The failure is the process

stairs by seier+seier+seier
Lessons Learned — Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking:
[Via Manage by Designing]

“You never learn by doing something right ‘cause you already know how to do it. You only learn from making mistakes and correcting them.”
Russell Ackoff
Design and “design thinking” is gaining recognition as an important integrative concept in management practice and education. But it will fail to have a lasting impact, unless we learn from the mistakes of earlier, related ideas. For instance, “system thinking”, which shares many of the conceptual foundations of “design thinking”, promised to be a powerful guide to management practice, but it has never achieved the success its proponents hoped for. If systems thinking had been successful in gaining a foothold in management education over the last half of the 20th century, there would be no manage by designing movement, or calls for integrative or design thinking.


This is a very interesting discussion. It seems to me the problem is not with systems thinking but with the attempt to create a defined process for it. Human nature includes trying to grasp innovation by naming it. In many cases, old fashioned hierarchical approaches are being use to try and fold systems thinking into them.

But hierarchy is really orthogonal to systems thinking. Systems approaches are bottom up. The group defines it. Processes are top down. The leader/teacher defines it. I am not surprised that people who go to meetings to be taught by leaders what systems thinking is and the process to implement it do not get it at all.

I recently spent two days at a workshop with around a dozen architects and managers. The facilitator was one of Russ Ackoff’s former colleagues at the Wharton School. It is a reflection of what has become of systems thinking that it took most of the two days for the facilitator to explicate all that he thought we needed to know before we could begin either critiquing or applying the ideas In addition to obvious material on the nature of systems, we learned about chaos theory, living systems theory, Santiago theories, the four foundations of systems methodology (holistic thinking, operational thinking, interactive design, and socio-cultural models), five systems principles (openness, emergent properties, multi-dimensionality, counter-intuitiveness, and purposefulness), the five interactive dimensions of social systems (wealth, beauty, power, value and knowledge) and the related five dimensions of an organization (throughput processes, membership, decision, conflict management, and measurement), the elements of a throughput system (time, cost flexibility, quality, measurement, diagnostic, improvement and redesign), the nature of holistic thinking and iteration, the laws of complexity, loops and feedback, and more.

All of this was presented as foundational knowledge that was necessary before we could get to what it was that brought most of us (or at least me) to this particular workshop — designing for human interaction. In addition to the number of frameworks and ideas, and the density of the interconnections among them, there was a strong normative quality to the material and its presentation. “If one hopes to make any progress at all,” we were told, “you need to both understand and accept these related ideas.”

Systems approaches are not a series of bullet points. They are approaches for using human social networks to solve complex problems. It may not be useful for accountants but it can be critical for researchers.

It is not a set of bullet points. People do not simply change to a new approach because someone else says to or has a bunch of fancy names. I’ve mentioned what is necessary. The post also recognizes this.

These requirements are at odds with how we tend to acquire new knowledge. Rather than accepting a new idea because we must, we like to try it out. A new skill is most likely to interest us if it contributes to both short-term and long-term learning objectives. And the easier it is to try out parts of a theory, the more likely we are to jump in.

Systems thinking works when people learn and adopt an approach, not when they are told the steps involved. And they have to recognize that it has short term benefits.

Use a bottom up approach. Find the early adopters and get them on board. Work the adoption curve and you will have much more success. That should be the lessoned learned.

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