Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Systems Thinking: Beyond Responsibility

In a recent post I mused, "When you depend on information from me, which of us is responsible for ensuring that I have provided you with information that is accurate and up-to-date?"
Just asking that question made me squirm a bit. In that situation, does it really help matters to decide who, exactly, is responsible?
Today I came across a great response to this question of responsibility. In The Fifth Discipline, author Peter Senge suggests another way:

"In mastering systems thinking, we give up the assumption that there must be an individual, or individual agent, responsible. The feedback perspective suggests that everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system. That doesn't imply that everyone involved can exert equal leverage in changing the system. But it does imply that the search for scapegoats -- a particularly alluring pastime in individualistic cultures such as ours in the United States -- is a blind alley."

Senge illustrates his point with a simple and powerful example: the US-USSR arms race. Which superpower is responsible for the absurd quantities of nuclear weapons in their collective arsenals? Asking "who is responsible" does less than nothing to resolve this kind of standoff. Senge offers the perspective of systems thinking to neutralize our attachment to personal responsibility and to focus our attention on the deeper issues embedded in relationships.

Senge also uses his Cold War example to show how we often miss real and important complexities by distracting ourselves with unnecessary artificial complications. Computer science PhDs like myself are used to tackling big systems with many variables. Senge calls this detail complexity. However, we can model the Cold War as two hostile agents with nuclear capability and still have an awfully difficult situation. Senge calls this dynamic complexity, where cause and effect are subtle, and the effects over time of interventions are not obvious.

Senge describes how we get in trouble when we rely too heavily on detail complexity to understand the world. Most organizational problems fundamentally involve dynamic complexity.  The more we try to couch these problems in terms of details, the more we lose sight of subtle issues of cause and effect, and the more we compromise our ability to manage the problem effectively.

Though its written from a 1980s perspective, The Fifth Discipline remains one of the most talked about books in the field of organizational development, and it is still the book on organizational learning. To experience the cutting edge of Senge's brainchild, check out the Society of Organizational Learning (SoL).

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