When we think about operating in systems, doing systems thinking, we seek to find and understand how systems work and how we may work within them. In particular here on this site we hold a focus on what we term The Big Five. The Big Five are considerations that are useful to hold when working in systems.
'this is the way we do things and isn’t that great? All’s good’
But of course there is another question we need to ask when considering this way of thinking. And that something is why? Why do we need to think in this holistic tangled way in the first place? When for the most, our lives and the organisations, tasks, roles and people within them, function perfectly well in the very lightness of thinking that is simple and linear, A to B thinking.
The A to B of linearity gives us an understanding of how our lives work, how places work. How one thing leads to another. It enables us to make sense of the past and furthermore it tells us how our futures may work out too. We hold the blanket of predictability and hide under its comfort, because it ‘makes sense’. It’s an easy way of coping with, explaining and being in the world.
The trouble is of course that life isn’t simple and nor are our organisations. Systems are chaotically tricky.
There is not just one layer of life happening, one sphere. There are loads. And more than that, each of these layered spheres interacts in tangled ways with the others in ways that can be unpredictable.
Determinism, rules and chaos
Determinism is (broadly stated) a belief that the outcomes of our actions and indeed our actions themselves are already determined. Through God, if you believe in God, through fate, destiny. It’s often a philosophical discussion in religious debates- Determinism verses free-will.
In deterministic chaos the understanding is much the same. Determinism here is the underlying premise that behaviour in a system is predictable. We know that at some point in the system a particular behaviour will occur because of something else occurring in the system. And that’s because our lives as human beings and the lives of our systems each operate within a set of rules. Explicit, implicit. Seen, hidden. Rules that control us. This is emergence.
The patterns of behaviour are vastly complex and are describable sometimes as self-fulfilling prophecies. Looping round and round to each other along feedback loops that say ‘this is the way we do things and isn’t that great? All’s good’.
They can be likened to the fractals of nature. Those patterns made by the waves on the sand, the inside of a flower. The spirograph of existence. The patterns that hold the world together. Layer upon layer of patterns of behaviour, each layer indicative of the patterns of the others we haven’t yet seen.
Understanding these rules that underpin cultural behaviour is at the heart of systems thinking. Or should be. If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you hope to understand it, let alone change it? You can read the work of Edgar Schein, or Chris Arygris to find out more on answering the question; ‘what’s really going on’?
These rules of behaviour are the soul, the heart and the art of predictability in our systems, in our lives, in being human.
But despite this determinism, these rules of behaviour, this predictability, we find that we do not with any certainty know all about what we do, and what happens as a result of what we do. We never know the total effect of our actions and the actions that result from them. That linearity of thought of action to consequence is a superficial explanation. A simplified drawing of reality. Undeniably true. A to B really did happen after all, but if we examine more closely we find that A to B lead to Z, Y, and even K along the way, and hey, C, F and L afterwards. And that’s just if we consider one sphere, one area of our system. What happens if we also examine sphere B, what was the result there? And why? And in sphere C? It’s not all that real after all. It is chaos.
'what's really going on’?
And that’s before we even begin to think about what happens as a result of multiple actions bouncing together and interacting from across the whole of the system, in sometimes painful, sometimes glorious, but ultimately all beautiful ways. When we brave ourselves to stand face to face with chaos and really ask: What now? What happens when sphere 2 does this at the same time as sphere 3 does this and sphere 1 might then do this?
And that’s where systems thinking comes in. If we want to think in terms of linearity and predictability, then we find that the mechanistic ways of thinking can cope just fine. But in real terms, working below the surface, when we think of multiple, interacting, entangled, dancing spheres, all of a sudden predictability becomes a mess.
'the approximate present does not approximately determine the future’
This unpredictability leaves us uncomfortable, and often leads us to a mess we can’t control. And we as ordered human beings in a seemingly ordered world don’t like that. Not at all.
The Butterfly Effect
We try to predict the future in any number of ways. There’s whole industries dedicated to it. We try to imbibe or even imbue magic powers, to see into the future. But however hard we try, however clever the computer programme, however tight the statistics, the model, however many avenues we ask questions of, there are always things that cannot be answered. Approximation isn’t in fact predictability. There are simply too many ‘what ifs’. And furthermore we don’t know what those ‘what if’ questions are anyway. We would never ever think to ask:
Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
And we certainly couldn’t answer, or understand how indeed it might.
Somewhere and everywhere, nothing and everything is certain, despite the best fortune telling possible. And this unpredictability is the essence of life. The essence of nature, of living, breathing, being human, and it has rather a pretty name, it’s called The Butterfly Effect.
Small actions can have unintended consequences.
The formal concept was developed by Edward Lorenz, whose intention it was to develop a meteorological tool, to try to predict the pattern of hurricanes. But of course the concept of, and the living of, and doing is nothing new at all. It is a phenomenon we’re all intrinsically and uncomfortably familiar with.
Lorenz explained that chaos is when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
And for me at least this explains perfectly why we need systems thinking after all. It is not enough to consider the simplicity of A to B linearity in systems that are multi-faceted, layer upon layer of tangled spheres. The mess of our systems means that we can never really know exactly what A even looks likes to begin with.
For me though, systems thinking is more than a way of working. It’s more than a way of considering places, a job, a change. It’s not a separate entity we should draw in, hold, adopt, become. It’s not a solution, an answer, a homage, a gift. Because to me systems thinking is to be human.
And so I’ll tell you a story.
The Doll Affair
When I was a kid, I wasn’t into dolls and prams, and being a girl really. I wanted to be outdoors. Jumping. Flying. Rolling. Running. Getting bruised, scratched, muddy, sun burnt, rained on. But then one year, I must have been around eight or nine my sister got this doll for her birthday. I, of course being into cowboys at the time, did not.
'taking the doll and chopping it in half, certainly would never make two dolls’
And it wasn’t just any doll. It was the Queen of all dolls. The baby doll (do you remember)? It was freaky. It was scary. It was beautiful. I hated it and I wanted it.
I knew without any doubt that taking the doll and chopping it in half, certainly would never make two dolls. Apologies here of course to Mintzberg and Linda Booth Sweeney, for that beautiful systems thinking analogy…if you chop a cow in half do you get two cows? If you put two cows together do you have one cow?
But I did know that chopping that freaky doll in half would make a whole load of trouble, (determinism). And I also knew that I didn’t care. I wanted that doll. And if I couldn’t have it I wanted to break it.
Now of course, as all doll haters know, or those with troubling, annoying, whining sisters know, the best way to break a doll’s heart is to pull off its arms.
Somewhat despairingly I soon realised that I couldn’t pull the arms off the baby doll, they were resolutely sewn on, and to be honest I wasn’t up for the trouble that cutting them off would bring. So instead just for a while I made the doll disappear.
Now here’s the thing. The very predictability of linear thinking meant I knew without a doubt that little sis would go to her bed, doll wouldn’t be there. She’d cry and tell on me and I would get in trouble. But my younger self didn’t care. Because for that hour, or two, or maybe more. That doll was gone. And more than that she was mine. Mine. (The similarity to Gollum’s ‘my precious’ does not evade me).
And so for the painful eternity I was undiscovered I kept sneaking into the spare room, tiptoeing past my parent’s bedroom door where mum lay sleeping, looking into the dark box, daring myself to stroke those staring plastic eyes peering out of the gloom.
Of course things went much as predicted, sister discovered doll missing, sister cried, sister told on me. I retrieved said doll with a strop, dragging her by the arm, head bumping along the floor and threw her down the stairs.
So far so good. Linear thinking. A to B.
But what I could never have predicted was the unintended consequences. And a vast web of outcomes so complex I could never begin to explore. I can predict that if I hide my sister’s doll, or pull off its arms, that my sister will cry. I can maybe predict knowing the vagaries and pattern of my family life, that this will make mum cross, that she’ll give me the look. I can perhaps even predict that tea won’t get cooked, that mum will tell dad.
And so I saw as a child the effect that the actions I made ripple on to create other ripples in the circles of my family.
But what I couldn’t do was think in terms of the unpredictable, or the vastly complicated. I didn’t know the time of day my sister would discover the doll missing, I didn’t know the mood she’d find our mum in. I could never have predicted the doll’s head falling off, my sister falling down the stairs chasing it, the tear on the wallpaper that would result in new wallpaper a few months down the line.
Furthermore I couldn’t have at all predicted that the cat will fetch in a dead mouse which will run around headless while mum tries to sweep it outside, or that a week next Friday my grandma will ring, and the dog will run away. That dad will be late. The gas will run out, and on Wednesday I’ll have a new pair of socks. (And retrospectively I could not at all argue that these things did or did not occur because of the doll).
And I certainly could not have considered the delicacy and intricacy of chaotic possibilities that come from more abstract thought and result from the wonder of living and being in an unfathomably unpredictable world. I would have been unable to consider the difference that may result from my actions if I had hidden the doll on a Tuesday or on a Sunday. If it was raining outside. If mum hadn’t woke. If I’d kidnapped the doll and demanded an extortionate ransom?
Or what even if I had just given the doll back gracefully? Would the universe of my world have worked out differently? Well, who knows? (This is the butterfly effect: small variables in conditions can have huge and indeterminable consequences).
Despite knowing the complexities of my family’s existence as a set of interlinked spheres, I was still unable to think much beyond linearity across a number of variables:
chop doll in half= certain death
hide doll= doll gone= little bit of trouble
But that linearity of thought it turns out is limiting. And it’s a lesson in systems thinking. I’m connected to you, and this is connected to that, in ways I can never hope to understand or predict. And so I’ll end in the words of Gregory Bateson, considered one of the founding fathers of the systems thinking of our times. He said:
It is the relationships between things that matter- how I relate to you, and you to that, and that to this.
And that, that is a conversation for another day.