Alphabet Letters


The whole system’s principle of “equifinality,” a term coined by the father of systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, holds that in open systems, those that have external interactions, a given end state can be reached by many potential means. To lock on to a single pathway, observation or solution can overlook a simpler or better way to reach a goal. The advice then, for managing complex human and social systems, is to reserve judgment and keep an open mind.

One of the implications of this principle is that each and every member of an individual human or social system has equal opportunity to affect the outcome of the whole—by paying attention to potential solutions and staying open to alternative pathways to reach a goal—noting that any change will affect the output or outcome. Change any element, person or function, however slightly, and the system will perform differently than it otherwise would. Stated positively, no matter how small, invisible or seemingly insignificant a person’s function, he exerts an influence on the system’s performance and outcome.

A rock group is an open system composed of interacting members. As such, it performs differently each time the performers take the stage. Things happen. One musician substitutes for another. A guitar is not properly tuned. The drummer is trying out new sticks. The lead singer is depressed. The amplifier was replaced and now the sound is different. Likewise, corporate cultures change when an employee begins to eat lunch at his desk, when a mother brings her toddler to work and when an executive begins wearing jeans. It’s the reason we can’t step into the same river twice. Every millisecond, the water molecules are different; stones move; leaves fall in; the wind and fish contribute to turbulence. The example I cited for my students has to do with film and television production considered as a social system. Change one word in a script, decide not to stop for lunch, swap out a microphone or a light—every decision alters the outcome. We see it in television series’, where success in the first season generates more money, more expensive talent and new writers who have their own ideas about what will succeed in the next season. Time and larger budgets brings changes and suddenly The Good Wife isn’t so “good” any more, Sherlock’s cases become more complicated and are anything but Elementary and Person Of Interest shifts the story emphasis from an interest in persons to cyber warfare.

Equifinality gives us a reason to appreciate that our everyday choices and decisions are already making a difference. My wife’s switching from merely “fresh” to “organic” head lettuce affected changes—in our bodies, in local retail and national farming systems, health systems and the economy. Slight, yes. But nonetheless real. Little things add up. Every time we make a purchase, turn on the radio or television or engage in social media, we contribute to the sustainability of the medium and cast a vote for more of the content. This is especially the case with internet interactions because producers, marketers and distributors garner profits by watching and tabulating our choices.

Knowing that my choices and decisions are constantly affecting change, brings me to the realization that I have the potential to affect positive change in all of the systems within which I operate. That’s an empowering thought. At the same time I want to be more aware of my choices and decisions. Is this the message I want to send? Do I really want to sustain this activity? Do I want to cast a vote for more of this product to be produced? Is this information, service or philosophy in alignment with my values? Does this situation lift me up or inspire me? Do I want to support a company that isn’t socially responsible?

As I write, it occurs to me that this sounds like a lot of self-regulating introspection. Editing this piece, I hesitated and observed that the individual letters I put together, the letters and words I’m choosing and the questions I just posed are affecting the whole system—this contemplation. Do I really want to recommend these kinds of self-regulating questions for myself and you the reader? Indeed I do, because I’m advocating that we dig deep into our authentic selves before making our choices. Making them with more awareness of the consequences, however small, seems to me to be better all around, and more responsible personally and socially.

I have to admit that there are times when I go against the voice of my authentic self, as when I consume more sugar than I know I should. Sometimes we just want what we want—and we accept the consequences. On balance, I find comfort in the act of making “a good faith effort.”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

About This Image

Title: Alphabet Letters

File #: DC2437

Location: Lawrenceburg, Indiana

Walking the grounds of an antique fair, I came upon these unusual looking magnetic letters sitting on top of an oil drum.

2 thoughts on “Equifinality

  1. Thanks, I have been ignorant of the concept “equifinality”. How is it related to the fanciful “butterfly effect” in chaos theory? It seems to me social systems appear nonlinear and often chaotic. Often one voice finally speaks out and breaks loose a torrent of voices. It may depend on just one word or a person of a specific background. It sometimes seems chaotic but if one were have the capacity to look at a very large quantity of factors: average person’s sensitivity and reactivity to certain stimuli and social feedback mechanisms and competition for coverage etc, etc. that is perhaps more predictable than random.


    • Thanks for your response, questions and insight, Paul. I’m thinking the “butterfly effect” provides a demonstration of equifinality in the sense that everything affects everything else, even the delicate and seeminging inconsequential flapping of butterfly wings that, nonetheless affects weather patterns. Just as natural (living) systems that appear to be complex at one level display order at deeper—and sometimes more expansive levels— as is seen in fractal geometries, the same is seen in human social systems, which are living systems writ large and more complex. As you note, just a word or one person singing their song or registering a complaint, affects the whole society. We may not recognize it in the chaos of everyday living—multiple voices and “songs”—but it changes the system, sometimes barely, other times dramatically. What’s unique to human social systems in terms of change that can be perceived, an individual’s “spark” doesn’t appear to matter (in terms of changing the system) until it’s joined with many other sparks. Enough of them and we have a flame. Just so, enough “water” applied to a socially undesirable flame can douse it. The perceptual challenge for the individual then, is seeing that—and how—choices make a difference. The lesson I think: we’re each responsible for the quality and functioning of the whole system, as well as ourselves. Both! And by the way, I think it’s the substance that resides in the individual spark that contributes most to building a flame, not its intensity (loudness). I’m thinking of Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Ghandi. Thanks for making the connection!



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