Tag Archives: systems thinking

Systems Thinkers need a Posse


obeyAndre the Giant has a posse. Public Enemy have the S1Ws. Radicals throughout history had a crew, an entourage, a crew. The Misfit Economy by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips details types of people who did things differently, from pirates to gangsters and hackers. And they all had a posse.

It’s hard to stand on your own, against the grain. People carry hammers to knock in any nails that dare to stick up. Sometime this is just a put down, a career blip. Maybe what you say means you can’t walk the streets without watching your back.

Clay and Phillips don’t mention systems thinkers in their book, but they are out there, from a voice in a dysfunctional organisation, to revealing the structural racism inherent in a dysfunctional society.

Some run towards the danger, up for a fight. Others see the danger and wait or give up. Seeing systems can be a hard, lonely place full of compromise and disillusionment. We need friendly people to talk to, who have been there, who can see the patterns that may be too close for us to focus on.

For a group who are arguably all about they way things connect, the systems community are a fractured bunch. Academia values novel research. Just connecting other people works doesn’t carry much weight. What should be a strong backbone of theory is a silo factory. Consultancy is as bad. There are people who attack others work as a way of promoting their own. Of course they need to pay the rent. The problem is structural as much as human.

We need a community, for support when it goes wrong, to build ideas, to talk, laugh and develop. Ideas are free, but alone I’m useless. I need to talk, how else do I know what I think? And sharing means more ideas, not spending my time defending what I have. We need safe spaces to think, grow and change. Safe from attack and ridicule, and safe from being used as a step to make someone feel taller.

What would a systems thinking community value, and how would our current interactions compare to an ideal that we can all theorize about, but we sometimes work to destroy.

Are we too fractured to have an identity?


Why are people replacing robots?

Mercedes-Benz is replacing some of the robots in their factories with people.


3127953038There had to be some passionate conversations between factory managers, and executives at Mercedes-Benz with this one. Replacing some robots with people has caused all sort of problems. If the factories are quite new, and were built for automation they probably don’t have many toilets near the factory floor. Or a large car park, or canteen. Robots don’t drive to work, and need to eat. Factory managers will take personal and professional pride in running efficient operations and automation has made cars affordable, reliable and available.

What is going on when the factories start employing people to replace robots? Wearing an efficiency hat this doesn’t make sense. Robotic factories have been the only future imaginable for years.  What has changed? Does the factory rulebook need to be rewritten?

Increasing pace of change and complexity 

From the Guardian article:

The robots cannot handle the pace of change and the complexity of the key customisation options available for the company’s S-Class saloon at the 101-year-old Sindelfingen plant, which produces 400, 000 vehicles a year from 1,500 tons of steel a day.

We need to be flexible. The variety is too much to take on for the machines. They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”

Robots can’t currently mange the complexity of the customisation options. People are currently able to outperform robots at tasks requiring variety, at least until the robot manufacturers catch up.

Managing Variety 1: Making something you can sell

To find where this variety has come from, we can start in sales. Mercedes is in business to sell cars to customers. To do the sales folk need to offer what the customer environment wants, a…

… dizzying number of options for the cars – from heated or cooled cup holders, various wheels, carbon-fibre trims and decals, and even four types of caps for tire valves –

There may be customer demand for these, or marketing could have created the demand. Either way, with a lean, efficient production line, the sales folk are selling something the robotic factories can’t make.

Variety 2: Selling something you can make

Mercedes need to reduce the variety their customers demand to a level their factories can cope with. Balancing this equation is essential. Of course the ultimate offer would be a custom Mercedes for each customer, but this is not possible for the cost of a Mercedes.

To do this marketing and production have to work together to design and market cars that they can make in their factories. Mercedes-Benz are a luxury brand, so cost efficiency is not the sole purpose of the factory.

Marketing has to create and manage demand for the sort of customisation that their factories, restructured with people and robots, can produce. People can cope with the operational variety that robots, or people behaving like robots can’t.

Using robots, machines or computers increases efficiency, but reduces the ability of the system, in this case a factory, to cope with variety in an fast changing environment.

At every level we must ensure that the variety equations balance. If a car dealer can’t supply what the customer is asking for, they will buy elsewhere. If the factory can’t make what the car dealer is selling then the business won’t last long.




My Strengths vs Your Strengths. Pleased to meet you. Let’s build something amazing.


We all have strengths. Some people are fortunate enough to find their skills and use them in life and work. Or we may never recognise what we’re good at, or find our skills are not required or appreciated. We’re quick to label the behaviour of others as wrong or stupid. We may not understand what they are doing, and why.

How do we recognise each others abilities, and talk about how we can work together? Can we understand which strengths we don’t excel in, and when they’re more useful than our own skills?

How do we recognise that some behaviours are strengths at all? People may be too controlling, too keen on harmony, can avoid facts to concentrate on ambiguity, or seem to enjoy the complications. I annoy people by abandoning plans at the first sign of a better way. Colleagues see my critical views as criticising plans to destroy them,  when I want to test and improve the foundations.

Recently I took the Strength Finder 2.0 online analysis to find my strengths. I found this through one of Tobias Myers posts. Tobias says a lot of great things so I though I’d see what insights came with this.

Out of 32 possible strengths my top 5  fit me pretty well, describing someone systemic, interested in ideas and learning. it also suggested I was a people person, able to understand and design how people can do things better. My number 1 is Strategy. Which means I can figure out a way to make it work too.

The 5 strengths were Strategy, Learner, Individualization, Ideation and Arranger. There are many more details available online and on youtube about these strengths. I’ve also started to create some mind maps of the strengths videos. Available on git. But my strengths are not the point.

For a few weeks after the test moved on, content with having some great new phrases for my linkedin profile. Then I realised this was a sharable understanding of how I work at my best and a way I can understand, appreciate and work with others. Boom.

I have no affiliation with Strengths Finder, the basic test is $15. I prefer open tools and ideas, but this tool seems so powerful, and I’m not sure it would exist otherwise.

I hope to get some colleagues to take the test.

If we can

  • talk about out strengths using a common language
  • understand the wide range of skills people have
  • recognise how we can work together, on purpose,

Then we can build amazing things.

Systems thinking in one cartoon

Systems thinking is daunting. There is a lot to learn, and there is always someone to cheerfully point out when you’ve missed a bit.

Bill Watterson

I first saw this cartoon in 1992, and I cut it out and stuck it to a picture frame that followed me about for the next 15 years. It reminded me to make sure that I understood why I was choosing to do things and to look for other perspectives.

It’s all about your purpose and seeing the big picture. Bill Watterson is a genius for making it simple and funny.


Breaking the problem down into manageable chunks is a boundary decision. Hobbs sees it as classic reductionism and sets up the punchline, with Calvin is asking “Is this problem within the boundary of what I care about or not”. So he’s not solving the problem, but dissolving the problem by thinking about the bigger picture, from the perspective of a 6-year-old.

Taking a problem that looks impossible and reimagining it from different perspectives, ideally so the impossible part goes away is a common systems thinking approach.

Unlike Calvin, I spend most of my spare time reading entire chapters of books.

Are antifragile organisations possible?

noun_15977_ccAntifragility is an idea by Nassim Taleb, describing something that actually becomes stronger with stress. The most obvious things that are Antifragile are living organisms, such as people becoming stronger after experiening stressors at the gym. Other things can be robust, like a rock. Machines are fragile. Cars need maintenance as we use them, they do not usually get better, or more fit for their environment in use.

Some things need stress

Taleb suggests if we do not allow the stressors that make antifragile things stronger, we make it more likely that a big event will threaten the things existence. He uses examples of small forest fires preventing larger ones, and re phrases Nietzsche, changing “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” to “That which kills you, makes me stronger”. For example, failure of restaurants in a city make the restaurant population stronger. If restaurants were not allowed to fail, he suggests standards would fall to cafeteria levels, making the population unviable if compared to choices in another city.

Organisations are not Machines

I think this applies to our organisations in interesting ways. We often run our organisations as machines, seeking efficiencies, lowering risks, and seeing failure as something to be avoided, and covered up if possible. The average lifespan of an US company is 15 years.  Does the way we run companies misunderstand that, for long-term survival, they need to be antifragile?

The machine metaphor for organisations is seen in top down hierarchy and control. Often an organisation like this can only understand itself in terms this metaphor. Other metaphors are like a foreign language.

If you think of your organisation in inputs and outputs, single purpose, control, clockwork, standardisation and measurement you’re using machine metaphors.

What would an antifragile organisation look like?

There are other organisational metaphors and models based on antifragile systems. Language based on organic, cultural and transformational metaphors, and models based on viable systems are available.

Organic metaphors include environmental conditions, adaptation, life cycles, homeostasis, evolution, distributed control, mindsets, feedback, requisite variety and learning.

Thinking about larger organisations,  antifragility means the ability to learn and improve behaviour based on environment stressors. Parts of the organisation should be allowed to take  risks and fail to allow learning and improvement to occur. Organisations structure should allow learning from failure in any of the organisational units. Continuous small-scale risk and failure will avoid some big risks.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that the organisation will predict or survive a ‘black swan‘ event, but it will be better suited to a changing environment.

Many organisations managed on a machine metaphor have operational priorities focused on lean efficiency, essentially denying antifragility. Mistakes and failures may be punished and covered up, creating a fragile organisation that is wary of change, and exposed to more, not less risk. By focusing on the machine model and metaphor they are vulnerable to external events that will put them out of existence.

My answer: Yes to both.

I think I was first asked the question if I liked ‘looking the big picture’ or if I liked ‘understanding the details’ when I was at school. The purpose of this question was to filter responders into scientific subjects, that were often pushed strongly, like Maths, Science and Engineering, or subjects that were ‘not science’. Not reductionist, but more big picture perhaps. Answering questions that didn’t have just one answer.

I answered yes to both options. Can I look at the big picture and understand the details please? Apparently not, from my experience at least. I had to choose.

For various reasons I had a strong push towards science. I grew up in a northern steel town for one.

So I was steered towards science, and ending up a BSc Physics with Maths, and into IT. I think this is one of the worst decisions I’ve made. I often didn’t find the subjects easy, but I can apply myself until I understand something, so I was successful up to a point. But I’m in a hole I’d like to get out of.

I’m naturally inquisitive, but I’ve found that I ask questions like, ‘This is is cool, how can I use it to do good things‘ at the front of my mind, and not ‘can I take this apart to see how it works‘.

I started learning Systems Thinking a few months ago. One of the greatest things about this is I now know how I think, I have names for my approaches, and a language to discuss thinking. It’s allowed me to show my mental working, and has massively expanded my ability to think clearly, and communicate my ideas, including how I arrived at them. It only took 20 years of reductionism, that saw my interest in problems diminish as I tackled the same thing with a different name.

Back to the original question. Should an answer of ‘both’ allowed? Should holistic thinking be recognised as a mental skill including some specialist understanding? Are thinking skills being wasted, because there is no category for both, and education is either / or?

I’m learning to understand strategic big picture tools as a hobby. I’d like to make it part of my career. I’m still working that one out.