The Seven Deadly Sins of Managing Complex Systems

I was rereading the Fifth Discipline on the way to Boston the other way, and something got me started on this. Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony are the downfall of individuals, but what about the downfall of systems? Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  1. Information pollution. Sometimes known as lying, but also common in milder forms, such as greenwash. Example: twenty years ago, the “recycled” symbol was redefined to mean “recyclable” – a big dilution of meaning.
  2. Elimination of diversity. Example: overconsolidation of industries (finance, telecom, …). As Jay Forrester reportedly said, “free trade is a mechanism for allowing all regions to reach all limits at once.”
  3. Changing the top-level rules in pursuit of personal gain. Example: the Starpower game. As long as we pretend to want to maximize welfare in some broad sense, the system rules need to provide an equitable framework, within which individuals can pursue self-interest.
  4. Certainty. Planning for it leads to fragile strategies. If you can’t imagine a way you could be wrong, you’re probably a fanatic.
  5. Elimination of slack. Normally this is regarded as a form of optimization, but a system without any slack can’t change (except catastrophically). How are teachers supposed to improve their teaching when every minute is filled with requirements?
  6. Superstition. Attribution of cause by correlation or coincidence, including misapplied pattern-matching.
  7. The four horsemen from classic SD work on flawed mental models: linear, static, open-loop, laundry-list thinking.

That’s seven (cheating a little). But I think there are more candidates that don’t quite make the big time:

  • Impatience. Don’t just do something, stand there. Sometimes.
  • Failure to account for delays.
  • Abstention from top-level decision making (essentially not voting).

The very idea of compiling such a list only makes sense if we’re talking about the downfall of human systems, or systems managed for the benefit of “us” in some loose sense, but perhaps anthropocentrism is a sin in itself.

I’m sure others can think of more! I’d be interested to hear about them in comments.

10 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Sins of Managing Complex Systems”

  1. Overconfidence, floating goal. But I still think that selfishness and narrow thinking (in terms of in terms of space and time) is the mother of all sins.

  2. Wonderful list!

    Few thoughts, with a hat tip to George Carlin who reduces the 10 commandments to 2 (or is it one?).

    Information Pollution: This may not be a moral failing in its milder forms. Perhaps just accumulation of entropy in systems that have sufficient slack and diversity.

    Speaking of slack and diversity: In systems with introspection adaptation of both structure and parts can occur as stress is observed and before catastrophic failure. Or not, but the underlying sin of omission may be not fully considering the variability of the larger system in which the system under consideration is situation and providing appropriate coping mechanisms.

    Certainty and superstition add a final disconnect with reality to misunderstanding internal entropy and external variability. Your model of the system is not the system. Who knew?

  3. Another sin– Using one simple model to describe a complex (human) organization. Example: a Taylor-style top-down org chart. It tells you little, something like the impression each blind man got of the elephant (part) he was touching BEFORE he heard from the others. Since the conscious mind can handle only so much at once, it is better to give it one model (of many!) at a time. Then entrust the subconscious mind to integrate multiple models in order to best intuit the management of such complexity. Of course, there are particular situations where it is important to have in one’s toolkit as many relevant models as possible. But the increasingly turbulent environment that complicates organizational management more than ever is no excuse to cling to simplistic either/or models. Such a sin merely tends to propel a complex human system toward collapse.

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