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Ripple Effects in Systems

Ripple Effects in Systems

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand a change of behavior or components in one point of a system will cause changes throughout the system as whole

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When there is change anywhere in a system, it causes change throughout the entire system. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about something called the ripple effect. So what is the ripple effect? Well if you ever had a stone and just thrown it in a pond of water, you know what happens when you do that. There is the ripple effect with the water.

Just that one stone causes all a change in the water, and that's the ripple effect. Or if you've ever had a mobile hanging over your head, and you tugged on it, you notice what happens. Every part of that mobile begins to move. Just that one little tug affected the entire mobile. That's also the ripple effect.

So the ripple effect is a term that describes what happens in a system when something changes with one of the components in that system. Now we know that a system is made up of components of separate individual parts that behave in certain ways, and their behavior causes certain events to happen that leads to an outcome.

Now because of interconnectivity, we have the ripple effect. Interconnectivity refers to the influence of these components on one another and how they affect the system because they are all connected. So when there is change to one of these components-- whatever it is in a system-- it can have this ripple effect, and that will happen if something is removed, if something is changed, or something is added.

And the effect of the system could be positive, and that would mean increased efficiencies. Or it might be negative, which is not so good. It would be a decrease in efficiency.

So let's just take a look at how that might happen within a system. You've got your car system. You get on the road You expect it to be dependable. You're trying to get from point A to point B, and you notice things are not going quite as well. And what the problem is, is that you've got low pressure in your tires. So there's been a change in the tire-- low pressure.

And so it's affecting the overall way your car drives. Your ability to get from point A to point B. It's affecting gas mileage. So if you change the tires and get new tires, of course that's going to improve. But it's a negative change when you are losing the air in your tires.

Now on the other hand you might decide to add a GPS system to your car, which could result in a positive change because now you get from point A to point B more quickly because you know where you're going. You use less gas. So that's just one quick example of how a change in a system could be either positive or negative.

So what about human groups? What about human groups? Well this is also true in a human group. It could be true in an organization or in a family. So within a family if you-- say you added something to the family system. A new baby. You have a new baby in this family.

Now in most cases, that is going to be a very positive change, bringing joy, happiness, and sense of completion to the family unit. The addition of this new child. On the other hand, somebody in the family get sick and maybe they're sick for a very long time. That's going to have a ripple effect throughout the system that could be negative and affect many family members. Just like the joy of a new child, a new birth will have a ripple effect out on the rest of the members of the family who've been waiting to have this new child.

So that's within a family. Within an organization, you may find the same thing happening. You have made a change. Let's say your management has made a change to the computer system that everybody depends on and you use to get your work done, and they're making a change by doing an upgrade.

This change here is going to have a positive effect on how this work group gets its work done because the new upgrades are going to allow you to do things more efficiently. It'll be easier. So that's a positive change.

On the other hand, you may have people being laid off, and there's extra work to do and everybody feels overloaded. They're having to work extra hours. They're doing twice the job. So that would be a negative change.

So those kinds of changes-- whether something is removed, changed, added-- has a ripple effect in human groups as well as any other system. Now even a minor change can be significant. So you may have a minor change happening over here, but it can have a significant impact on the entire system.

For example, you decide you're going to give up sugar. You're just not going to eat sugar anymore. Small change. But it has an overall impact on your health that maybe you didn't expect. Not only do you lose weight, but you've lowered your bad cholesterol. And when you went to your dentist your teeth looked better because you weren't eating sugar.

So that one little small change had a more significant impact on a variety of things in your body and your system-- your overall system. Now this is true also with conflict. You might have a minor conflict at work. Over here there are two people having a what we think is a matter conflict. It's just the two of them.

But this conflict here could have a ripple effect. We have person A talking to person B. They're in conflict. Each of them talk to their friends-- their allies about what's going on. Those people talk. We have the inevitable rumor mill.

And pretty soon the morale is just not very good. People are taking sides. This sort of ripple effect can happen from what might seem to be a minor conflict. Or a minor inefficiency. We think something is inefficient in the mail room in the way things are being processed. And yet, that inefficiency in the mail room, which seems like a small little detail here, is rippling out in the whole organization in terms of the way information is getting to people. Decisions needing to be made because of something that's happening over here in the mail room.

So those are some examples of how changes to just one aspect of a system will have this ripple effect throughout the entire system, making either positive changes or negative changes. So, thank you for joining me, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

The degree of relatedness or mutual influence between a system's components and their behavior.

Negative Change

Movement of a system's performance towards reduced efficiency or capacity.

Positive Change

Movement of a system's performance towards greater efficiency or capacity.


A set of components whose behaviors affect one another, causing a sequence of related events leading towards an outcome.