Systems in Action

The explosion of breadth in the previous week’s post is not typical. This post is a reversion to the mean in thinking about smaller concepts, what they mean, and how they fit into a larger intellectual synthesis. Previous posts have covered the role of assumptions and how indicators are the expressions of assumptions. I’ve also covered very deep ideas about rationality, certainty and zero-sumness that seemed to be the uber-assumptions that shape the world very deeply.


Whatever I can build comes as the result of introducing concepts that are adjacent to these central ideas. I assume by default, a very direct relationship between indicators and assumptions, even as I have also alluded to the fact that interpretations matter. I only stated that interpretations matter, that decisions-making is key, and that assumptions can change. This juncture becomes an appropriate place to talk about systems dynamics, and the relationship between indicators and rationality.


The first thing to realise that assumptions and indicators reinforce each other. You cannot change an assumption without also changing the indicators. In reality, both hardly change at once; one usually changes first, followed by the next. Change is therefore not instantaneous. Change(s) take time for the assumptions and the indicators to take up new positions in the system to be moved into.


To develop this idea further, decision-making is therefore not a choice between two or more discrete options, but also the choice between different kinds of systems. Decision-making is about making (non)-changes in a system.


This is also why systems dynamics is about thinking in terms of relationships far more than the other concepts thus explored. Systems thinking explores the relationships between various indicators. Indicators don’t stand on their own; they affect each other, redirecting flows.


The interlocks between assumptions and indicators is the chief reason why changes in any organisation or institution can be so difficult. A lot of change takes place in the things that are measured – the indicators. Or, the stated goals can be different, even if the indicators remain the same. In either of these situations, the logic of the system can remain the same, and nothing gets changed at all. Lasting change at both the assumptions-level and the indicators-level requires simultaneous change at both fronts – and this is why change is so difficult.


The description thus can seem mechanistic, full of notions of rationality, and of gears grinding on. The reality is that the change in systems are far from rationally executed. They are fraught with failures. Sometimes they require open conflict with existing assumptions and indicators, and in the process resistance crops up. The key thing is often to connect with the people who are in control of the indicators and the response to those indicators. This connection has to be an emotional one – the building of new links through empathy and in sharing visions of new futures – and new systems.


This I guess, is one reason why futures exercises are often done with decision-makers. In one shot, the conduct of a futures exercise can change the assumptions of the decision-makers, and those decision-makers are often in the position to change the indicators.


There really are two systems in interactions when we think about it, and they meet in the process of thinking about futures within the organisation. The first system is the one in the contextual sphere – about the external components that are interacting with one another, and the one that we try to have a grasp on via systems dynamics or complexity theory. There is the second system that does not get as much mention – and that is the internal system within the organisation. For change to occur anywhere, one also has to look at the internal structures and the interactions within. Again, going back, the discussion on indicators and assumptions set the foundation for systems thinking within the organisation.


When thinking about change, we are really talking about different kinds of change all at once, and part of the purpose of this post is to breakdown in clearer terms what we mean when we talk about change.


One comment

  1. guldisloo

    “decision-making is […] not a choice of options, but also the choice between different kinds of systems”
    I think that this represents a thought that I had (don’t laugh) yesterday night when watching pearl harbour on tv. The thought that came to my mind, seeing the perfectly rational weighing of chances: The gut feeling of a threat to the warships on Hawaii versus the costs of moving them and the lack of quantifiable indication of the possibility of an attack. The decision maker – the Admiral – decided within the system for non-action (to await a better analysis).

    The underlying pattern that can be found in a different shape in macro-level decisions, such as those in relation to societies environment, is the one of a rationale decision within a specific system (i.e. the system that only weighs quantifiable risk levels against each other and disregards plausibility. If the Admiral had decided to change that system; namely to weight the threat of a complete devastation – however low the quantifiable indication for such a scenario might have been – higher than the costs of moving the fleet, he would have avoided complete failure.

    Similar things can be said about the fundamental (mind-)shift required to move from a fossil-fuel society to a low-carbon world.

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