When it comes to most systems we want to better understand their purpose. What do they do and why are they there?
We may be able to gain insight into the system and the elements of the system and then use this to understand why certain parts of the system exist.
We may look at a democratic government and say the purpose is to rule for the people. Or we may look at a car wash system and say the purpose is to wash cars so they stay clean.
But for every system there are many parts to it. The poor citizen in the democratic government might feel the government is there to support them since they can’t support themselves. The person who consistently finds their opinion in the minority might say the system is there to discourage their beliefs. So the purpose of the democratic government might seem obvious but it really is many different things to many different people.
Or take the local gas station car wash. Its purpose might be to get cars clean but there are other factors that play a role. Is its real purpose actually to make a profit for the owner? Or fill a need in that community? What about in an area with heavy water shortages, would this actually be a way for the rich in the community to distinguish themselves and make it easy to spot as they drive around town?
We can quickly see that purpose is somewhat misleading because it takes into account different perspectives, and these different perspectives could have different ideas about that particular system’s purpose.
So while we set out to create systems to improve our lives, we have to better understand that different people will view these systems differently.
If we create a new system where we eat out less in order to save money, our friends might see us avoiding spending time with them and misunderstand why we created this new system.
If we develop a new process for disciplining our children, they might view the change as something completely different like a change of how much you love them. We might never even think about this but when looking at their perspective we might realize how it could be seen that way.
Gerald M. Weinbert wrote a book called An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. In the book he addresses the purpose of a system and how this can be misleading. He says, “With man-made systems, we talk about ‘purpose,’ whereas such language is forbidden for ‘natural’ systems. Yet much of the dissatisfaction with our man-made systems stems precisely from disagreement about what the ‘purpose’ of the system is: that is, what the system ‘really’ is. The answer, of course, is that the system has no ‘purpose,’ for ‘purpose’ is a relation, not a thing to ‘have’.”
Another systems author, Donella Meadows, also talks about this in her book, Thinking in Systems, that, “If a frog turns right and catches a fly, and then turns left and catches a fly, and then turns around backward and catches a fly, the purpose of the frog has to do not with turning left or right or backward but with catching a fly.”
When it comes to understanding systems we have to better understand this idea of purpose but it can’t trip us up. Instead we have to understand the many facets of a system and the many perspectives around that system and then make a conscious decision to proceed. This gives a more complete picture and will help as we institute new improvement systems in our personal lives because we can better understand the many different impacts the system will have.