When Reality Gets in the Way – Applying Systems Thinking to Design

It’s easy to sympathize with this:

It’s also more than a little dangerous if our desire for simplicity moves us to act as if reality isn’t as complex as it is. Take, for example, a recent tweet from John Allspaw about over-simplification:

My observation in return:

As I noted in my previous post, it’s part of human nature to gravitate towards easy answers. We are conditioned to try to impose rules on reality, even when those rules are mistaken. Sometimes this is the result of treating symptoms in an ad hoc manner, as evidenced by this recent twitter exchange:

This goes by the name of the “balloon effect”, pressure on one area of the problem just pushes it into another in the way that squeezing a balloon displaces the air inside.

Sometimes our response is born of bias. In sociology, for example, this phenomenon has its own name: “normative sociology”:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B.

Some historians likewise have a tendency to over-simplify, fixating on aspects that “ought to be” rather than determining what is (which is another way of saying what can be reasonably defended).

Decision-making is the essence of design. Thought processes that poorly match reality, whether due to bias or insufficient analysis or both, are unlikely to yield optimal results. Systems thinking, “…viewing ‘problems’ as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events, and thereby potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences”, is an approach more likely to achieve a successful outcome.

When the end result will be a software system integrated into a social system (i.e. a system that is a component of an ecosystem), it makes sense to understand the problem space as the as-is system to be remediated. This holds true whether that as-is system is an automated one or not. While it is not feasible to minutely analyze the problem space, much less design in detail the solution, failing to appreciate the full context on a high level presents risks. These risks include not only those inherent in satisfying the needs of the overlooked context(s), but also those challenges that emerge from the interactions of the various contexts that make up the problem space.

Deciding on a particular design direction is, obviously, a decision. Deferring that determination is, likewise, a decision. Refusing to make a definite decision is a decision as well. The answer is not to push all decisions off to as late a date as possible, but to make decisions in the moment that are defensible given the information at hand. Looking at the problem space as a whole in the context of its ecosystem provides the perspective required to make the optimal decision.


2 thoughts on “When Reality Gets in the Way – Applying Systems Thinking to Design

  1. I like to think of those moments where a decision is defensible, given the information at hand, as “responsible moments”. Some in the agile software community pushed the idea of the “last responsible moment.” Unfortunate because this can lead to waiting just a little too late to decide. The impacts that decisions have on others and the impact of waiting to decide until even more information is available (and the probability of getting more valuable information) need to be factored in as to when to take a decision. Which makes this moment hard to pin down.

    Liked by 1 person

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