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We only see a snapshot, not the full system

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

We only see a snapshot, not the full system

Scott Miker

There is a flaw in the way we think.  While there are complex systems all around us at all times, we tend to disregard most of the system to key in on the specific piece that matters most to us.

At times this is useful.  We may not care about the full parking enforcement systems in a city to know that we should put money in the meter to avoid a ticket.  We may not care about weather systems when we just want to know if it will rain on our cook out. 

But often times, this leads us in the wrong direction.  My city recently had a few major businesses move out of the area.  While the tax revenue from these businesses allowed residents to enjoy many amenities with little taxes, residents are now upset that amenities are being taken and taxes are going up.  Residents now want a candidate for mayor that will promise lower taxes and provide greater amenities.  But it isn’t up to the mayor.  That small piece of the system will not result in the desired outcomes.  Most people miss the larger system and just see higher taxes and fewer amenities but don’t comprehend how it all fits together. 

To emphasize this even further, a large business wanted to move into the city and build a large wholesale store.  But the residents didn’t want certain parts of the city developed; they wanted the nature preserved in those areas.  So the business was blocked from moving in meaning the significant revenue they would have brought was also blocked from coming into the city. 

To see how all of this fits together makes things much more complex than “vote for a mayor who will lower my taxes.”  Yet most people never really think through the full system.  Because of this we tend to make mistakes, such as voting for the candidate promising the world (who usually can’t deliver) rather than the one promising to fix a few specific problems. 

Years ago I owned a small audio engineering business.  One of the things I did to promote the business was work with bands to put on concerts.  Many times the concerts were a big hit and we had a lot of people attend.  But there were a few where we didn’t get a good crowd to attend. 

We always made it clear that the money the artists make was directly related to the number of people that bought tickets from them.  There were always a few bands that wanted all of their fans in for free (since they tended to be friends and family).  But at the end of the show they still wanted to be paid as if they sold tickets to them.  They couldn’t understand the economics and the business side because they weren’t looking at the full system. 

You may think that this must mean a lack of intelligence.  People that are smarter see the full system and people who are not as smart can’t.  But this isn’t the case.  The reality is that this is a conditioned way to think and is not tied to intelligence.  That is good news because it means all of us can start to see the full systems in place, rather than just trying to understand a complex situation from a small snapshot.

One of my favorite authors on systems thinking, Peter Senge, describes this in his book, The Fifth Discipline.  “A cloud masses, the sky darkens, leaves twist upward, and we know that it will rain.  We also know the storm runoff will feed into groundwater miles away, and the sky will clear by tomorrow.  All these events are distant in time and space, and yet they are all connected within the same pattern.  Each has an influence on the rest, an influence that is usually hidden from view.  You can only understand the system of a rainstorm by contemplating the whole, not any individual part of the pattern.”

He goes on to say, “Business and other human endeavors are also systems.  They, too, are bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions, which often take years to fully play out their effects on each other.  Since we are part of that lacework ourselves, it’s doubly hard to see the whole pattern of change.  Instead, we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.  Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns clearer, and to help us see how to change them effectively.” 

Systems thinking is a great way to start to gain a better understanding of our world and it also can be a great tool for self improvement.  By understanding the full system we can start to take control of our goals and aspirations and start to make progress towards success.  We can start to see the various habits and routines in our lives and directly relate them to what we hope to achieve.  This can give us a clear path forward and an approach that will have lasting benefits.