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Feedback loops

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Feedback loops

Scott Miker

In systems thinking we often explore feedback loops. These are phenomenon where the output of a system goes back into the input of the system. These are everywhere.

It could be a system where we start to pour our glass of milk and stop at precisely the right time. Most people never think about this as a process or a system but if we do we can see the feedback loop structure present.

In this case it is a balancing feedback loop. We take the output of the system, the level of milk, and monitor that until it hits the level we desire. At which point, we stop pouring.

Another simple example of a feedback loop is when we look into a mirror that faces another mirror. It seems to extend the room infinitely and we can see multiple reflections.

The output of one system, the reflection, then gets added to the input of another system creating another reflection of the reflection. But it doesn’t stop there. The reflection then keeps going and we see reflections of reflections of reflections.

We see this structure when we invest our money in a retirement account. The money goes into the account and earns more money. That earned money gets added back into the principle and then grows even more money than if that money was taken out of the account. This is a reinforcing feedback loop.

But that also entails a balancing feedback loop. At some point, usually when we retire, we start to withdrawal the money. We no longer continue to grow the money in the account, we start to pull enough money out so that we can live off of it. The account no longer grows at the same rate and many times will start to reduce.

The world is full of feedback loops. Even life follows this pattern. If we take some remote area we will likely see animals of all types, predators and pray.

There is a balancing feedback loop occurring. The predators eat the pray. But the systems are balanced so that if suddenly there is an influx of predators they will eat more of the pray. Then there will be less food for the predators and they will have a difficult time finding enough to eat.

Soon the predators will start to die out due to lack of food. As this happens, less of the pray is devoured. So the number of pray increases. Once it hits a certain point, the predators no longer have trouble finding pray and their numbers increase.

This is a naturally occurring system that maintains balance. What if we humans decide we dislike the predators and decide to kill them all off? Suddenly the balancing feedback loop gets out of whack.

The pray will grow and grow. In fact, we see this all the time with the deer population in Ohio. We have removed most of the predators so the population of deer starts to increase and increase.

Some communities created their own balancing feedback by opening up the dates that deer can be hunted so more are killed. While some say this is harsh it is simply a way to balance out a system that humans screwed up in the first place. This is only necessary because we tweaked the system.

Start to explore the feedback loops in your own life. You will surely see that they are everywhere. Every aspect of life is influenced by these patterned systems. Yet most of us blindly ignore them. As we do we often struggle with life or start to break apart naturally occurring systems in place of systems that we designed without any real thought about what we were doing.