A few weeks ago, I awoke to a string of tweets by people on the other side of the world discussing what I would say about Systems Thinking’s limitations. Systems thinking is a major tool in my toolkit when working with teams and organizations. If you are using Personal Kanban or other visualization tools, you should be using it as well.
Systems thinking, like all tools, involves the tool itself (an amoral object) and human nature (a moral object). Human nature can, from time to time, lead us down some unsavory paths. Now, as with most tools, the tool isn’t necessarily to blame. However, the tool and human nature combine to create predictable patterns of dysfunction.
So, today I am writing about how something I use nearly every day and love. I am writing about how it can be misapplied by even the most skillful practitioners.
Systems thinking encourages that one look at an entire system and appreciate the impacts on that systems on its parts. To illustrate in a simple way, let’s say that Raymond works for MalCo. All his coworkers hate him. “Raymond is a jerk, a buzz-kill, a mean man.” But when he goes home, Raymond’s kids love him. He’s not a mean man. At work, Raymond’s job is to make sure that expense forms are filled out properly. It’s a thankless job. But the job is not Raymond and Raymond is not his job. The system has given Raymond unpopular tasks and he is fulfilling them.
We then tease out elements of that system that could be improved to better achieve the goals of the system or those who interact with it.
In Raymond’s case, having him go around nitpicking about whether the $5 parking fee was before or after work hours is counter-productive and annoying. It even annoys Raymond, so when he shows up, he really isn’t looking for a fight but he is agitated. The goal of the company was never to annoy people, it was to make sure that the company handled expenses in a way that let the company do its bookkeeping and kept things neat. So, what if we came up with a submission process that checked expense forms as they were written and gave people Raymond as an expert that could help them when they ran into troubles with the form?
Suddenly, Raymond transforms from the jerk that says no to the guy who could help you find yes.
So, my first bout with systems thinking was while I was an urban planner. For years there were two wings of urban planning. Transportation and Land Use. They tended to be quite siloed. Then one day, someone got the bright idea that transportation and land use actually were a system and influenced each other rather heavily. In 1994, I was hired to be the “transportation-land use link” by METRO, the regional government in Portland, Oregon. After that, I spent years of my career working directly to promote systems thinking throughout urban planning.
More recently, in 2010, I helped manage the creation of the Human Development Report for Vietnam. Usually HDRs are also very siloed. They have sections on women’s issues, water quality, early childhood nutrition, transportation, economic development, etc. These reports were erroneously seen as “systems thinking” by the United Nations because they contained all the elements of the system. However, the reports rarely highlighted the relationships. So, what we did was get the 24 researchers all working in Google Docs. The researchers could then see, in real time if they chose, what all the other authors were writing.
We then encouraged them to not only write their own sections, but also comment on each other’s sections. The goal being to insert the impacts of, say, a good water supply on early childhood nutrition, or of a good transportation system on access to hospitals. This little change allowed us to create a much more systemic view of each of these previously siloed sections and, therefore, build more holistic and sustainable programs in the future.
So, suffice it to say, I’ve been thinking about systems for quite some time.
The five quotes below are from popular culture and I’ve been really busy lately so my references may be a bit dated. So, sorry about that, it is what it is. If you haven’t seen the films, get them on Netflix or Amazon. I will be doing one quote a day over the next five business days.
Quote #1 THERE IS NO SPOONI personally believe that The Matrix is a classic film that succeeds in spite of itself. It really should be awful, but it works. Like Lewis Carroll with guns (lots of), it takes us through the looking glass into another world that is actually the real world. It takes many systems we take for granted and invalidates them. The Matrix shows Neo and his rag-tag band of rebels actively operating inside the system (our daily reality), and then transcending that system to the meta-system that surrounds it (aliens who have imprisoned us in our own minds). In the matrix, reality is impermanent, imposed, and false.
Systems Thinking Is Awesome Here Because New Realizations Break Assumptions
This is key in systems thinking. We keep rotating our view of reality to find systems within systems. To find ways that business builds pockets of dysfunction that gnaw away at the ability of the company to succeed. To find ways that a culture gathers dogma that becomes accepted truth long after it is relevant.
We actively question why things happen and try our best not to rest on dogma as answers. (Always trying…) When we do have epiphanies about actual causes for problems, they generally break one or more assumptions people have about their work, their life, or the structure of society.
Systems Thinking is a Trap Here Because New Realizations are Still Based on Assumptions
As human beings, we operate based on a world-view, our own internal system that is based on assumptions and emotional reactions. The trap here is when we believe that the system we are working with can ever be the one-true system. There are always red pills to take to open our doors of perception. There are always other angles to look from.
Systems thinking itself is in no way to blame here. But as human beings, we have a certain tendency to want to view the world from a certain point-of-view. We call these fixed points-of-view “best practices.” They engender static checklists, rule sets and associated punishments. They assume the world is simplistic.
When we build a system in systems thinking we start to fall prey to a variety of cognitive biases that cause us to fixate on certain systems. We find systems based on systems, which can pull us down logical chains of discovery that seem true … but only seem. The patterns feel comfortable. (I come back to this in Quote 4).
The trick here is that even if we realize this to be the case, we still are subject to these biases. So we need to build meta-systems to guard against this. We need to take a regular regimen of red pills to remove ourselves from the system we are actively studying and change our perceptions.
Unfortunately, the appropriate dosage is likely lethal.
We simply must be comfortable, as people using systems thinking as a tool, to understand that, at any given time, our current view of the system is incomplete. Perspective, by its very nature, is looking at something from a vantage point - a point-of-view. There are things behind or inside what we are viewing of which we are unaware.
Ask yourself, what is your point-of-view? Where are the blind-spots?
It is simply human nature to assume that our world-view is correct, however. Therefore most people who actively work in systems thinking routinely fall into the trap of believing the beautiful systems diagrams they have created are anything other than a very useful, temporary fiction.
Tomorrow’s quote “Remember Your Failure In the Cave”....
Photo by Tonianne
This post was with a little collaboration with Tonianne and Jabe Bloom