A model to make sense of complexity

June 1, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Exercises, Models, Nature, Perception

[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

If you believe everything that happens has a cause, when something happens you want to change you look for the cause and change it. You might have to dig deep for the “root” cause, but once you find the cause of something you can influence the thing by influencing the cause.

For example, if your project is late because your boss isn’t giving you the resources you need, you can try to get your boss to give you more of the resources you need.

Simple, right?

But things rarely work so simply. Even if your boss wants to give you the resources, they come from somewhere so giving them to you affects others, which means you have to consider more than just one cause.

Or maybe you’re caught in traffic because the person in front of you is moving slowly. Honking at them, even if they didn’t misunderstand getting honked at, generally won’t speed up traffic. They’re moving at their speed for a reason and those reasons have reasons. Likewise your boss’s resource-allocation reasons have reasons and so on.

You yourself may influence things that influence you, creating feedback loops.

Todays’ model suggests a more nuanced way of looking at things that I find more effective at understanding and influencing things how you want.

A model to make sense of complexity: Many things exist not on their own but in systems of elements that interact with each other over time for a purpose.

A field of study and practice called Systems Theory takes a view that many things exist in systems that interact with each other over time for a purpose. I find it solves many problems more effectively than modeling things as simple cause-and-effect relationships. Trying to speed traffic by motivating one car to speed up usually won’t work. Understanding the system of cars moving on a highway and bottlenecks will help more.

I won’t be able to do justice to the wonderfully effective field, except to point you to a brief book that treats the field well — Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows — and to note that the popular book on running organizations — The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge — systems thinking is the fifth discipline of the title.

All I can tell you is that when you understand and adopt systems thinking, once-complex systems start to make intuitive sense. You start to see why attempted solutions that never worked didn’t work. And you find yourself more calm when you realize situations and events that hurt you usually didn’t happen just to hurt you.


Learn systems theory and how to apply it.

I apologize I can’t explain it simply and actionably in one post here, but I found Thinking in Systems such an effective book, I’ve pointed you toward a great resource.

When I use this belief

I use this belief when dealing with situations with more than a few elements interacting.

What this belief replaces

This belief replaces frustration and poor problem solving of complex systems with a more subtle, comprehensive, and effective way to understand and solve problems.

Where this belief leads

This belief leads to solving problems better and feeling less frustration before solving them.

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1 response to “A model to make sense of complexity

  1. Pingback: Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours » Joshua Spodek

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