When solving problems, think about the system and not its parts

I am often amazed at the depth of thought and the wisdom of prior generations. On rare occasions when I take the time to hunt around, I stumble across something really good.

Case in point. Did you ever hear about Dr. Russell Ackoff? Here’s a little about him from Wikipedia. He’s a giant in the systems thinking world. I found a video of him on YouTube where he quite simply tells anyone who will listen that the standard approach to solving problems and making improvement is wrong (honestly, it’s worth watching the whole thing).

What do we do when we want to continuously improve? We dissect the situation to isolate the problem so we can understand and fix it. There are inherent issues with this approach:

  • Ridding yourself of something you don’t want doesn’t necessarily get you what you do want.
  • As you change one part within a system, there are ripples and repercussions – unintended consequences. To really improve, improve how the parts fit together – how they interact with one another.

And yet we do it all the time. We focus on eliminating minor accidents at work (a good thing); however, consequential events causing significant harm continue occurring at similar rates. We focus for over a decade on out-sourcing and find that we are in-sourcing because the synergy created through people working together outweighs the benefits of reduced labor costs for a portion of the process.

We know that the problems we face today are becoming more and more complex. More and more wicked. The interactions and influences within the system form this complexity.

We need to be strategic about our solutions. We need to involve all the stakeholders with all their perspectives in a truly participatory process. This is the only way we can understand the system as a whole. In other words, this is the way to grasp how the parts interact and influence each other towards a valuable purpose.

As Dr. Ackoff recommends, let’s do the architectural work first – create a beautiful system that will meet the key quality requirements – then, grounded in this understanding, we can do the engineering and dive in to work on the individual parts. Do you agree with his recommendations?

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