Systems thinking is both a mindset and particular set of tools for identifying and mapping the interrelated nature and complexity of real world situations. It encourages explicit recognition of causes and effects, drivers and impacts, and in so doing helps anticipate the effect a policy intervention is likely to have on variables or issues of interest.
Furthermore, the processes of applying systems thinking to a situation is a way of bringing to light the different assumptions held by stakeholders or team members about the way the world works.
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.
I read an interesting article this morning in the Harvard Business Review. It is a few years old now – but I think its just as true today as it was when it was published. The premise is that while leaders strongly advocate personal development and learning, they do not really allow any time for their employees to actually do any.
In a results driven environment, the long-term gains of credible personal learning are overshadowed by the short-term needs of constant delivery.