fredag 2 december 2016

The Appreciation of a System

It is not the parts you should look at, but their interactions. Observing the parts will not reveal the pattern they create together and can cause you to make faulty assumptions about the performance of the whole. You may also be tempted to influence the parts in ways that isn't helpful when you don't consider the total effect of your influence.

Observing and trying to understand the elements as isolated units is suboptimal if you want to manage the system that they are a part of.

The understanding of what it means to be a system is one of the four pillars of William Deming's System of profound knowledge, a set of insights regarding management in complex environments that even though being more than 30 years old has become increasingly important in the age of digitalization, disruptive innovation, and organizational agility.

Deming made a point by addressing top management and trying to get them to understand the importance of systems thinking. He realized that if the top management didn't get it, they would never be able to create an environment where the performance of the whole was improved. Everyone would be stuck in their compartments making sub optimizations to the detriment of all. And while it is still true that a top management who lacks understanding of system behavior will ruin it, organizational agility also demands that that every person in the collaboration share these insights.

It seems like the human mind has some difficulty grasping aspects of systems behavior. We tend to believe that the outcome directly reflects the behavior of the parts, or the intentions of the people acting in the system. Instead it is perfectly possible and actually quite common that smart and kind people cooperate in ways that makes the system become like it was run by an evil super genius or an infinitely stupid autocrat. We assume that low performance of the system is a function of low performance of its parts and fail to understand why the system actually performs worse when we force the people in it to work harder.

I believe that it is of utmost importance that we all improve in our systems thinking ability, especially if we are in a position where we design performance metrics or tries to govern system behavior. In my work helping organizations to increase their agility I have found that all four parts of doctor Deming's system of profound knowledge are essential for everyone, and that systems thinking is one of the hardest things to teach and learn.

As of now I am creating a course module that will cover the basics. The thing that I find being the most difficult is dividing the insights in easily digestible chunks. It kind of goes with the subject that understanding the parts of it doesn't necessarily help when understanding the whole!

I am really interested in what you think about this. What questions regarding systems thinking would you be interested in? What is it that you feel is the most difficult things to understand about the subject? I would very much appreciate if you would take the time to reflect a bit about that and maybe share some of your thoughts with me.

3 kommentarer:

  1. Your questions Ola raise some thoughts. But I doubt that it is news for you. I think it is essentially human to try to govern or even controll the context you are within. Which then also apply to a system. An urge which is quite difficult or impossible to fulfill. Such an urge can deteriorate the system. So I think the question here is to highlight system complexity in order to moderate the reflex of controlling it. And to raise system awareness. I come to think of, which you certainly is aware of, examples in The Fifth Disciple. The more a system can be alive and experienced the better. But of course, as you say, the tricky part, is how. Complex mechanistics could be a start but is still a shourtcute which can be misunderstood. I must say, a bit pessimistic, that understanding system thinking is more about the subject than the object. A laid back confident mindset and worldview among participants would gain your aims.

  2. Per Christian Strand3 december 2016 14:39

    Just a short reflection: I think the factor of delay in time is important as it is a big reason why we dont understand interaction. Peter Senge gives good examples of this in "The fifth discipline"

  3. I just finished reading "The Fifth Discipline" and I think it would be good to start with the ideas from that book.

    I think some other useful tools/models are: Cynefin and Non-Violent Communication.

    I agree with Niklas that it's more about the subject than the object.

    It's about the interactions and relationships :)