These guides can be found on The Systems Thinker website at:

Posted: March 2017
Last updated: March 2017