Armen Chakmakjian

Thinking in Systems: A Primer Donella Meadows

In Business & Finance, career, College, history, Kindle, technology on March 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm

During my marketing course last year, while studying conscious capitalism and other topics related to a changes in the perception of corporate responsibility and stakeholder interests, the professor recommended that we read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows.  The editor writes at the beginning of the book about how this book was in draft form and circulated informally until the writer died unexpectedly in 2001.  Donella Meadows also was a lead author The Limits to Growth, published in 1972.  I’ve been reading this over a few weeks on my kindle.  Here are my reactions:

I am fascinated by how obvious (to an engineer) what she was writing is.  The kinds of decisions about hardware, software, cost and people that I’ve had to make over the years are not generally simple decisions and you have to pick which ones you worry about at any point and which risks you are willing to take on.  To some extent it falls into the butterfly flapping its wings in the amazon concept (e.g. the movement in the wind there causes a snowflake in Alaska)

Anyway, we’ve been on this scrum kick at work, and have seen some benefit to it in our ability to iterate over a problem quickly and change course if new data appears.  Meadows addressed this issue and the justification for going to scrum about 1/3 of the way through the book:

“Self-organization is such a common property, particularly of living systems that we take it for granted.  If we didn’t we’d be dazzled by the unfolding systems of our world.  And if we weren’t blind to the property of self-organization, we would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying the self-organizing capacities of the systems of which we are a part….

…Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability.  It is likely to come up with whole new structures, whole new ways of doing things.  It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder.  These conditions that encourage self-organization often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures.”

The difficulty is that self-organization in the office, where centralized hierarchical control is exercised because of the financial, organizational and legal constraints, will cause conflict.  The two systems can not comfortably co-exist.  The whole organism has to be reactive to self-organization or highly organized system will snuff out the self-organizing entity or itself.  That’s reality.  Just because I could have a bunch of people work on something cool doesn’t mean there is a the greater organization understands or can support the market to sell it into or a capital structure to support it.  This is why Google works.  To some extent, the had been self organizing from the beginning and the incentive structure for their employees were based on the idea that a good idea needs to work its way through to live or die.   That’s not to say that a highly structured organization like Microsoft or IBM doesn’t works (or the companies that I worked for in the past)…its just that those entities force (and to some extent expect) after hours creativity that isn’t sanctioned.  I think of the fact that Lotus Notes was built on the work on the Plato system that guys at Digital and Data general tried to introduce into those companies and neither company saw fit to fund it…even when THE collaborative tool used within DEC for people to work on was VMS Notes.  A tool like Notes created in an environment like Google would have had a very different history (AKA the Lotus moniker may have never been attached to it and maybe DEC or DG would have become quite different companies than they both ended up…absorbed into HP and EMC).   The self-organizing reaction to things like Notes was people willing to leave a company and start their own because the system within which they were working didn’t allow it during business hours.

So I guess I’m bought in to the agile thing from a systems analysis point of view because it is real.    Self-organization can occur within an organization and will either be intrinsic to that organization (like Google) or be spawned off by an organization (as the self-organizing entity will be inconsistent with that greater organization’s ability to exert control)

Random thoughts over my Panera bread breakfast.

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