What You See Is All There Is

I am currently reading a book by the Nobel prizewinner, Daniel Kahneman – a person described by Steven Pinker as “the world’s most influential living psychologist”. Entitled ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow‘, it is a weighty tome which provides a great deal of research based – and choice anecdotal – insights in the concepts of Behavioural Economics, intuition, rationality, and frankly – some of the outright crazy ways our brains interpret the world around us. Its not for the faint-of-heart – both in terms of size, but also because of some uncomfortable home-truths. Nonetheless – it is a fabulous and fascinating book.

One of the areas of discussion that I have found most interesting is the concept of ‘WYSIATI‘ or ‘What You See Is All There Is.’

WYSIATI succinctly describes the way that the human mind biases decisions and thought-processes based upon personal observations, interests and opinions. We think we are being rational, that we are unbiased in our decisions… but often we actually are not.

Intuitive thinking is quick, its easy, its painless, quite often its self gratifying (which reinforces self-belief), and it is also statistically wrong more often than it is right. (Interestingly, most people will accept this statement – so long as you are not trying to apply it them personally and their own range of experiences and interests.)

We develop our own individual ‘stories’ based on a combination of the information at hand and our own experiences; piecing the information we have into a narrative that meets our expectations.

Complex topics, with many dynamic, moving parts and many nuanced interconnections, naturally bring a large number of passionate people into the discussion. Acknowleging that these  unconcious biases exist should be considered a factor when analysing complex systems; understanding the occassionally visceral reactions that people have about certain topics. 

This leads to some interesting questions about how leaders and influencers decide upon direction and make decisions. WYSIATI in the heads of a ‘average citizen’ (massive generalisation acknowledged) is ‘mostly harmless., Leaders, on the hand, who do not seek opinion and empirical and statistical facts from all sides risk creating policy that actually could make situations worse.

Just call me a Mess Manager

Researching for the first chapter of Open University course #TU811, I came across the following quote by Russell Ackoff:

Manager’s are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations Messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.



While initially this made me chuckle – a mess is something I normally correspond with my son, a pot of Nutella, and limited adult supervision – I took a bit of time to think this through and its led me to the conclusion that maybe my job description should be changed to Environments Mess Manager

There are (primarily) two considerations when considering the complexity of an issue: number of variables, and number of perspectives.

Thus the levels can be mapped out on a table:

Single Perspective Multiple Perspectives
Few Variables A Difficulty A Mess
Many Variables  A Complicated Difficulty A Complex Mess

A mind-map may be a easier way to visualise the variables and perspectives to consider when deciding whether something is a Mess – here is one I knocked up in about 10 minutes using Mind42 (note that the term ‘Wicked’ Problem is another term that could be used in lieu of Mess. This term was coined by Rittel and Webber in 1973.)

The term ‘Complex Mess‘ could easily be applied in this context to such global issues as Climate Change, Deforestation, Terrorism or War. There are multiple perspectives and many variables which have coalesced to create a tangle of problems. Pull one thread and other knots appear. There is no single solution that will satisfy everyone – and indeed any solution that is taken could make the situation worse later as the variables are dynamic.

As I mapped this out though, I did find the the term ‘Mess’ is something that I could easily label to scenarios that I have seen in work – and to a lesser degree even within my own extended family at times!

As a Environments Manager, I have dealt with fragile legacy infrastructure (situation), teams working in silo’s (people), projects which don’t always seem to know what they are doing (thinking), companies resistant to change or with very set cultural norms (people), projects which span multiple departments or companies (situation, people and thinking)a mish-mish of methodologies (thinking) , lack of funding (situation)… the list can go on and on. The more of these type of variables I see in a project, the more I get that sinking feeling of unease that ‘something is probably going to go wrong’ and the more I tend to find I start unconsciously contingency planning.

Obviously variables and perspectives are not going to be the only factors at play in a mess; change and uncertainty are also big ticket items – but I would argue that these are categories of variables – albeit very big ones with giant flashing warning lights on them.

A question to ponder – are messes avoidable?

Systems Thinking arrives at my door…

A great deal of excitement and trepidation was in the air yesterday – all of my Open University study books arrived.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am starting on the path to a MSc Systems Thinking in Practice. – and now that I am on the verge of starting it, I thought I would take a little time to blog the thought processes and initial impressions behind why I chose this particular path, as opposed to one of the may others I could have taken.

I figure it will be an interesting exercise to look back over the next few (no doubt extremely busy) years to remind myself of my original plans and motivations, and to see how these change over time.

Why am I taking a Masters?

This is a good question. I do not really need it for my job – though I have no doubt that it will be useful. The overly competitive sibling part of me admits some base jealousy of my sister who passed her Masters a few years ago (thought that is certainly in no way a over-riding factor – even I am not that crazy!) I would say my primary motivation is curiosity and challenge. My background is in Art (believe it or not), and this piece of higher education sits squarely within the Technology and Innovation sector.

I have heard – and at times even been nominally part of – various slightly ambiguous exercises at work which I now realise were loosely related to various methodologies and forms of Systems Thinking. I always approached such things with a degree of cynicism – which leads me to now recognise that I was actually part of the problem. And – at the end of the day – I also think you can never be too old to learn something new.

How is the Open University course structured?

The main reason I chose the Open University is because this isn’t something I can do full time. I work, I have a family and I have commitments. The OU Postgraduate courses are fully modular, and like building blocks, you can customise your route to the finish line. I also should end up ticking off Post-graduate Certificates and Diplomas along the way – which is nice.

The current plan is (note that later optional modules may change once I get a better grip on the complexity of study):

Year 1:

Year 2:

Year 3:

I’m still deciding whether this one will be a 3rd optional module (possibly Information Security or Creative Management) and a Professional Project, or a full Research Project – only time will tell on that one!

I will go into a bit more detail about the first module in a future post.

A manic few days

Haven’t really had much time to do any new research this week. The weather has been pretty good so I have been otherwise engaged in building plant beds, potting out seedlings and generally de-weeding. This has taken up quite a lot of my non-work daylight hours.

The Open University have also launched the website supporting the first module of my Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice degree. The module (TU811: ‘Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change’) starts officially in May so I have been taking the time to start some of the recommended pre-reading. Be in no doubt I will be posting some initial thoughts on that soon.

If you are interested in seeing more about the degree I am taking, details can be found here. In a amusing turn of coincidence, one of the recommended pre-courses happens to be the OpenLearn: Systems Thinking and Practice course I reviewed a few weeks ago – so I was clearly on the right track!

On my Audible I am currently listening to Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which tackles the notion of the way the mind competes with itself when we make choices – the fast, intuitive, ‘snap-judgement’ emotional half, and the slower, more deliberate, logical ‘Mr Spock’ half. It is quite profound so far – and I am only a short way through. It is one of those weighty tomes that causes you stare thoughtfully out of train windows mulling over how obvious it all is, but how we never really notice it until someone points it out.  It will be a while before I finish this one though – its a very large book!