Saturday, July 19, 2008

Stupid Human Tricks and System-antics

In David's recent PureSchmaltz blog post Going Organic, he fleshes out a notion he calls "management-ism", and recommends the ethic of "working the system so the system can work" - something that often feels like benevolent subversion.

In the comments responding to the post, Glen Alleman, a frequent commenter and sometimes harsh critic of David and my work, comments "The notion that systems work themselves is held only by those with no understanding of the theory of systems. But once understanding is in place, systems can be made to serve those who devised them."

This elicited my own comment on his comment that "It is always useful to remember that we humans are shaped by the systems in which we find ourselves - often inadvertently. So, once THIS understanding is in place, people can be made to serve the system. And, it is always best, in my humble opinion, to design the system with humility and awareness that I am likely to become co-opted regularly by that which I create."

As each of us work the system so it can work - both for our greater, common purpose and for ourselves, we shift the system ever so subtly (or not so subtly). And the system changes and grows, these changes effect each of the agents - or humans, in the case of these systems in which we live, work, and have our being. And the recursive cycle continues.

When we stay modestly awake to this dynamic in the system, and of the dynamics of the system working on ourselves, we might be able to affect real change. This awareness of the nature of the system is part of what Maturana calls "radical acceptance". It combines with our focus on purpose and intention for ourselves and for the common, broader purpose and demonstrates the fully human ability to create lasting systemic change.

When we lose addressability to this dynamic and go into the normal trances of life and work, we can (usually later) discover the surprisingly inhuman actions we may have inflicted on others, and which we put up with being inflicted on ourselves. Such is the subtle "Master / Slave" dynamic that can lead us, no matter how well schooled in the theory of systems or practiced in the application of systems into feeling like we have no control, no influence, and no latitude at all. Or leaving us looking to a manager for direction or railing against a manager for what they never could have known enough to direct. Or railing against the creator of the system as if the originator is really the ultimate creator of the system in which we are engaged - as a community - in co-creating every moment. Whether or not we are awake and aware of what we are doing.

Such is yet another of what I generously call a "Stupid Human Trick". And remind myself again that no matter how conscious and capable I feel, I will succumb to the co-opting effect of all of the various systems in which I live, work, and have my being.


Glen B. Alleman said...

John Gall's book "The Systems Bible," is a good place to look for advice on the interactons between humans and systems.
John's an MIT system's theorist with much to say about how systems are built, their interactions with their creators, and the never ending story of human's attempts to get the created systems to perform as designed.
But in the end the theory of systems needs to be turned into practice. John has much to say about this as well. And as said this over the past decades - TSB is now in its 3rd edition. Gall is a pediatrician as well, but a good example of how to thoughtfully address many of the issues in today's man-machine world.
It may be that Gall's work could serve as a basis for exiting the trap of systems as enslavers of people. Maybe a read could establish a common ground for conversation.
We've used this book in places like Exxon and Chevron for the specification of fault tolerant fail safe process control systems (

Amy Schwab said...

Yes, Glen, Systemantics is a great resource. It's been quite a number of years since I read this classic - it's part of the bibliography of every Mastering Projects Workshop and the list of references in "The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work".

Glen B. Alleman said...

What I find troubling about Gall, after rereading this week. He provides NO suggested solutions.

Amy Schwab said...

Solutions to what?

Systems perform certain antics - if those are problems, then it can lead into all sorts of complications and complexity. If, instead, one looks at those as features and acknowledges them as such, and adapts given those features, there is no need to solve any problems. This is one of the ways we mean "work the system so the system can work".

I was also reminded of the distinctions between trivial and non-trivial systems which Heinz von Foerster made and I first encountered in Lynn Segal's description of von Foerster's work in "The Dream of Reality".


Glen B. Alleman said...

This may be the basis of the differences - I'm slowly discovering - between our world views.
When Gall describes failures of systems, some failures were avoidable, some were not. Some failures were due to a lack of understanding, which is now in place. Others were due to poor management, poor skills, or simply uninformed choices.
I see Gall and similar authors as "conversation starters" but no solution providers. The notion of allowing the system to behave in a manner that is unacceptable without change seems a bit fatalistic to me.

Amy Schwab said...

Sometimes systems are not working as they were designed and need 'fixing'. Sometimes their operations include unintended consequences that, if we try to fix them, only generate additional unintended consequences or, worse yet, no effect at all (other than distract us from getting the 'real' work done).

As the old Serenity prayer says:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Understanding how systems tend to work is useful in developing this wisdom - or so I find. Understanding the different types of systems is also useful. A 'meta' consideration.

If I am managing a process - for instance, a production line which is organized for the sole purpose of replicating a single result, then 'fixing' that system makes loads of sense. My work in process improvement taught me a great deal about this.

However, if I am facilitating the creation of a one-of-a-kind result, I often find that the overhead of trying to 'fix' a system that I (or someone) had designed to produce the result is a distraction from just focusing on getting the result. More often the 'offending' system is one in which my project system is embedded - and one over which my project has no direct effect. Trying to fix the 'offending system' then becomes, in my opinion, a problem. Better to accept the system as it is, and work with it to create the result.

There is a subtle point here which I deliberately did not address above - and that is the degree to which we each become an agent of the system in the systems which we imagine we are objective to.

If we are dealing with a trivial system (one where there is a clear and consistent correlation between input and output and the system does not undergo change / learning from its own operation) it may well make sense to fix it. A la production process or mechanical system.

If I am dealing with a non-trivial system (one in which the system's internal state changes as a result it its interaction with the process - like a human. And this change is dependent upon factors outside of the system, unpredictable, and inconsistent relationship between input and output), there are different conclusions I reach about the relative merits of trying to 'fix' the system. Since I am essentially a non-trivial system, it seems that any system in which I become an agent, then, at least in some fashion, becomes non-trivial in nature.

If I want to change a system of which I am a part, a useful place to start is with myself - from the inside out.

But this is a topic for another blog post, I'm sure. When I have time to flesh out the ideas more completely.

Glen B. Alleman said...

We made be speaking about systems in different terms. Human systems are outside the domain of interest to Systems Engineering in the general way you suggest. Humans are certainly part of the system and interact in non-linear ways at times.
I'd say non-trivial systems example as "human systems,” and the acceptance of these systems as they are is wise advice. But there are a myriad of other non-trival system paradigms that should not and cannot be accepted “as they are.”
I realize your special interest in the interpersonal aspects of our work. It may be though that the term “system” does not have a shared understanding, in the same way the term “project management” appears not to have a shared understanding.
As an example a non-trival system in work in is the Future Combat System, or more recently Both are systems of system (SoS) where the interaction with the system changes the system. But learning to “live with the system,” is not the first choice of a Systems Engineer.
I’m certainly not trying to convince you to become a systems engineer – we have plenty on our program. Just to see that you may have “overloaded” a term that has clear and concise definitions in other domains.
Interesting topic though, since our SE's assume most problems can be fixed with time and money as long as they don't violate some law of physics.