BOOK REVIEW: A simpler way to solve complex problems

Learn to think in systems, by Albert Rutherford

The objective of this book is to provide you with a new perspective and language to effectively communicate complex problems and solve them.

The process begins with developing analytical skills so you can identify the real driving force behind the problems you confront.

This skill will help you understand why problems are often not solved despite people’s best intentions.

Most of our everyday problems don’t need a deep, systemic analysis. If your phone dies, charge the battery. If you are thirsty, drink something. But often the most serious problems cannot be solved with a simple linear approach of "if this then that".

Thinking in systems needs to be learned. Our ancient ancestors lived in a "never-ending, present moment" and it took until our frontal lobes grew for people to develop the ability to think about the future.

"Our genetic inclination toward wanting something now rather than later is perfectly understandable," explains the author, retired professor Rutherford.

What's a system?

We need to start with a clear understanding of what is not a system, and what is. Beach sand, fallen leaves, or people walking down the street are not a system. None of the entities in these examples have any interaction with each other and they don’t have a unifying purpose. Economics, a business or a family should be thought of as a system. When a system is living, we talk of its purpose, when it is non-living, we talk of its function.

Many systems are very complex and require far more than a basic understanding to get to grips with, let alone explain. These very complex systems require advanced skills - but not everything does, or at least at the level of the everyday. Our ability to make the correct decision can be greatly enhanced by simply mastering some fundamentals.

Rutherford assists this process by offering eight archetypes that will assist at work and in our private lives. They will certainly enrich our interpretations of world politics, economics, and social issues.

Systems thinking runs across four levels: events, patterns of events, systemic structure, and shared vision. Events are everyday occurrences; patterns of events are a series of events that happen. The background systemic structure is what makes the events happen. The shared vision creates the structure of the system.

Rutherford uses as an example his grandparents’ village that is situated on the bank of a quick-flowing river. Every spring there was a flood emergency when the snow melted in the mountains, and the river overflowed.

If the villagers had analysed the flooding trends of the past five, ten, fifty, or even a hundred years, specialists could have anticipated ‘the patterns’ and identified where and when flooding was likely to happen. Thinking at the systemic structure level the villagers could develop strategies to keep the riverbank more secure. This would require that the people had the collective will to address the issue, based on their collective vision of the problem and solution.

Once the villagers shifted their thinking, they solved their problems with the river, which hasn’t flooded the village since.

Thinking in archetypes

Thinking in archetypes is helpful in that it provides brain stimulation and can jumpstart your complex thinking process. A process is necessary because it raises awareness that the choices we make may have unintended consequences. Our complex problems deserve careful and deliberate thought.

We can make more informed choices knowing that there is no such thing as a perfect solution. Every choice we make will impact other parts of the system because it is all interconnected.

Rutherford offers eight archetypes; I will consider just four.

Fixes That Backfire:Decisions usually have short- and long-term consequences. What might appear to be a good solution in the short term, might be an awful one in the long term. Of course, vice versa too.

Taking painkillers for a recurring stomach pain might seem like a good decision because it relieves the pain for a while. However, when you later go to a doctor, it might be too late to cure the original problem.

Limits to Success: Success is not an unmitigated good. As your success accelerates and demand for your goods and services increases, more effort is required to maintain your level of service. Eventually this effort becomes too big to be maintained. Understanding this systemic archetype will allow you to identify possible obstacles and threats beforehand, so you can eliminate them before they appear.

Tragedy of the Commons: When an asset is seen as a common resource (grazing land, a river, forests, water, air) it tends to be exploited and gets depleted. This is because of the complex interactions of individuals, who see a common resource belonging to everyone to satisfy their individual needs. Some will take more of their fair share now, so that they don’t lose out in the future. They experience the benefit now and intensely, and the future consequences are only a vague thought.

Heightening common awareness in any suitable form will help deal with this issue, as can quotas and regulation.

Success to the Successful: This archetype suggests how success or failure can be more strongly affected by initial conditions than inner efforts. Consider that an Olympic gold medallist will have more sponsorship, better equipment, better nutrition, and better coaching for future success. This will give her an advantage not available to others competing in the same event.

Having better ways of understanding and responding to complex issues in business and in our personal lives, can be greatly enhanced by the insights of systems thinking. Archetypes are just one aspect that is illustrative of the power of the system. Another is the mindsets behind the archetypes. But perhaps the most useful, to my mind, is the ability to create a diagram of the system so its components, forces, risks, implications and more, can be clearly seen and communicated.

Rutherford offers clear examples of how to create and use system diagrams, and he does this like all good teachers, with clear examples and illustrations.

This book provides practical teaching, and you will easily learn a very useful method.

Insights              High --+-- Low

Practical              High +---- Low

Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.
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