Machine. Ecosystem. (5) – Duncan Green on systems thinking and development

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity; because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse or apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – ‘if A, then B’ – with profound consequences in terms of failures, frustration, and missed opportunities [when the plan is thrown out by unexpected consequences within the plan, or by things that were never in it]. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.’

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear, ‘simple’ system. All I need to do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working…

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organisations. They decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging in a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it?

Deng Xiaoping said, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one.”

Duncan Green – How Change Happens (amazon)

Machine. Ecosystem. (2)

Yesterday’s post laid out several reasons benefits of understanding your organisation as a machine.* But many of the important parts of your organisation don’t behave in predictable or mechanistic ways. Your team’s culture, for example, is a affected by, for example:

  • organisational history;
  • personalities on the team;
  • individual moods;
  • collective morale;
  • Team members’ stage of life and health;
  • interpersonal chemistry or rivalry;
  • changes in team members’ salaries or position;
  • ‘near’ factors like the closure of a favourite neighbourhood gathering spot;
  • the health of the wider economy;
  • government policy;
  • levels of outside interest and flows of money into or out of your sector

In short, your organisation is a complex adaptive system within the complex adaptive system of the economy and the world as a whole.

Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change can barely make a dent. 

Aaron Dignan

Fruitful thinking

What this means is that trying to eliminate uncertainty or narrowly control outcomes is likely to be futile. Instead you need to ask which nudges will make your system more likely to produce good outcomes. You can think of projects and things you do as seeds with a chance of bearing fruit, and so widely – and position yourself to take advantage of opportunities that crop up in surprising places but seem to strengthen the system.

And as you think about the wider ecosystem and realise that you’re scarily dependent on ‘exogenous’ factors way beyond your control, you can think about how to nurture and protect the flows that you depend on, like flows of information or resources (including people and ideas) into and out of your organisation. How might building a network (for example) strengthen these flows, or tweak the system’s disposition in a way that’s in your favour?

*If you go deeper there are compelling arguments that even our machines are part of a living ecology – see Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants and The Techium for jumping off point into this way of thinking

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (3)

Positioning

Being ready in the right place at the right time makes everything easier.

Sometimes you need to position yourself for a better view – to improve your vision – before you can position yourself to do. If you can’t see properly, you can’t decide.

Once you’ve got a decent view you can move to position yourself with respect to whatever’s coming, gathering the resources that you need and giving yourself enough time and space to use them.

Good positioning – creating time and space and being prepared – ends up looking like skill in execution, and it sort of is. It’s a skill of its own – the skill of making the most of what you’ve got.

The more I practice, the luckier I get

You can never see enough, never have all the information to be perfectly prepared – you do what you can with what you have. But the better your vision and positioning is, the better you’ll be able to respond to opportunities that come your way by pure, dumb luck.

Running to stay still

Once you’re in position, you might have to work hard just to stay there. Sometimes this is necessary – and keeping moving is almost always better than staying still – but if you find yourself having to run constantly just to keep up you might be playing the wrong game or need to think again about where the best positions are.

Some questions about positioning:

  • Where am I now?
  • Where do I need to be, by when?
  • How do I get there?
  • What’s my next step, and the one after that – and what will make it easier for me to take them?
  • What types of relationships do I need, and with who?
  • What skills and attributes will I need once I’m in position, and how will I develop them?
  • What resources?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • Who is in position already that I can learn from – or need to be cautious of?

(These are all questions about vision, too.)

Dreaming by day: Kevin Kelly on realists and fantasists

I one-hundred-percent agree with the idea that to be human is to be ‘tensioned’, to be in conflict in some ways between two conflicting ideas at the same time, and it’s not just between our expectations and what we want for certainty, but other things, like when you’re making something new you have to be both a realist and a fantasist, you have to do something that will ship but also will reach for the stars and be impossible at the same time, and that’s part of the tension of being creative.

Kevin Kelly – Cool Tools Podcast, Ep013 with Seth Godin

This feels like a KK version of the old T.E. Lawrence quote, which incidentally was very nearly the first post of DriverlessCroc:

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible. This I did.

T.E. Lawrence – Seven Pillars of Wisdom

May we dream by day.

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (2)

Four types of vision:

  1. Vision of what is: the good, the bad… and the missing.
  2. Vision of possibilities: seeing what could be, or what could stop being. Having a sense of contributing factors and probabilities.
  3. Moral or ethical vision: knowing which possibilities should be, and which you will take responsibility for changing.
  4. Judgement: choosing a good way forward in light of 1, 2 and 3.

Each of these are helped by:

  • History
  • Friendships
  • Economics
  • Good stories
  • Science
  • Experience
  • Psychology
  • Visual art
  • Contemplation
  • Geography
  • Asking good questions
  • Sociology
  • Learning new skills
  • Philosophy
  • Studying management
  • Meeting new people
  • Systems thinking

The list doesn’t end. Anything that enriches your hinterland helps to shape your vision and creates new possibilities.

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (1)

You see the traffic, approach the road, pause at the kerb, lean forward just as someone passes to get some forward motion, then step into the space between cars.
Or you press the button and wait for the light.

You see a public holiday on the calendar, decide that you want to go away, decide where and who with, then you book, pack, and go.

You see a teammate with the ball and an opposing player moving to tackle. You move into position for a pass – changing course slightly once the ball is in the air – catch it, and run into space.

You see your child growing up and glimpse what they need now and will need in future. You make changes to free up time. You learn new things to share with them. You spend the time, play, talk, teach, give them things they need.

You see a need for a product or service, know that you can make it, start working, gathering resources, building relationships with suppliers and buyers, making it, sharing it with the people it’s for.

You see a glass on the edge of a table and someone gesturing enthusiastically. You move the glass, continue the conversation.

You see someone in need, move closer to find out what’s going on, do what you can to help.

Vision. Positioning. Execution.

Raising the tone

Lowering the tone is easy, often funny, and sometimes desirable: lofty conversations gain traction (or evaporate) when touched to earth. Laughter liberates.

It’s much harder to raise the tone, and harder still to do it with humour and grace… but it’s almost always desirable. It’s a way to lead.

I propose that we aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of raising the tone to lowering it. And that we hold some fart jokes in reserve in case things get too serious.

Invisible compromises

Why are our compromises so often invisible to others?

We take a deep breath, struggle to assume the best, let go of a few things and then stretch out with all the patience and generosity and grace that we can muster to offer a compromise and meet them in the middle…

… and nobody sees it.

If only our families, friends, colleagues, suppliers and customers would be more reasonable, they’d compromise too.

Good starts

We think we see good starts all the time, but most of the time we see wrong.

Most of the time what looks like a good start – of a work day, a career, a diet, a business, a life – most of the time what looks like a good start is a long way into the story, the business-end of the iceberg.

That athlete off to the dream start in the 800m? He really started years ago. Quite possibly, someone else started things for him, tied his shoes, helped him train.

That overnight musical success? They started a decade ago in a garage before moving up in the world… to being ignored in tiny clubs.

That kid with the law degree from a top university? They probably got a good start by choosing excellent grandparents and even better parents, by being born in a nation and at a time where their particular skills are valuable.

Most of the stories that fed into ours were entirely beyond our control. We can be grateful for the good bits and we can mitigate the bad, but in one sense, none of it really matters.

What matters is, what is now the start of – the start that no-one else will see?

Debt to society

If you want to talk about our debt to society – the question of what we owe the other people who share our culture, and share the planet with us – it’s helpful to start with this: without other people, you’d be dead. Even if you’d somehow managed to be born on your own, without other people you’d never have made it.

But ‘debt to society’ is the wrong way to frame it. It helps to think less about giving-up-what-is-rightfully-ours because of what we owe (though we do), or because we feel guilty or obliged (though perhaps we should), or because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t (though there might be good reason for this).

What do we want?

Let’s talk instead about contributing towards what we want, and the benefits we might expect to enjoy if we lived in a kinder, more generous society. A society – just for example – in which as many people as possible get a leg-up when they’re just starting out (by being born, or starting school, or starting their careers), and the hand-up that makes all the difference when they’re down. We know that these things don’t just make it better for other people’s kids, but for our kids.* A better society is better for all of us: no-one wants unhealthy, poorly educated, tormented neighbours. (And no-one wants selfish neighbours either).

We all do want human flourishing, and most of us want it for everyone. We don’t even disagree that much about what it looks like, just about how to achieve it** and sustain it. And most people want to contribute towards achieving it.

Better

If we focus on “better”, if we say the words and describe it, it becomes much easier for people who usually disagree with us to say, “Actually, I want that too – but I think we’ll get it by doing this...” And it becomes easier for us to agree to try one way, then the other – or to find a different, better way.

And focusing on contribution towards building something better is a great story. We can feel good about what we’re giving, a part of what we’re building, and hopeful about what we’re moving towards.

*And at the end of the day, they’re all our kids.
**Perhaps particularly about whether a
flourishing life is something that can be given.