Saturday, September 5, 2015

From Systems Thinking to Systems Understanding: Why things are the way they are?

The System, being dynamic, is always already in the flow.

Things are complex; people are complex, and nature is complex as well. Particularly when you look at a situation and wondering how on earth things could have evolved in such a way, this is the clue that you should first seek to understand. Otherwise, there's a great danger that the new "better" solution will fail because it runs straight into the same underlying factors that brought about the old state. So in which circumstances “WHY things are the way they are” matter more than the other situations? And how does it help you with problem-solving or decision making?

From a management perspective, it's important to make sure the cause vs. symptoms is being acted on to sustain desired results: The WHY can also inform lessons learned as we progress with similar activities the next time for continuous improvement. That said, the WHY may never be fully known so while the intervention seeks the best information it can move toward a consciously derived resolution, we often have to act to test the assumed solution and then, of course, gauge its response. The System, being dynamic, is always already in the flow. Hence, certain pre-existing systemic flows have brought about the situation. There are two opportunities for intervention whenever a problematic situation is discovered. Firstly, tracing the dynamics of these flows backward to their upstream origins helps isolate the most promising points for intervention, to avoid or prevent future cases of the situation. Secondly, there should also be an attempt to mitigate the negative effects of the situation's dynamics flowing further downstream in cases where it could not be nipped in the bud at its upstream source.

In fact, there might be many negative and positive vector to a decision and each is weighed against each other to arrive at a satisfactory way forward: A negative way forward may be chosen, given it leads to a more positive vision, where the positive path may be declined, given it is calculated that it may ultimately lead to an unsatisfactory conclusion. From some participants point of view in a complex system, things might be working just fine. It might be worth asking: How am I looking at this? Is there another way/another understanding? How come things are the way they are? The combinatoric details of how they got that way are often unknowable to an adequate level, but the abstracted principles may be sufficient to understand the dynamics. What does this have to do with systems thinking? It provides a starting point for investigation. The other part of this is whether you are focusing on processes for themselves or their results. Sometimes, the reasons why things are the way they are, whatever they may be, can get set aside or ignore because of preponderance is given to process design innovations for its own sake.  

It depends on the problem, how and to what extent it is manifesting in a way that cries for fixing, from where it emanates the greater context. If you understand the origin of the situation, where you want it to go, and how to get there, you would understand the specific WHYs to dig through the root causes. It matters a lot if cost-effectiveness is important in developing solutions in bridging the gap between how things are and how they ought to be instead, this would be the analytical approach necessary in the course of value engineering exercise applied to identify critical elements. Either way, it's never a bad idea to revisit from time to time the assumptions embedded in the original system design to check for latent or accomplished obsolescence or, for originally invisible errors. Obsolescence or errors in foundational embedded assumptions in principle would make for obsolete or erroneous outputs. So the question boils down to figuring out the cost/benefits matrix of correcting or not correcting outputs and what cost/benefits factors get internalized or excluded from the analysis.

It's worthwhile considering why things are the way they are for, in doing so, one may challenge automatic assumptions that something needs 'fixing.' To 'just go ahead and fix it' carries assumptions, Particularly assumptions about something wrong, limiting, or not working in some way that requires 'fixing.' If you don't understand all the causes, or most of the causes of the situation and also the context of the situation, then intervention maybe worse than non-intervention. Even Systems Thinking may not be enough, perhaps you need Systems Understanding to intervene, also you need to narrow what type of situation you are considering. As the situation depends on how many people, objects, systems, subsystems, cultures, geographies, times are involved.

Why things are the way they are matters more when you work from the “problem solving” paradigm:  On another angle, people dealing with complex systems first observe them very deeply, then they apply minimal perturbations to see how the complex system behaves, aiming to mitigate a non-desired behavior. If a system is not so much broken, but it is no longer fit for purpose, and so it needs to be replaced, it becomes very helpful to know what purpose the obsolete system was built to fit, and how that purpose has changed, when figuring out how to change the system to make it fit for a changed purpose. If you work from the "problem solving" paradigm, then it matters to figure it out why thing are the way they are, If you work from the "strength" paradigm, then it matters less, if at all, provided you that you trust people to have ideas and glimpses of times when it worked better, and coach them to investigate the causes of WHY it worked better. One could say it's a way to understand the system though it's a side effect of coaching people toward whatever will work for them. If a system is broken and needs fixing, it can be helpful to know what caused the system to break down so that the repairs can also prevent further system failures.

As humans, we have a natural curiosity to ask the big WHYs. People's knowledge of ourselves and the world increases over time through a process of change and co-creative, an evolutionary adaptation to change  - in the sense of automatically self-regenerating and endlessly ongoing - the pursuit of better. From System Thinking to System Understanding, continuously asking “why things are the way they are” does challenge the assumptions and the “old way doing things,” it’s the good start pointing to see beyond the surface, understand the context, and capture the insight for human progression.


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