POSIWID – The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does

POSIWID, or “The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does,” posits that a system’s real purpose is evident through its outcomes, not its intended goals. This principle, applicable in various domains, emphasizes examining actual results to gain insights into system functionality and inform improvement strategies.

Core Principle

The underlying assertion of POSIWID is that a system’s true purpose is reflected in its consistent outcomes rather than its stated objectives or the intentions of its creators. This principle is applied across various fields, including organizational theory, software engineering, and social systems analysis.

Origins and Etymology

The concept was popularized by Stafford Beer, a leading figure in the field of cybernetics and systems theory, although the exact origin of the phrase is subject to debate. Cybernetics itself comes from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs), meaning “steersman” or “governor,” emphasizing the importance of steering or control in systems.


  • Organizational Analysis: In organizations, POSIWID is used to analyze discrepancies between stated goals (e.g., efficiency, customer satisfaction) and actual outcomes (e.g., profit maximization, market share). This analysis can reveal hidden agendas or systemic issues.
  • Technology and Software: In software systems, the principle is used to understand the real-world impact of a system as opposed to its intended design. This helps in identifying unintended consequences and redesigning for better outcomes.
  • Social Systems: It applies to social systems analysis by revealing the implicit functions of societal institutions, which may differ from their explicit purposes.

Key Concepts

  • System: A set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole.
  • Feedback Loops: Mechanisms through which systems self-regulate based on their output, crucial for understanding how systems maintain their purpose. Feedback loops are key to adaptation and evolution, illustrating how a system’s purpose can evolve over time.
  • Unintended Consequences: Outcomes that are not the ones foreseen or intended by a purposeful action, highlighting the complexity and interconnectedness of system components.
  • Complexity and Emergence: The emergent behaviors and outcomes of a system are the result of complex interactions among its parts, often unpredictable and not directly controllable.
  • Interconnectedness and Interdependency: Systems are interconnected with and dependent on other systems, affecting and being affected by the broader network of systems in which they operate.

Systemic Behavior vs Individual Intent

A system’s overall behavior can be independent of, and sometimes contrary to, the intentions of its creators or individual components. This highlights the importance of evaluating a system’s outcomes as a measure of its true purpose.

Adaptation and Evolution of Systems

Systems are dynamic entities that adapt and evolve based on feedback and environmental changes. Understanding this characteristic is crucial for recognizing how a system’s purpose and behavior may shift over time.

Feedback Mechanisms and Homeostasis

Feedback mechanisms play a central role in maintaining a system’s stability or homeostasis, enabling it to adjust and respond to internal and external changes. This self-regulation is a key aspect of a system’s ability to sustain its purpose.

Critical Reflection and Intervention

POSIWID implies the need for critical reflection on the actual function of systems and strategic interventions to align a system’s de facto purpose with desired outcomes, emphasizing the practical implications for designing, managing, and analyzing systems.

Distinctive Aspects

  • Focus on Outcomes: Emphasizes the importance of observing and analyzing actual outcomes over stated intentions or design specifications.
  • Systemic Perspective: Encourages a holistic view of systems, acknowledging that all parts are interconnected and that the system’s behavior emerges from these interactions.
  • Pragmatism: Advocates for practical understanding and intervention in systems, based on their actual behaviors and effects.