Lights, camera…and ACTION!

Clapper boardMy last post explained the thinking behind the softening of systems thinking – to include the reality of human beings into the mix.

I ended by noting that this naturally leads on to the hugely important question of how interventions into social systems (i.e. attempts at improving them) should be approached

What’s the difference between…?

The word ‘Science’ is a big one! It breaks down into several major branches, which are often set out as the:

  • Natural sciences – the study of natural phenomena;
  • Formal sciences – the study of Mathematics and Logic; and
  • Social sciences – the study of human behaviour, and social patterns.

Natural science can be further broken down into the familiar fields of the Physical sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science and Astronomy) and the Life sciences (a.k.a Biology).

The aim of scientists working in the natural science domain is to uncover and explain the rules that govern the Universe, and this is done by applying the scientific method (using experimentation1) to their research.

The key to any and every advancement in the Natural sciences is that an experiment that has supposedly added to our ‘body of knowledge’ (i.e. found out something new) must be:

  • Repeatable – you could do it again (and again and again) and get the same result; and
  • Reproduceable – someone else could carry out your method and arrive at the same findings.

This explains why all ‘good science’ must have been subjected to peer review – i.e. robust review by several independent and objective experts in the field in question.

“Erm, okay…thanks for the ‘lecture’…but so what?!”

Well, Social science is different. It involves humans and, as such, is complex.

The Natural science approach to learning (e.g. to set up a hypothesis and then test it experimentally) doesn’t transfer well to the immensely rich and varied reality of humanity.

“In [social science] research you accept the great difficulty of ‘scientific’ experimental work in human situations, since each human situation is not only unique, but changes through time and exhibits multiple conflicting worldviews.” (Checkland)

I’ll try to explain the enormity of this distinction between natural and social scientific learning with some examples, and these will necessarily return to those repeatability and reproducibility tests:


sodium into waterUnique: I’ll start with Chemistry. If you were to line up two beakers of water and (carefully) drop a small piece of sodium into each then you would observe the same explosive reaction…and, even though you could predict what would happen if you did it a third time, you’d still like to do it again 🙂

I was looking for a ‘social’ comparison and, following a comedy coffee conversation with a fellow Dad, the following observation arose: If you are a parent of two or more children, then you’ll know that consistency along the lines of ‘sodium into water’ is a pipe dream. I’ve got two teenage sons (currently 17 and 15 years old) and whenever I think I’ve learned something from bringing up the first one, it usually (and rather quickly) turns out to be mostly the opposite for the second! They are certainly unique.

The same goes for group dynamics – two different groups of people will act and react in different ways…which you won’t be able to fully determine up-front – it will emerge.


Electric circuitChanging over time: Now, over to Physics. If you were to select a  battery, light bulb and resistor combination and then connect them together with cables in a defined pattern (e.g. in series) then you could work out (using good old Ohm’s law) what will happen within the circuit that you’ve just created. Then, you could take it all apart and put it away, safe in the knowledge that it would work in the same predictable way when you got it all out the next time.

However, in our ‘social’ comparison, you can’t expect to do the same with people…because each time you (attempt to) do something to/with them, they change. They attain new interactions, experiences, knowledge and opinions. This means that it is far too simplistic to suggest that “we can always just undo it if we want to” when we are referring to social situations.

Just about every sci-fi movie recognises this fact and comes up with some ingenious device to ‘wipe people’s minds’ such that they conveniently forget what just happened to them – their memories are rewound to a defined point earlier in time. The ‘Men in Black’ use a wand with a bright red light on the end (hence their protective sunglasses…or is that also fashion?).

In reality, because such devices don’t exist (that I’m aware of), people in most organisations suffer from (what I refer to as) ‘Change fatigue’ – they’ve become wary of (what they’ve come to think of as) the current corporate ‘silver bullet’, and act accordingly. This understandably frustrates ‘management’ who often don’t want to see/ understand the fatigue2 and respond with speeches along the lines of “Now, just wipe the past from your mind – pretend none of it happened – and this time around, I want you to act like it’s really worth throwing yourself into 110%!”.

Mmmm, if only they could!


scalpelsConflicting worldviews: Finally, a Biology example. Let’s suppose that you’ve done a couple of lung dissections – one’s pink and spongy, the other is a black oogy mess3. Everyone agrees which one belonged to the 40-a-day-for-life smoker.

However, for our ‘social’ comparison, get a bunch of people into a room and ask them for their opinions on other people and their actions, and you will get wildly differing points of view – just ask a split jury!

The social phenomena of the ‘facts’ are subject to multiple, and changing, interpretations.

After reading the above you might be thinking…

“….so how on earth can we learn when people are involved?”

Kurt LewinThis is where I bring in the foundational work of the psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947).

Lewin realised the important difference between natural and social science and came up with a prototype for social research, which he labelled as ‘Action research’.

“The method that [Lewin] evolved was of involving his subjects as active, inquiring participants in the conduct of social experiments about themselves.” (Argyris & Schon)

His reasoning was that:

“People are more likely to accept and act on research findings if they helped to design the research and participate in the gathering and analysis of data.” (Lewin & Grabbe)

Yep, as a fellow human being, I’d wholeheartedly agree with that!

Who’s doing the research?

I hope that you can see that the (potentially grand) title of ‘social research’ doesn’t presume a group of people in white lab coats attached to a University or such like. Rather, applied social research can (and should) be happening every minute of every day within your organisation – it does at Toyota!

Argyris and Schon wrote about two (divergent) methods of attempting to intervene in an organisation. They labelled these as:

  • ‘Spectator – Manipulator’: a distant observer who keeps themselves at arms lengths from the worker, yet frequently disturbs the work with ‘experiments’ to manipulate the environment and observe the response;

and

  • ‘Agent – Experient’: an actor who locates themselves within the problematic situation (with the people), to appreciate and be guided by it, to facilitate change (in actions and thinking) by better understanding of the situation.

You can see that the first fits well with natural science whilst the second fits with social.

‘The ‘spectator – manipulator’ method also describes rather well the reality of commanding and controlling, through attempting to implement (supposed) ‘best practise’ on people, and then rolling out ever wider.

The nice thing about action research is that the researcher (the agent) and the practitioner (the people doing the work) participate together, meaning that:

“The divide between practitioner and researcher is thus closed down. The two roles become one. All involved are co-workers, co-researchers and co-authors…of the output.” (Flood)

Proper4 action research dissolves the barrier between researcher and participant.

And, as such, ‘Action research’ is now often relabelled as ‘Action learning’…. because that is exactly what the participants are doing.

A note on intervention

InterventionAny intervention into a social system causes change5. Further, the interventionist cannot be ‘separated from the system’ – they will change too!

Argyris and Schon wrote that:

“An inquiry into an actor’s reasons for acting in a certain way is itself an intervention…[which] can and do have powerful effects on the ways in which both inquirer and informant construe the meaning of their interaction, interpret each other’s messages, act towards each other, and perceive each other’s actions. These effects can complicate and often subvert the inquirer’s quest for valid information.

Organisational inquiry is almost inevitably a political process…the attempt to uncover the causes of a systems failure is inevitably a perceived test of loyalty to one’s subgroup and an opportunity to allocate blame or credit…

[We thus focus on] the problem of creating conditions for collaborative inquiry in which people in organisations function as co-researchers rather than as merely subjects.”

You might think that taking a ‘spectator – manipulator’ approach (i.e. remaining distant) removes the problem of unintended consequences from intervening…but this would be the opposite. The more remote you keep yourself then the more concerned the workers will likely be about your motives and intentions….and the less open and expansive their assistance is likely to be.

So, as Argyris and Schon wrote, the best thing for meaningful learning to occur would be to create an appropriate environment – and that would mean gaining people’s trust….and we are back at action learning.

The stages of action research within an organisation

Action research might be described as having three stages6, which are repeated indefinitely. These are:

  1. Discovery;
  2. Measurable action; and
  3. Reflection

Discovery means to study your system, to find out what is really happening, and to drive down to root cause – from events, through patterns of behaviour, to the actual structure of the system (i.e. what fundamentally makes it operate as it does) …and at this point you are likely to be dealing with people’s beliefs.

…and to be crystal clear: the people doing the discovery are not some central corporate function or consultants ‘coming in’ – it’s the people (and perhaps a skilled facilitator) who are working in the system.


Measurable action means to use what you have discovered and, together, take some deliberate experimental action that you (through consensus) believe will move you towards your purpose.

But we aren’t talking about conventional measurement. We’re referring to ‘the right measures, measured right’!


Reflection means to consider what happened, looking from all points of view, and consider the learning within…. leading on to the next loop – starting again with discovery.

This requires an environment that ensures that open and honest reflection will occur. That’s an easy sentence to write, but a much harder thing to achieve – it requires the dismantling of many conventional management instruments. I’m not going to list them – you would need to find them for yourselves…which will only happen once you start your discovery journey.

What it isn’t

Action research isn’t ‘a project’; something to be implemented; best practise; something to be ‘standardised’…(carry on with a list of conventional thinking).

If you want individuals, and the organisation itself, to meaningfully learn then ‘commanding and controlling’ won’t deliver what you desire.

…and finally: A big caveat

warning trianglePeter Checkland adopted action research as the method within his Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and yet he was highly critical of “the now extensive and rapidly growing literature” on the approach, calling it “poverty stricken”. Here’s why:

“The great issue with action research is obvious: what is its truth criterion? It cannot be the repeatability of natural science, for no human (social) situation ever exactly duplicates another such situation.” (Checkland)

The risk of simply saying “we’re doing action research” is that any account of what you achieved becomes nothing more than plausible story telling. Whilst social research can never be as solid as the repeatable and reproduceable natural science equivalent, there must be an ‘is it reasonable?’ test on the outcomes for it to be meaningful.

There’s already plenty of ‘narrative fallacy’ story telling done within organisations – where virtually every outcome is explained away in a “didn’t we do well” style.

To be able to judge outcomes from action research, Checkland argues that an advanced declaration is required of “what constitutes knowledge about the situation. This helps to draw the distinction between research and novel writing.”

This makes the action research recoverable by anyone interested in subjecting the work to critical scrutiny.

So what does that mean? Well, taking John Seddon’s Vanguard Method7 as an example, the Check stage specifically starts up front with:

  1. Defining the purpose of the system (from the customer’s perspective – ‘outside in’);
  2. Understanding the demands being placed on the system (and so appreciating value from a wide variety of customer points of view); and
  3. Setting out a set of capability measures that would objectively determine whether any subsequent interventions have moved the system towards its purpose.

…and (in meeting Checkland’s point) this is done BEFORE anyone runs off to map any processes etc.

In summary:

We need to appreciate “the role of surprise as a stimulus to new ways of thinking and acting.” (Argyris & Schon).

People should be discovering, doing and seeing for themselves, which will create a learning system.

Footnotes:

1. Experiments: If you’d like a clearer understanding of experiments, and some comment on their validity then I wrote about this in a very early post called Shonky Experiments

2. Not wanting to see the change fatigue: This would happen if a manager is feverishly working towards a ‘SMART’ KPI, where this would be exacerbated if there is a bonus attached.

3. Lung dissection: I was searching around for an image of a healthy and then a smoker’s lungs…but thought that not everyone would like to see it for real…so I’ve put up an image with a collection of surgical scalpels – you can imagine for yourself 🙂

4. Proper: see the ‘big caveat’ at the end of the post.

5. Such changes may or may not be intended, and may be considered as positive, negative or benign.

6. Three stages of action research: If I look at the likes of Toyota’s Improvement/Coaching Katas or John Seddon’s Vanguard Method then these three stages can be seen as existing within.

7. The Vanguard Method is based on the foundation of action learning.

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Hard, Soft…or Laminated?

Laminated manThis post is about something that I find very interesting – Systems Thinking as applied to organisations, and society – and about whether there are two different ‘factions’….or not.

I’ve had versions of this post in mind for some time, but have finally ‘put it on paper’3.

In the beginning there was…Biology

Well, not the beginning4. I’m referring to the beginning of modern systems thinking.

Back in the 1920s the Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy challenged the ability of 19th Century Physics to explain living things – in particular the dynamics of organisms.

Reductionist Physics back then treated things as ‘closed systems’: reducing them into their parts and, through studying the forces acting on them, establishing principles of their behaviours. Such an approach works well for mechanistic systems.

However, von Bertalanffy’s research showed that:

“A whole organism demonstrably behaves in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. It exhibits synergy. Furthermore, much of an organism’s existence is characterised by increasing, or at least maintaining order.” [Flood5]

Open vs closed systemsHe went on to develop ‘Open Systems theory’, which considers an organism’s co-existence with its environment.

The interesting bit (to me at least) is that, rather than just maintaining a steady state (homeostasis) or, worse, declining into disorder (entropy), an organism can continually improve itself (self-organisation).

Whether it will or not, well there’s the thing!

Von Bertalanffy, wanting to realign the sciences through his new understanding, went on to develop ‘General Systems theory’ (1940s) – the derivation of principles applicable to systems in general.

…and so the modern systems movement was born.

Onwards and upwards (a.k.a ‘Hard’ systems thinking)

hard woodThe study of systems really got moving from the 1940s onwards, with many offshoot disciplines.

Some notable developments include:


  • World War II and Operational Research6 (analytical methods of problem solving and decision making): A team of scientists were brought together to advise the British army. They used mathematical techniques to research strategic and tactical problems associated with military operations. Their work aimed to get the most out of limited resources (the most efficient usage, for greatest effect).

Following the war, much effort was put into translating and developing the OR methods and learnings into (usually large) organisations, and their management.


  • Stafford Beer and Organisational Cybernetics (the scientific study of control and communication within organisations): Beer analysed how the human body is controlled by the brain and nervous system, and then translated this to model how any autonomous system (such as an organisation….or a country) should be organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment (ref. Beer’s ‘Viable System Model’)


  • Tragedy of the commonsJay Forrester7 and System Dynamics (understanding the behaviours of complex systems over time): Forrester and his MIT department set about modelling (using computers) how systems behave over time, employing the science of feedback, and thus seeing (often counter-intuitive) patterns within the complexity. The aim being to discern effective levers for change.

Their work grew from ‘industrial dynamics’ (e.g. the study of an organisation over time), to ‘urban dynamics’ (e.g. a society over time) to ‘world dynamics’.

Donella Meadows (a member of Forrester’s team) took up world dynamics, and research regarding the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion.

Peter Senge (another MIT team member) wrote the popular management book ‘The Fifth Discipline’, which sets out the disciplines necessary for a ‘learning organisation’8. He identifies systems thinking as the “cornerstone”, though his explanations are heavily based on his System Dynamics heritage.

Those involved with System Dynamics articulated a set of (thought provoking) system archetypes – which are commonly occurring patterns of system behaviour, due to specific combinations of feedback loops (reinforcing and balancing) and delays. For example, you might have heard of ‘The tragedy of the commons’ (see system model diagram above) or ‘Success to the successful’.


Note: (it is my belief) that there are (understandably) huge overlaps between each of the above disciplines.

All of the above is centred around being able to:

  • identify ‘a system’ i.e. the subject of analysis (as if it were a real thing);
  • create a well-defined problem statement;
  • take a scientific approach to problem solving; and thus
  • reach some (presumed) solution to the problem

This has been labelled as the school of hard systems thinking (explained later), where a system is something that, if we studied it together, we would all describe/ articulate in a similar way – as in a ‘thing’ that can be set out and agreed upon….and almost touch!

If we combine that we can define, model and understand ‘it’ then, hey presto, we should be able to solve ‘it’…as if there is a solution. Excellent! Let’s get modelling and improving.

But there’s a lot more to it – ‘Soft’ systems thinking

soft woodSo where did that ‘hard’ term come from and why?

It was coined by Peter Checkland in the 1970’s to label what he thought of the current approaches, and to propose an alternative ‘soft’ view. Here’s his explanation:

“[hard systems thinking believes that] the world contains interacting systems…[that] can be ‘engineered’ to achieve their objectives

…[however] none of these [hard systems thinking] approaches pays attention to the existence of conflicting worldviews, something which characterises all social interactions…

In order to incorporate the concept of worldviews…it [is] necessary to abandon the idea that the world is a set of systems.

In [soft systems thinking] the (social) world is taken to be very complex, problematical, mysterious, characterised by clashes of worldviews. It is continually being created and recreated by people thinking, talking and taking action. However, our coping with it…can itself be organised as a learning system.”

Now, I’m not saying that understanding everything that Checkland writes is easy – it isn’t (at least not for me) – but whatever you think of his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ and the various models within, I believe that the fundamentals are substantial…such as his human-centric thinking on:

  • Problematic situations; and
  • Worldviews

I’ve previously touched on the first point in my post titled “what I think is…”, which perhaps can be lightly summarised as ‘problems are in the eye of the beholder’, so I’ll move on to worldviews, nicely explained by Checkland as follows:

“When we interact with real-world situations we make judgements about them: are they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’, ‘permanent’ or ‘transient’?

Now, to make any judgement we have to appeal to some criteria or standards, these being the characteristics which define ‘good’ or ‘bad’ etc. for us. And where do such criteria come from? They will be formed partially by our genetic inheritance from our parents – the kind of person we are innately – and, most significantly, from our previous experiences of the world.

Over time these criteria and the interpretations they lead to will tend to firm up into a relatively stable outlook through which we then perceive the world. We develop ‘worldviews’, built-in tendencies to see the world in a particular way. It is different worldviews which make one person ‘liberal’, another ‘reactionary’. Such worldviews are relatively stable but can change over time…”

worldviews eyeThis ‘worldview’ concept is easily understood, and yet incredibly powerful. At its most extreme, it deals efficiently with the often-cited phrase that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.

I think that Checkland’s worldview explanation is profound (and yet, when thought about, bloody obvious). All worldviews (and hence perceived problems within) are personal, and a proper understanding of them (and why they are held) must be central to any meaningful approach of moving a social group (whether a family, an organisation or a society) to a better place.

It is just too simplistic for someone in a position of power9 to say ‘this is the system, this is the current problem, let’s get on and solve it.’

Checkland talks of getting people to think about their own thinking about the world.

Many people do that naturally and many people never ever do that – they simply engage with the world in an unreflective way.

If you are going to [really change the world then] you have to become [conscious about] thinking about your own thinking. You have to be able to stop yourself in a situation and ask yourself ‘how am I thinking about this? How else could I be thinking about this?

This is a meta-level of thinking, which is not obvious in everyday life – we don’t normally do it in day-to-day chat.”

Over in America

Whilst Checkland and his colleagues in the UK were questioning 1960s systems thinking (and deriving his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’9), two of his contemporaries were doing similar over in the US.

C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff were there at the very start of Operational Research (OR) in 1950s America, but by the 1970s they understood the essential missing piece and felt the need for radical change. Ackoff broke away from his OR faculty and initiated a new program called ‘Social Systems Sciences’, whilst Churchman wrote:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” 

A side note: Sadly, I expect that Churchman and Ackoff would be ‘turning in their graves’ if they could be made aware of the lack of thinking, particularly of worldviews, by Donald Trump and his band of (ahem) ‘patriotic’ followers. Patriotic seems to have become proudly re-defined by them as ‘closed minded’.

…but, hey, that’s just my worldview speaking 😊.

Laminating the two together

I’m not a champion of ‘soft’ over ‘hard’ or vice versa. Rather, I find real interest in their combined thinking…as in laminating the two together.

I personally like to think about systems in a hard and soft format.

  • ‘hard’ because a logical model to represent a ‘thing’ (as if I can touch it) is incredibly useful for me; yet
  • ‘soft’ because it requires me:
    • to accept that I merely have a perspective…with a need to surface my beliefs and assumptions, and;
    • to understand the relevant worldviews of those around me….and change myself accordingly.

Similarly, some 30 or so years after first deriving the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ terminology, Peter Checkland ends his last book with the following:

“New approaches (now thought of as ‘soft’), underpinned by a different social theory, have emerged. They do not, however, suggest that the 1960s theory was ‘wrong’ and should be abandoned. Rather the ‘new’ theory sees the ‘old’ one as a special case, perfectly adequate in certain circumstances, but less general than the social theory behind the ‘soft’ outlook.”

Perhaps the modern terminology for Checkland’s ‘Worldviews’ wording is ‘Mental Models’ – our internal pictures of how the world works – and this has become a major area of focus.

The need to surface, test and improve our mental models has, pleasingly, become entwined with systems thinking.

To summarise

Meadows, a giant systems thinker, embraced the need to expose our mental models:

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible.”

Nice!

…and finally, where to from here?

Checkland’s incredibly important softening of systems thinking (i.e. to include the reality of human beings into the mix) leads on to the question of how meaningful interventions into social systems are to be approached…which (I’m hoping) will be the subject of my next post: on ‘Action Research’.

Footnotes

1. Laminated: “Bonding layers of materials together”.

2. Post Image: I was searching for an image that showed a human made up of two complimentary materials and found this lovely plywood sculpture.

3. Trigger: I partially wrote this post after reading a ThinkPurpose post way back in Nov. ’16. That post was a light-hearted critique of Peter Checkland’s ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM) and, whilst I enjoyed reading it (as ever), I had many thoughts going on…which were far too verbose to put into a comments section.

4. In the beginning: My understanding is that, before Biology, there was Chemistry (necessary for life to start), and before that Physics (back to a big bang and, potentially, the multiverse)…and we (human beings) are ‘still working on’ what (if anything) came before that.

Personally, I’m a fan of the never-ending loop (ref. Louis Armstrong Guinness advert). Every time science finds something bigger (as it regularly seems to do)…there’s always another bigger. Every time science finds something smaller (e.g. at CERN using the Large Hadron collider)…there’s always another smaller – surely it must just all wrap back round 🙂 If there’s a name for this proposition/ delusion, let me know.

5. Book reference:- Flood, Robert Louis (1999): ‘Rethinking the Fifth Disciple – Learning within the unknowable’. The first half of this book sets out the work and thinking of a number of the main 20th century systems thinking giants.

6. The origin of Operational Research is regularly attributed to Charles Babbage’s study of England’s mail system (the costs of transport and sorting), resulting in the Penny Post (1840).

7. Forrester wrote the original System Dynamics text book (‘Principles of Systems’, 1968) setting out definitions and system modelling.

8. Senge’s five disciplines are: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning and….drum roll…Systems Thinking, though obviously you’d need to read the book to understand what is meant by each of these phrases.

Senge’s chapter on ‘Mental Models’ is based primarily on the work of Chris Argyris (whom I wrote about in ‘Double Trouble’).

9. Power: It is highly likely (and unsurprising) that a person’s worldview is heavily influenced by where they ‘sit’ within an organisation’s hierarchy. It’s always informative (and often amusing) to compare and contrast the organisational beliefs of a CEO with, say, a front line worker.

10. Misunderstanding SSM: I should note that, probably rather frustratingly for Checkland, people (including many an academic) seem to misinterpret (and/or perhaps misunderstand) what he was putting forward within SSM. He wrote a whole chapter at the end of his last book titled ‘Misunderstanding SSM’.

An addition to ‘My Giants’

Another giantThis quick post is to let readers know that I have just added another giant bio to the blog.

I’m writing a post at the moment about hard vs soft systems thinking and, in so doing, I realised that I had written (i.e. drafted) a ‘giant’ page for Peter Checkland two years ago…and never completed it.

…so, for those that are interested, I have rectified that here. My next post will add much more ‘meat to the bones’ of hard and soft systems thinking.

FYI: I introduced some of Checkland’s thinking in an earlier 2016 post called “What I think is…”

Over and out for now,

Steve

Oh…so that’s why ‘Command and Control’ doesn’t work very well!

social systemWarning (or advert for some): Sometimes I write long(er) ‘foundational’ type posts – this is one of them 🙂

Russ Ackoff researched and wrote a great deal about systems.

It is within his writings1 that I find an excellent explanation about why many organisations adopted the command and control management model, why there is a major problem with this and, most importantly, why there is a better way.

First, A recap:

Before looking at types of systems, I should allow Ackoff to remind us what is meant by ‘a system’ and why this matters:


“A system is a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system…

The two key pieces here are that:

  • there is an aim; and
  • it is made up of parts that need to work together (either directly or indirectly) to achieve that aim

If you have parts but no aim then you don’t have a system…you simply have a ‘collection’.

If you have a part that (truly) isn’t required to achieve the aim then it isn’t actually part of the system…which is why your ‘appendix’ body part got its name.


…If each part of a system, considered separately, is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible…

The heart and lungs are parts of the body but if they function according to what’s best ‘for themselves’ then they won’t function as required for the overall good of the whole. It’s no good if the brain is telling the heart and lungs to ‘work flat out’ to run like hell from a chasing pack of lions and these organs both respond with a “no thanks, this doesn’t suit  us!” The same is true for parts of (e.g. functions within) organisations.


…The performance of a system depends more on how its components interact than on how they act independently of each other…

You can buy a ‘light as a feather’ carbon frame, an awesome set of aero wheels and a precision engineered 11-speed group set but you can’t ride them as a bike if they don’t fit together. Further, someone with a basic ‘sit up and beg’ bike frame with cheap wheels and components that do fit will easily beat you in a bike race.


…When a system is taken apart it loses its essential properties.”

If you take apart an alarm clock, you will have all of the parts necessary for the system but the disassembled collection of parts isn’t sufficient to tell you the time.

The above has huge implications.

So, on to Ackoff’s system types:

Ackoff defined a number of types of systems2 and the problems that occur when an organisation adopts a management model that does not match the correct system type.

Here goes….

Type 1: Deterministic (e.g. mechanisms)

alarm clockA deterministic system is one which has no purpose and neither do its component parts. This might seem rather strange…”Erm, I thought you said a system had to have an aim?!” – the point is that a deterministic system normally serves a purpose of an entity external to it, such as its creator. Its function, and that of its parts, is simply to provide that service when required.

Mechanisms are the most obvious examples of deterministic systems: An alarm clock is such a system. Its purpose (to tell the time) has been provided to it by its creator (the clock maker)….and that is what it is for, nothing more and nothing less. It can’t decide to do something else!

Even a computer, whilst incredibly more complicated than an alarm clock, is such a system – it is reliant on the inputs and programs provided to it by its external sources.

Type 2: Animated (e.g. most organisms)

monkeyAn animated system is one which does have a purpose of its own but its parts don’t.

Animals (and therefore humans) are the most obvious example. They have a purpose of their own – where this might be argued as (at a minimum) survival, and (more optimistically) to enjoy doing so, in the manner of their own choosing.

The animal is made up of parts (e.g. organs) and whilst these parts have a necessary function for the good of the whole, they do not have a purpose of their own.

In this way we can compare a computer to a person and see that they are fundamentally different. The computer’s purpose is provided to it whilst the person provides their own.

Type 3: Social (e.g. organisations, societies)

flagsA social system is one which has a purpose of its own and so do its parts (the people within).

Indeed each social system is usually part of a larger social system (e.g. a family is part of a community, which is part of a nation, which is part of ….)

And even more complex, a person belongs to multiple social systems – which have different, sometimes conflicting, purposes3.

So, bringing these three types together, we have:

System Type4: The whole is: The Parts are:
Deterministic (e.g. a mechanism) Not purposeful Not purposeful
Animated (e.g. a human) Purposeful Not purposeful
Social (e.g. an organisation) Purposeful Purposeful

These three system types form a sort of hierarchy: The deterministic alarm clock is given purpose by the animated (clock making) person who also lives within their social group. The linkages don’t go the other way….or at least they shouldn’t…which leads on to…

Okay, interesting stuff but what’s the point?

Well, now that we have an understanding of three different types of systems, we can see the consequences of the misunderstanding of an organisation as a system:

A ‘deterministic’ model applied to an organisation:

Adam Smith (often referred to as the father of economics and of capitalism) wrote a famous book called ‘The wealth of nations’ (1776). In it, he used the example of a pin factory to explain the concept of ‘the division of labour’. He explained that one person performing all the steps necessary to making a pin could perhaps make only 20 pins a day but if the pin-making process were broken up into a series of limited operations, with separate people performing them in a joined-up line, productivity could rise to thousands of pins per day per worker.

Now that sounds fantastic doesn’t it! But for who?

Smith’s thinking was taken on board by industrialists who went on to employ vast factories of ‘unskilled labour’ in the new concept of ‘manufacturing’ (and who likely still do in the sweat shops of 3rd world countries).

Standing back, we can see that this is using people as replaceable machine parts i.e. we have a defined mechanism (the manufacturing process) which is given its purpose externally by its creator (e.g. make pins)…and wow, this mechanism sure can make pins!

Henry Ford’s phenomenal success worked in the same way. He designed a mechanism to make Model T Fords (his mass production factory) and installed workers as the mechanism’s parts. He (and other ‘owners’ at this time) could use workers in this mechanistic way because:

  • unskilled workers, whilst poorly educated, were adequate for the simple tasks required of them;
  • such workers were willing to tolerate being treated as a machine part since there was high unemployment and virtually no social security safety net…giving them little option (i.e. work as required or starve);
  • there was a large pool of available labour – the human parts of the machine were easily replaceable; and
  • such business owners were subject to very little societal controls (such as governmental interventions and constraints) limiting their treatment of their worker ‘parts’4.

It’s worth noting that, even though worker conditions were massively in his favour, Ford’s ‘mechanism’ had an astounding 370% turnover of workers in 1913, with new hires staying an average of only 3 months. Many workers simply ‘walked off the job’ without notifying anyone…which is what happens if you ask humans to perform monotonous (demoralising) work without having to use their brains.

An ‘animated’ model applied to an organisation

So times moved on. We had two world wars that caused/ enabled major societal changes – a major shakeup of the class system, the birth and rise of the Labour movement and worker unions, massive improvements in education, social security and welfare, and great advances in technology.

The other significant change was the raising of capital (necessary for post war growth and development) from the public and the consequent birth/ rise of publically owned corporations. This separated the ownership and management of these new organisations.

A big difference from before was that:

  • the workers were now far more educated and empowered; and
  • the required work had become far more skilled (utilising new technologies).

Managers were no longer able to treat workers as merely replaceable cogs in a machine – it took time to train them, and they now had worker rights and choice.

Now, rather than seeing an organisation as a deterministic system with the all-powerful owner dictating its purpose (as the likes of Ford had done), they operated as an animated system would6: with a ‘brain’ (senior management) and a ‘body’ (the various operating functions performing the work).

Such a model works by senior management providing the instructions (the what: commands) and procedures (the how: controls) and then the operating units carrying them out accordingly.

“Command and control represents the division of labour between decision-making and doing the work.” (Seddon)

We all know that the ‘operator’ parts within the organisations ‘body’ are actually human beings but the ‘command and control’ management instruments don’t really recognise this fact:

  • the organisational ‘brain’ (often annually) decides the strategy and breaks this down into a set of objectives for the parts of the ‘body’ and locks these into a cascaded grand plan;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ provides incentives for the ‘body’ to act as it requires: thus assuming that it is simply a matter of extrinsically motivating each part to comply as required;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ considers the performance of each part of the ‘body’, scores it and delivers this judgement back: thus assuming that each part can and will accept such feedback for the good of the whole;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ performs (frequent) reorganisations on the ‘body’ parts, as if shifting pawns around a game board. The brain does this by dictating such redesigns to the body rather than asking the body if (and how) it could better rearrange itself;
  • The organisational ‘brain’ thinks that the answer to an increasingly complex environment is simply to increase the quantity and regularity of communication with the ‘body’ parts. This fails to realise that communication is not the underlying problem.

But the reality for every organisation is that they have purposeful parts – you and I – whether they like it or not…and so to treat these parts as merely having a function for the whole is to inevitably generate conflict.

A social model applied to an organisation

…and so we reach the point at which we conclude the obvious that:

  • the organisation (hopefully) has a purpose;

AND

  • the humans working within it have separate purposes.

…and therefore any management model that doesn’t understand and work within such a social system will be very limiting – causing loss of immeasurable value to the organisation AND to the people within.

Now you might say “okay, interesting stuff, but treating an organisation as an animated system and using command and control methods has worked fine so far…why do we need to change?”

The rate of change in our world has been massively accelerating. It used to be that change was seen as generational and this made it relatively easy for people to adapt but this no longer holds true.

Organisations are operating in more complex and less predictable environments with the result that:

“Over the last 50 years, the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has shrunk from around 60 years to closer to 18 years.” (Source: The art of corporate endurance )

Here’s a classic Deming quote: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

But if survival is desired, then the best chance that an organisation has is to operate a management model that actually fits with the correct type of system! In so doing, it can get the best out of everyone within.

What might this model look like? Studying ‘Deming’s 14 points for Management’ would be a great start. A post to follow next.

Who’s been successfully operating a social model for decades? Two brilliant examples are Toyota and Handelsbanken.


Footnotes:

1. Credit: The core of this post comes from learnings derived from a classic Ackoff essay entitled ‘Reflections on systems and their models’ which can be found in the book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His classic writings on management’.

2. I’m aware that other system thinkers have created other, more sophisticated, classification schemes (e.g. Boulding, Beer). Ackoff’s system types nicely serve the purpose of this post.

3. This fact is probably relevant to the need for, and creation of ‘soft systems thinking’…which is where Peter Checkland’s work fits in (A ‘giant bio’ currently in draft)

4. For those ‘system’ geeks out there: Ackoff explained a 4th system type, that of an ecological system – where the parts are purposeful but the whole is not. Ecological systems contain interacting mechanistic, organismic and social systems, but do not have a purpose of their own. However, their function(s) serve the purpose of the systems that are their parts.

Example: the purposeful use of fluorocarbons as propellants by humans (a purposeful part of the ecological system) affects the ozone layer in a way that is determined, and not a matter of choice for our planet (the whole)…the planet cannot decide that it is harmful to it and decide to ‘do something about it’– the outcome (even though we may not understand it) is determined.

5. Henry Ford realised the problem and, in an attempt to compensate for their conditions, paid his workers well as compared to what they could earn elsewhere.

6. Stafford Beer wrote a famous book called ‘The brain of the firm’ (1972) that explored in detail the analogy of an organisation working as the human body does.

“What I think is…”

InformedI’d suggest that every day in our working (and home) lives we are asked for our opinion on something. In fact, such a situation probably occurs dozens of times every single day.

Let’s drill down into a single instance and consider the basic pattern of dialogue: we listen to someone state, and maybe explain, their thinking with regards to what they deem to be a problematic situation (explained below)  and then we start an immediate response with words like “I think that…”.  Worse, we may state our ‘thinking’ (perspective) as fact and we may mistake our feelings as rational logic.

I have a constant battle with myself to avoid, pull back from, or recognise my fall into this vast pit.

A sideways look at ‘everyday life’:

Peter Checkland, in his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM), came up with a rather nice device that assists – the idea of ‘problematic situations’.

“As a member of the human tribe we experience everyday life as being quite exceptionally complex. We feel ourselves to be carried along in an onrushing turbulent stream, a flux of happenings, ideas, emotions, actions, all mediated through the slippery agency of language, all continually changing.

Our response to our immersion in this stream is not simply to experience it. Beyond that, we have an innate desire to try to see it, if we can, as meaningful. We attribute meaning to it – the ability to do this being one of the characteristics which marks us out as human.

Part of this meaning attribution is to see chunks of the ongoing flux as ‘situations’. Nothing is intrinsically ‘a situation’; it is our perceptions which create them as such, and in doing that we know that they are not static; their boundaries and their contents will change over time.

Some of the situations we perceive, because they affect us in some way, cause us to feel a need to tackle them, to do something about them, to improve them.” Thus we perceive such situations as ‘problematic’ i.e. something to intervene in.

This neatly dovetails with my last post in respect of Ackoff and messes vs. abstract problems. Just as Ackoff didn’t like the simplistic word ‘problem’, neither does Checkland. …and for the same reason: ‘problem’ implies ‘solution’ but, as he puts it, “real life is more complex than that!”

Back to that opinion we have been asked for

How do we arrive at our thinking? Do we have enough knowledge to justify a response?

Here’s another useful passage from Checkland:

“In human conversation, each of the persons involved influences others and is also influenced by them. Out of this two-way process comes what the participants are creating as their notion of changing ‘reality’. These acts of creating reality are never complete, and so have to be examined as only a part of a never-ending process.”

i.e. Any response we provide isn’t, and cannot be, ‘concrete’*. We have, and will always have, much to learn. Of course, it’s absolutely the case that our mindset (and where it sits on the ‘fixed – growth’ spectrum) will determine in which direction(s) and how far our thinking will travel during, and following human interactions.

(*yet, in many situations, we are easily satisfied with superficial response(s) and make key decisions based upon them)

I’d like to propose a few ‘alterations’ to our language to more accurately express the reality whenever we offer our opinion. How about we start our replies with:

“what I currently think is…”; or even better

 “what’s just popped into my head as a response is…”

Because, let’s be honest – we weren’t thinking about it 5 minutes before we were asked and we have press-ganged our brain into providing a timely reply. Further, our ‘answer’ isn’t exactly complete. It’s just an initial train of thought based on what we have been exposed to, and heavily weighted by its recency.

Even thinking about adjusting our replies to being less certain is likely to help us contemplate what we actually know to respond.

I could be flippant here and say that, if you ask me what I think, I should reply that I don’t know yet – ask me on my death bed…because that’s when I will have finished* assimilating all the information available to me. (* though likely, I presume, not by my choice)

Rather than taking this unhelpful line of reasoning…let’s look at what lies within:

Knowledge, not opinions

i.e. the idea that I need to take my time, gain (and therefore seek out) experience, understand the facts and expose differing perspectives before I provide a hypothetically useful reply.

So, even better than the “what I currently think is…” response would be to clearly explain the basis, extent (and therefore limitations) of our experiences in respect of the topic in play…so that we and the listener can appreciate why we currently think as we do…and our listener is encouraged to  reflect in the same manner. Gosh, we might end up educating each other!

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” (Confucius)

In a work scenario our response should often simply be:

“I don’t have the facts to make a valuable response…but I can do something about that…I’ll get straight to the gemba!”

…and if we do this, we will collect the facts, appreciate the environment in which they arise, and understand other perspectives…leading to meaningful change, towards purpose.

…which is an excellent link to three previous posts:

…and I’ve also set myself up for a follow-up post on the ‘soft systems thinking’ topic of ‘Worldviews’. Here’s a teaser to end with:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” (C. West Churchman)