<< Back to the Blog
Systems thinking uncertainty principle

One of the most important aspects of a system is its boundary. But boundaries we define when studying systems are entirely based on who is studying. Going to see a surgeon and expecting advice to seek meditation as a remedy for some illness is unrealistic. Likewise, your personal finance problem will be viewed differently if you went to a career advisor, accountant, psychologist or a friend. Boundaries are definitions that tell us what we care about, what our sphere of influence is and where to intervene. Those familiar with systems thinking will immediately quote one the guiding principles of systems thinking “Defy the disciplines”. But what if each person in the examples I gave above was a multi-disciplinarean. Does the problem go away?

Let me try to explain…

Systems thinking has provided me with a rather elegant set of principles by which to understand and hack the world around me.
The study of systems, has for me, been broken down into two parts. First being the pursuit of insight, seeking to understand the system(s) and finally using this insight to intervene (hack) within the system as well as design new systems. It is my experience that system insight alone can provide us with knowledge of how to best dance with system. But hacking or intervening within systems requires much more then just insight. It requires first and foremost the right set of interveners.

For example, the 95-5 rule of thumb says that, within organisations, 95% of performance is due to the system and 5% due to individuals. In my experience this is exactly correct. But when it comes to interveners, hackers and alike, entities that intervene within the systems, the exact opposite is true.

Consider what do observers or interveeners fundamentally influence: 1. the boundary of the systems under observation, based on what individual’s mental model will perceive. 2. the shared mental model among the observers will contain elements and insight based on the individual observer’s mental models. 3. the emergent properties of the shared mental model will be based on the sum of the interactions of the mental models among observers.

Each individual, regardless of their profession, culture or background will have a unique mental model of the world. These mental models will have common components among individuals, but overall are painfully unique. This uniqueness, when applied to observing or designing systems, will produce different boundaries depending on who is involved. These different boundaries will then drive where and what the emergent systems design will contain.

But, that is not all. The pursuit of system understanding and intervention will not only produce a shared mental model, but will change individual metal models. If one is to study, in depth, the mental models of all observers, it would be impossible to understand how those models will change during the system observation. Likewise, if one is to study the possible changes in the mental models of observers, it would be impossible to fully understand the current mental models.

Think of it as an “uncertainty principle” of systems thinking.

I was going to have a beautiful causal loop diagram ready to accompany this article. After many hours of trying I still haven’t got one. It tells me this idea of observers introducing uncertainty in system intervention is still too undeveloped in my mind.

Over to the light of day…

Share This Article References