Before Gary Oldman was an arch villain all the time, he played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy - a roll where he had to lose so much weight that he was hospitalized. The complexities of life were too much for Sid Vicious, but the simplicities were not lost. The simple model of Sid and Nancy’s lives were not lost on Nancy’s mother, who refused to send her money because they would spend it on drugs.
That was a simple system.
A system that allowed the provision of a best practice.
No money meant they would not spend it on drugs.
The money part of the equation was simple. But Nancy’s mother’s relationship to Sid and Nancy themselves was not.
The Simple solution was immediately useful to Nancy’s mom. Not sending money is instantly successful because it’s only criteria is satisfiable by Nancy’s mother and the only solution is instantly provable. “They did not spend this money on drugs because I never sent them this money.”
If Nancy’s mother was interested in keeping them healthy, she could have sent them things other than money that were not spendable. Things like food, plane tickets to somewhere they could get clean, or new clothes could be sent in lieu of money. Yes, they could be sold, but that would be a little harder than just using the money. That is Sid and Nancy in the complicated domain. Sending food would be a good practice - but it would not be guaranteed of success in the way that a simple solution like not sending money would.
In order to get success, she would need proof beyond the obvious. She would need reporting. Since both Sid and John Lennon were living in New York at the time, she could have had John go and watch Sid and Nancy eat the food she sent instead of the money. John could then tell her something like, “They ate about half the food and spat the other half on the floor.”
Nancy’s mother could then alter her techniques to suit.
But, the system that Sid and Nancy were caught up in involved drug addiction, bad decisions, the music industry, hypocrisy, betrayal, tribal behavior, paranoia, and branding. So we have a very complex system now. Regulating the food intake would likely be better if Nancy’s mom were to get a manager for Sid that really cared about his well being. That might get Sid and Nancy to detox, make them some money, and decrease their paranoia. Who knows, maybe off heroin they might actually even make good decisions.
This, however, is a complex system and one that involves a lot more work to conceptualize, implement and measure success. Indeed, the success of that might also require people to buy Sid’s solo album - which they did - but not until after Sid was dead. So, keeping Sid from dying would also be something to add to the project plan. Since Sid had just finished an album that made the top 40 for albums in the UK and included many big names, his feelings of him against the world made staying alive challenging.
In the complex world there are not best practices or even good practices. There are emergent practices. These are harder to control. For a while, having John Lennon checking up on Sid might work pretty well. (At that point for about a year). But then you lose your Lennon to give you reports. They system then has to change. You cannot hire a new Lennon.
When we start to look into the tortured psyches of Sid and Nancy, we get into the chaotic domain. Nearly every day, we’ll have new processes to deal with paranoid, psychotic, or drug induced episodes. We’d be responding to the seemingly random events that Sid and Nancy would subject us to.
This is all based on the Cynefin model we discussed earlier.
Systems Thinking is Awesome Because It Does Not Tie Us to a Particular Model
Since I was a boy, I have been listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. I have listened to it on high-end audiophile vinyl and very expensive systems. I have listened to it on cassette tapes in the car. I have heard it on CD, on iTunes, on Rhapsody. I think that Pharaoh’s Dance is one of the most incredible tracks ever put down.
Every sound system I listen to it on reveals different elements of the work. Heightened attention to high end, low end, mid range, clarity, depth, warmth, brightness - every system reveals a different experience.
Every venue I listen to it in reveals different elements of the work. In a dark room, it surrounds and embraces the listener. At the office, it pulls work along making it part of the music. With others, having a conversation, it invites pauses in conversation and seems to insert its own wisdom.
In systems thinking, we have access to any model of looking at a system we wish. We can using mechanical, humanistic, collaborative, creative, Tayloristic, abstract, punitive, rewarding … whatever fits the situation.
Ideally we understand that whatever model we employ is simply that: a model. As a model it is going to illuminate some things and cast shadows on others. Being tied to no particular model allows us to see the illuminations in one, shift our gaze and then see it in others.
Each model, each system, changes how we experience the components of the system.
Systems Thinking is a Trap Because it Builds Nested Dependent Models
In the 1990s, I was working on a large, regional transportation project in Maricopa County, Arizona, I mentioned to the City of Phoenix that we needed to have coordinated signal timing along Indian School Road - a major thoroughfare in the valley. They laughed and said that could never happen because “Those %$#*s in Scottsdale intentionally time their signals to screw us up. Every time we retime to make the roadways flow, they change theirs just to ruin it!”
So I went to Scottsdale and said, “Hi, we need to have coordinated signal timing on Indian School Road. They laughed and said that could never happen because “Those %$#*s in Phoenix intentionally time their signals to screw us up. Every time we retime to make the roadways flow, they change theirs just to ruin it!”
The two cities had gone all Hatfield and McCoy, because they’d developed systems that pre-supposed that the other city was going to mess with their signal timing. In reality, both cities we simply optimizing their networks to internal and not regional traffic.
Their models were at odds. The fun part here is that no model was right, but both models had impacts both on the quality of the product (smooth transportation flow) and of the psychological well-being of the workers at both cities. Both were angry at the other city. Completely unnecessarily.
As we’ve discussed in this series, the trap of systems thinking doesn’t necessarily come from systems thinking but from us … the users. The people. The gray matter that is susceptible to so many biases, short deadlines, client demands, and life goals.
We’re not expecting the complicated to become complex or the simple to become chaotic. We would like to do our job - and job is often seen as finite. We do a thing and then move on to the next thing. So when the processes of a company or a team naturally migrate due to changes in context, they can easily shift from one domain to the next.
Much like in Simon’s Tank Hard Drive story, we build these models inside other models. We assume, more importantly, that the models in which our new models are nested, will remain stable. As we begin working with our models, those in other areas may interfere with them
Photo by Tonianne