Systems Thinking and Trust

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

I use the term “systems thinking” frequently and I’m quite sure it isn’t always clear what I actually mean when I use that phrase. There are various levels of “systems thinking.” On a very large scale, we are learning more and more about how interdependent life is here on earth. No change, regardless of how small, fails to affect the whole ecosystem. Sometimes these changes are natural (meaning basic life activities for plants, animals and humans) and sometimes they are not quite so natural (such as human industrial activity). The success of the human species is due in no small part to our ability to create and use technology. That in turn has increased our numbers to the point that our activity is greatly disruptive to the earth’s ecosystem. We can sometimes work on a smaller scale, using systems thinking to try to figure out how to solve a particular issue in our organization, for example. But the changes made in our organization are changes made to a subsystem of the larger system and will absolutely cause an effect in that larger system.

My own introduction to systems thinking came during my time in electronics engineering school. It started simply enough with small electronic circuits. A change in one component would cause the whole circuit function or output to change and it wasn’t always immediately obvious how that small change might affect the overall system. As the circuits we designed grew and became more complex, it was less and less likely that we engineers could accurately predict and define all the impacts of the changes we wanted to make in order to gain a specific result in one sub-system. Fast forward to the technology we use today. The microprocessor in the PC on which I’m writing this post has not been fully tested. It can’t be because the time it would take to fully test this one processor would make the cost prohibitive. If the processor “system” is too complex to fully test, how could any one human being fully understand the details of the overall system’s impact of any single proposed sub-system change? The same is true for the millions of lines of code in the software operating system and high level applications I’m using.

Hang with me on this, I promise we’ll get to the point soon. The processor in this PC is an Intell Core i7-4500U quad core processor comprising some 1.4 Billion transistors. Now consider this: About a year ago, we humans were able to simulate 1 second of human thinking. However, that effort took 82,944 processors! Further, it took 40 minutes for all those processors to simulate that 1 second of biological thinking!

It’s a little sobering, actually. The average human brain packs a hundred billion or so neurons—connected by a quadrillion (10 raised to the 15th power) constantly changing synapses—into a space the size of a cantaloupe. It consumes a paltry 20 watts, much less than a typical incandescent lightbulb. But simulating this mess of wetware with traditional digital circuits would require a supercomputer that’s a good 1000 times as powerful as the best ones we have available today. And we’d need the output of an entire nuclear power plant to run it. – Steve Furber, IEEE Spectrum, 7/31/2012

By definition, at the core of the systems we’ve created (our countries, economies, organizations and households are systems) are human beings. In turn, we humans are quite unique individuals and extremely complex systems comprising a central nervous systems as well as body organs, etc. So here’s  the point: We cannot possibly hope to even begin to understand human affairs without approaching the challenge through systems thinking and all it encompasses. And, as I’ve tried to point out, the core of the systems we have created is by itself an incredibly complex system.

Einstein famously said that “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” My hypothesis is that we have to keep upping the game when it comes to systems thinking. The systems we have created and the systems that comprise who we are as humans are way too complex for an individual to wrap his/her brains around. We have no choice but to learn to work in highly functioning teams, with an abundance of trust in each other so that we can bring together more pieces of the larger “truth.”

Trust between human beings is: “I” get that “you” have my best interest at heart, not just your own.” When it comes to teams and companies, trust means you put the team’s or company’s best interests ahead of your own individual interests. Please note, this does not mean we have to agree. It does mean you have to trust that my intentions are honorable, despite disagreement. [We seem to have lost this ability as our society becomes more polarized. We seem to not ascribe honorable intentions to our “opponents” but rather think of them as “enemies.” Highly effective teams and organizations assume good and honorable intentions.]

An important thing to understand in systems thinking is the concept that one cannot optimize a complex system by optimizing each sub-system. There will always be at least one subsystem that is un-optimized in order for the overall system to be optimized. In terms of human activity and our ecological system, it seems obvious to me that while we endeavor to optimize our own activities (sub-systems) we are doing much to damage the optimization of the overall system. In business terms, if we try and optimize each sub-system (sales, marketing, manufacturing, finance, etc.) we will undoubtedly un-optimize the overall function of the company.

One additional piece of complexity is that we humans have evolved by being incredibly good at ignoring details so that we can quickly and intuitively respond to threats in our environment. While that certainly was critical for our survival on the savanna, it is a huge liability when it comes to knowing the difference between perceived reality and what’s actually so in our modern environment. As we learn more and more about how our own brains process information received from our senses, there is less and less cause to believe we normally “see” reality. Rather, we see what we believe. [There is an abundance of good books on this topic. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is an excellent one.]

A new level of thinking, in my mind, means learning how to think in terms of complex systems. That will require collaboration with other humans. That will require trust (as defined above). I also believe that means we have to all embrace the spirit of scientific inquiry – especially the self-correcting part of that system of inquiry. No one of us is as smart as all of us. We can start in our own lives by being much more open to the thought that our world is way too complex for simple answers. We have to go through the incredible complexity before we have a right to boil things down to a simple solution statement. If I cannot demonstrate to you that I have at least a working knowledge of the complexity of the topic we’re discussing, you should be very suspect of my “simple answers.” Nullius in verba!