beyond the solutions at hand

“There is a need to deal with the problem independent of the solutions at hand. We have a tendency to define the problem in terms of the solutions we already have. We fail most often not because we fail to solve the problem we face, but because we fail to face the right problem. Rather than doing what we should, we do what we can. In the systems view, it is the solution that has to fit the problem, not vice versa.” — Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture

Systems thinking seems to be missing in many parts of our society. For example, green energy proponents refuse to consider low carbon nuclear power as an option, including new nuclear technologies like molten salt. I am not sure what the optimal solution is but there is a significant cost to solar energy. Using only “the solutions at hand” can blind us to other options. Once we have taken up our positions, we seldom question them. This is one of our greatest mistakes, especially since more of our challenges will be complex in a connected world of seven billion people with degraded natural resources and facing climate change.

“But consider the following questions. Do you fail in your judgments? Do you ever get access to the evidence that shows where you might be going wrong? Are your decisions ever challenged by objective data? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you almost certainly are not learning. This is not a question of motivation or intelligence, but of iron logic. You are like a golfer playing in the dark.” —Black Box Thinking

Leyla Acoroglu recommends six tools for systems thinking. Even using only some of them can help us better define problems and be open to a broader set options. I have added my recommendations.

  1. Interconnectedness — Set up diverse sources of information. Use a tool like Twitter to get perspectives from different cultures, industries, countries, genders, and ages.
  2. Synthesis — Establish a way to put your thoughts together. It could be a synthesis of the tweets you found interesting on social media, such as my Friday’s Finds. You won’t find connections between the dots if there are no dots.
  3. Emergence — The more connections you make, on social media, while walking, or just sitting and observing then the greater the chances for emergence, or even serendipity.
  4. Feedback Loops — Engage with a diverse group of people. Get feedback not just from your peers but work in the open to get feedback from all corners. Blogging is the perfect medium for this.
  5. Causality — In complex systems we can determine the relationship between cause and effect only in retrospect. This means we have to first engage the system and then learn from it. The next time things may be different. In complexity we have to — Probe > Sense > Respond.
  6. Systems Mapping — System maps are great for sense-making. As the statistician George Box said, “All models are flawed, but some are useful.” You won’t know how useful your systems maps are until you make them and use them. Be ready to discard them when no longer useful. Keep them in a state of perpetual beta.

Systems thinking requires cooperation between disciplines that may merge or disappear over time. With challenges like climate chaos facing us, we need connected thinking. This is where machines and software may help us in overcoming our cognitive biases.

“Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines – not artificial intelligence but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems.

We must question and adapt our own purpose and sensibilities as observers and designers within systems for a much more humble approach: humility over control.” —Joi Ito


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