I got introduced to systems thinking by the management guru W. Edwards Deming. He made the point that when assessing a team made up of three people, it is easy to think that we’ll know how the group would perform simply by looking at the performance of each individual. The team performance of Tom, Carmen, and Jin could look like this:
Tom’s performance [T] + Carmen’s performance [C] + Jin’s performance [J] = team performance [x]
In fact, that might well be the least of the equation. The team’s performance is also a function of
Tom’s working relationship with Carmen [T~C] + Carmen’s working relationship with Jin [C~J] + Jin’s working relationship with Tom [J~T] + the dynamic that emerges between all three [T~C~J]
An equation that at first blush looks like:
T + C + J = x
T + C + J + [T~C] + [C~J] + [J~T] + [T~C~J] = x
This is not a problem of simple addition. This is a problem of relationships and emergent phenomenon. Jin could be a great guy but cause the other two team members to perform poorly. Carmen may be a poor performer on her own but might make the team perform better. The symbol ~ sometimes adds and sometimes multiplies as team members bring out what is better in each other; it sometimes subtracts and sometimes divides as they, at other times, undermine each other or leave each other feeling like less. What emerges out of relationship is not simple and cannot be reduced to the parts. Systems are defined by emergent properties, not just their parts.
“In an avalanche, each snowflake pleads its innocence.”
- - Proverb
And of course, the world in which we live is defined by system dynamics, by the interaction of systems and even the performance of systems within systems. Cultures and societies are not the product of just one person, they emerge out of a dynamic between people and their times and circumstances. Your work place, your town, your portfolio, your marriage… these are defined by not just by emergent properties but how they, as systems, fit within the larger system we call the environment. Like Russian dolls, our world is not only composed of systems but has layers of systems. Your respiratory system can perform in ways that allow you to run a marathon or be unable to rise out of bed; if you are king, this difference can ripple across a kingdom to shatter a fragile peace.
Sometimes the butterfly stirs up a storm and sometimes it gets pinned inertly into the collection. It’s hard to predict which it will do by just looking at the butterfly.