06 February 2007

The Need for Systems Thinking, Part of a Continuing Saga

Norman and Vladimir have made some really great points in response to my "Time to Upgrade Civilization's Operating System" post. I was going to respond in comments but realized that a proper response deserved its own post.

First, there is the matter of technology to facilitate systems thinking. Vladimir points out that we can't hold too many things in our head at one time. This is true, but it doesn't mean that we can't create technology to enhance our ability. For instance, if you want to cross the room, you use your feet. If you want to cross town, you use a car. If you want to cross the continent, you use an airplane. Depending on the scope of our ambitions, we use different technology. Yet if we want to plan lunch, we talk. If management wants to plan next year's goals, they talk. If legislators want to plan budgets, programs, and laws that impact the next generation, they talk. This is, ultimately, about as effective as walking across the continent.

In order to promote systems thinking we'll need to develop and popularize tools for systems thinking. In my mind, these tools include econometric models, project planning software, statistical quality control tools, and other tools as varied as mind maps and systems simulation software. (Look here, for instance: http://www.pegasuscom.com/gallery.html). Along with these tools we'll need to grapple more with the implications of systems thinking as explicated in the thinking of people like W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff, Donella Meadows, and Peter Senge.

Finally, the consequences of these systems thinking tools need to be institutionalized. I like Norman's notion of creating "hardware" to go along with civilization's new operating system. Part of the genius of Adam Smith is that he saw in specialization of labor a means to translate Descartes’ analytic thinking into institutions; the resultant capitalism transformed the world. What we now need are entrepreneurs who take on the task of creating institutions able to become a vehicle for systems thinking in the same way that factories were a vehicle for analytic thinking.

One last note. Russell Ackoff, a person who has probably done as much as anyone to popularize and pioneer systems thinking, has just come out with a new book, Management f-Laws. You find information about the book here. The publisher describes it as “easy to read and accessible - setting out the uncomfortable truths about how organizations really work, what's wrong with the way we design and manage businesses, what makes managers tick, and how we can make things work better. Russ himself comments on the book here.”

If you decide to order the book, enter “triarchy-ten” in the promotional code field on the order form to get a ten percent discount.


Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Transparent organisations, with processes that make clear connection between cause and effect, naturally promote systems thinking.

I read the sample chapter from Management F-laws. I don't know how representative it is for the entire book, but seemed quite categorical and generalising in its judgements. I suppose this was partly due to the effort to keep the book short and concise, but some readers may not see this.

Ron Davison said...


I agree that transparency will promote systems thinking. I suspect that any effort to better understand cause and effect inside of complex systems will inevitably lead to (at least an appreciation for) systems thinking. Or maybe that's a tautology?

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

A tautology would be to say "free gift", "tuna fish" or "chai tea" :)

The impression of a tautology may have come from the self-reinforcing nature of the concept, with some similarities to the chicken/egg problem :)

Ron Davison said...

I guess it suddenly seemed somehow redundant to make the comment that whenever people think about systems they'll find themselves engaged in systems thinking. I'm headed off to have some salsa sauce while I think about my thinking on this matter of systems thinking.

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...