Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University
Software Engineering Institute | Carnegie Mellon University

Patterns of Failure: System Archetypes

Ten systems archetypes describe common patterns of behavior across all organizations. The SEI has undertaken an exploration of these archetypes as part of a continuing effort to identify and resolve patterns of failure in acquisition.

The systems archetypes are a set of general, recurring, systems-thinking patterns. These patterns have been found to have broad applicability across many different kinds of systems, including acquisition processes, as their descriptions reveal:

  • Fixes that Fail—A quick fix that produces immediate positive results, but its unforeseen long-term consequences worsen the problem.
  • Balancing Loop With Delay—The current state of a system is moved toward the desired state though repeated actions, but the delay raises doubts about their effectiveness.
  • Shifting the Burden ("Addiction")—An expedient solution temporarily solves a problem, but its repeated use makes it harder to employ a more fundamental solution.
  • Accidental Adversaries—Two parties destroy their relationship through escalating retaliations for perceived injuries.
  • Escalation—Two parties compete for superiority, with each escalating its actions to get ahead.
  • Drifting Goals—A gradual decline in performance or quality goals goes unnoticed, threatening the long-term future of the system.
  • Growth and Underinvestment—Investments in a growing area aren't made, so growth stalls, which then rationalizes further underinvestment.
  • Success to the Successful—When two parties compete for a limited resource, the initially more successful party receives more resources, increasing its success.
  • Limits to Growth—Initially rapid growth slows because of an inherent capacity limit in the system that worsens with growth.
  • Tragedy of the Commons—A shared resource is depleted as each party abuses it for individual gain, ultimately hurting all who share it.