[Editorial note: the data is in. Paid subscribers don’t like seeing archival content. More original writing to come.]
I’m lucky enough to be in Paris this week. Among other activities, Jessica Kerr & I gave our Invitation to Systems Thinking workshop. One element of workshops I love is how new themes emerge. If I find myself using the same new phrase several times during a workshop, it’s time to explore it more deeply.
Our motto for the workshop is, “You aren’t in control, neither are you helpless.” You shouldn’t expect to control a complex system—too many factors, too many competing feedback loops (doesn’t stop folks from trying, but that’s a topic for another day). Even though you aren’t in control of the systems you participate in, you do have influence. Understanding systems offers a way out of passivity & despair.
As part of the preparation for the workshop, I finally listed my personal goals for studying systems:
Making some sense of the system
Complex systems often seem random at first. Seemingly-irrelevant changes to the inputs result in massive changes to the outputs. Seemingly-obvious improvements lead to degradation. Systems thinking helps me go from “I’ll never understand this” to “Okay here are some of the parts & how they might connect”.
For me this is both an intellectual & an emotional transformation. I go from, “Forget about it—every improvement only makes things worse” to a sense of curiosity & agency—”Well if that’s true then changing this should change that”. I have questions to explore. Hypotheses to test. Experiments to run. And energy to explore, test, & experiment.
Once I’ve gotten off my butt by starting to understand a system, the second goal for my systems thinking is to clarify what I can & can’t expect to influence. I want to focus my efforts on activities with a chance of payoff. For example, when the Agile/Certification Industrial Complex got rolling, I figured there was no way for me to effectively intervene. There was just too much money, too many people, & too many needs being (seemingly) filled for me to make a difference. I called it out when I had the chance but I didn’t expect any change.
In addition to gaining a sense of how much I can expect to influence a system & in what directions, I also want to get a sense for how long the changes are likely to take. Timing in systems is tricky.
"There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen"—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
I can still have a sense of whether we are talking about weeks or decades. An expected timeline helps me focus my efforts & refocus them when they aren’t yielding fruit.
Vince Walker: You’re an ambitious man.
Mahatma Gandhi: I hope not.
I’ve lived my life in hopes of making a big difference. I don’t recommend it as a way to live, as it comes with some big downsides, but it’s how I’m wired so I’m going to roll with it.
At the same time I’ve never had formal power or money (although power & money are surprisingly helpless in the face of a system of sufficient complexity). If I want to cause big changes, I need leverage. Systems thinking helps me identify leverage points.
My favorite moment in systems thinking is discovering a reinforcing (positive feedback) loop. Especially if it is causing problems. “Everything we do makes the problem worse!” Excellent!
Once you have a reinforcing loop in focus, you automatically have a list of candidates places to intervene. If you can get the loop operating in the direction you want, the loop will take care of the rest.
This is what systems thinking does for me:
Move from confusion & apathy to curiosity & energy.
Focus my efforts on changes that might help.
Find leverage points where small changes to the inputs may produce large, desirable changes to the outputs.
I loved this, classic Kent Beck to my sense in that it offers an insight into the internal psychology of the author (and thus potentially the reader) rather than just to the intellect.
I would have loved a couple more concrete examples of situations in which systems thinking helped tho.
Thanks Kent for all your work!
Thank you for your work. Hope you will write more about software design in the context of systems thinking.