General Systemantics: Everything is a System

There are a lot of books on systems thinking.

A lot of them are either out of print or priced for universities. A select few are considered seminal. Of those, one entry stands out for its unique approach and perspective.

Its author, as far as publishers were concerned, had no business delving into the topic.

He proved them wrong.

Pediatrician John Gall self-published his deep dive into systems theory in 1975 after racking up dozens of rejection letters from publishers.

In General Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail, Gall takes a uniquely humorous approach that earned the work cult status among systems engineers.

Later expanded and renamed The Systems Bible, Gall’s book grabbed the attention of several academic journals. Soon after, Quadrangle, a New York Times company, bought the rights and published it in 1977. A condensed version also appeared in the Times.

When Gall was writing General Systemantics, discussions about systems were mainly among engineers, biologists, and management theorists.

Systems thinkers like Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Ross Ashby laid the groundwork for systems thinking, applying it to a broad range of systems across technology, nature, and society.

As a pediatrician, Gall saw recurrent patterns of failure and dysfunction in systems of healthcare, government, and technology.

With his interest in systems theory, he sought to understand why seemingly well-oiled machines produced unintended consequences so reliably.

In the intro, he writes: “No one, these days, can avoid contact with Systems. Systems are everywhere: big Systems, little Systems, Systems mechanical and electronic, and those special Systems that consist of organized associations of people.”

He continues, “In self-defense, we must learn to live with Systems, to control them les they control us.”

What’s become known as Gall’s Law states: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked.”

Moreover, according to Gall, a “complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

According to Gall, everything is a system, and every system is part of a larger system. The universe is infinitely systematized, with larger systems upstream and smaller systems downward.

And every system is infinitely complex.

From traditional book critics, Systemantics got mixed reviews, but its reverence in the systems community endures.

The second edition, Systemantics: The Underground Text of Systems Lore, almost doubled the size of its predecessor.

When the book was reprinted for the third time in 2002 as The Systems Bible, it was introduced to an even wider audience.

By broadening the appeal, Gall sought to create a reference point for anyone looking for an accessible foundational text on the subject.

Gall, who died in 2014, also published several books on parenting and a historical novel on the first queen of Egypt.