Systems thinking and complexity

One of my earliest blog posts was a simple reference to complex adaptive systems. The concept was (is) fascinating to me, on many levels. Not the least of which is my unquenchable curiosity about the connectedness of everything, and an early realization that the world can be seen as a collection of systems. A systems thinker, in other words.

I think I first came across the formal concept of systems thinking in The Fifth Discipline. I was a young Army officer in the Signal Corps, responsible for leading and training young soldiers and for planning and executing communications support missions. Many of my colleagues approached the role from a very rigid, very structured, very “mechanical” perspective. Not unexpected, of course, since military units in general are very highly structured and driven from the top down by command and control – “Here’s what you should do, and I’m going to watch you to make sure you do it so we achieve this very specific outcome.”

As if anything ever works out the way you plan. Understanding my job, the role of my unit, as a component of a larger system that could be manipulated helped me to provide the best support I could to the units that depended on what we provided. (The beginnings, perhaps, of my understanding and application of user-centered design and service design, perhaps?)

I really don’t remember what triggered my interest in complexity. This, I think, is something that has always lingered just below the surface in my mind. If I had to pinpoint a single starting point for the beginning of my slow hunch about complexity it would have to be Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach – A Golden Eternal Braid. I came across this book in my latter years of high school and made my way through it as best I could. Though I didn’t really understand much of it at the time, it primed my thinking to be more receptive to a different way of viewing the world.

Then came James Gleick’s Chaos and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. My interest in the science and philosophy of Richard Feynman led me to Murray Gell-Mann and the Santa Fe Institute. Eventually I found my way to the work of Dave Snowden and his insights into the application of systems thinking and complexity science to the world of work, however broadly or narrowly you might define this. (Though I have some of this documented in my notebooks from the time (90’s), I wish I had been blogging back then so I had a better record of my thinking.)

Systems thinking and complexity have thus spent a lot of time in my mind, side by side as I try to make sense of them and understand how to apply them to life and work. To be sure, I have often simply treated them as “basically the same thing”, without much effort to distinguish between them. Though they share some key characteristics they are, of course, different. But what are those differences, and why does it matter? Heading in to the new year seems to be a good time to delve into this.

Fortunately for me in this regard, I recently discovered an article from 2013 by Sonja Blignaut that has pointed me down a good path for this exploration. Titled appropriately enough 5 Differences between complexity & systems thinking, the article is a summary of her notes and thoughts from some time spent with Dave Snowden as he presented workshops and worked with clients.

In the coming days I’ll be looking at those 5 differences in detail.


If the government were run like a business…

If the government were run like a business, what kind of business would it be? It’s easy enough to think of the President as CEO, and the Congress as the Board of Directors (kind of), but who would be the shareholders? The customers? How would this effect government employees? What would be the “product”?

Most importantly, where do citizens fit into this model?

Continue reading “If the government were run like a business…”

When “question everything” meets “question nothing”

This past weekend, the NPR program On the Media explored the question, “Does NPR have a liberal bias?” (I’ll let you listen for yourself to find the results.) Of course, the question of bias in the media is ever-present, never more so than during a Presidential election year. As acknowledged by the OTM piece, most charges of bias these days are expressed by conservatives against the mainstream (aka “corporate”) media, which the conservatives say have a “liberal bias”. Some, like Senator Rick Santorum, take it even further, proclaiming that “the media will never be on our side.”

But is it really bias that’s the issue? Or just a different approach to viewing, and discussing, the world.

Continue reading “When “question everything” meets “question nothing””

A systems approach to food and nutrition – Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”

Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

These seven words make up the entirety of the “eater’s manifesto” that is the subtitle of Michael Pollan‘s book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Of course, if the “doing” were as easy as the “saying”, Pollan wouldn’t have needed 200+ pages to explain the three rules embodied in these seven words.

At its core, Pollan’s argument is one for a systems view of food and nutrition and against attempts to reduce the complexity of the “food web” into its various components, each considered in isolation from the other. He points to the Western conception of food, especially our current “food science” and “nutrition industry”, as an example of the dangers of the reductionist view point.

As Pollan himself mentions in the introduction, it seemed to me at first to be a little bit strange for someone to be telling me to “eat food”. I mean, what else would I eat? The answer, as it turns out, is that a lot of what I – and quite probably you – eat is actually what Pollan refers to as “edible food-like substances”.

These food-like substances are, according to Pollan, the result of “nutritionism”, a deliberate effort by food scientists – and the companies that employ them – to break food down into it’s component parts, the macro- and micro-nutrients, so that these nutrients can be efficiently – and profitably – delivered to consumers.


The topics on the left side of the mind map above give an idea of how Pollan believes “nutritionism” has led to many of our current health problems, including the epidemic of obesity. He covers these in the first two sections of the book.

The topics on the right side give an idea of  the key points behind the three rules of his eater’s manifesto and how they all work together as a system. He covers this in section 3 of the book.

If you are inclined to systems thinking, Pollan’s argument will make perfect sense. There may be some areas you could nit-pick, but the overall approach is sound. If, on the other hand, you are not a “systems-thinker”, you may very well find yourself a bit confused and uncomfortable. We are, in general, so accustomed to worrying about all the parts of nutrition that it will take a very concerted – and conscious – effort, to “let go” and trust the system.

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The mind map in Mind Manager 6 Pro format.