Systems Thinking Complicates Things

4th UK Rock Paper Scissors Championships by James Bamber via Wikimedia


I’ve had the honor and pleasure of appearing as a regular on Tom Cagley‘s SPaMCast podcast for almost three years now. Before I write one of my “Form Follows Function on SPaMCast x” posts, I always listen to the podcast to make sure that the summary is right (the implication being, relying purely on my memory won’t be right). I got a bonus while writing up last week’s appearance, because Tom asked an excellent question that deserved its own post: does thinking about a problem (legacy systems, in the instance of last week’s discussion) holistically/systematically complicate things?


It is much easier to avoid all the twists and turns and possibilities inherent in systems thinking. A simpler approach, picking one lever to pull/one button to push, makes it much easier to come up with a solution.

It just doesn’t work very well at coming up with solutions that actually work.

When there is a mismatch in complexity between problem and solution architectures, this mismatch will be an additional problem to deal with. This will apply when the solution is more complex than the problem space warrants and when the opposite is the case. Solutions that fail to account for the context they will encounter are vulnerable. This is the idea behind the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Human nature can push us to fix problems quickly, and quick will generally equate to simple. It takes time to analyse the angles and consider the alternatives. How often have you seen people ask for “the best” way to do something absent any context? How often have you seen people ask “why would someone ever do that?”

I’ll answer that by asking 3 questions:

  • since Rock beats Scissors, why would anyone ever choose Scissors?
  • since Paper beats Rock, why would anyone ever choose Rock?
  • since Scissors beats Paper, why would anyone ever choose Paper?

Reality isn’t binary. It’s not what’s “best”, it’s what’s fit for purpose in a given context and there are lots and lots of contexts out there.

This isn’t to say that all quick, simple interventions are wrong. If you find yourself in a house fire, more action and less comprehensive deliberation may well be in order. The key is matching the cost (largely in terms of time) of defining the problem space with cost (in terms of both effort and risk that the intervention adds to the problem) of crafting the solution.

Rock, Paper, Scissor, Lizard, Spock rules diagram

It’s almost guaranteed that the system contexts we deal with (both technical and social) will evolve toward more and more complexity. Surprises will emerge as a matter of course. We don’t need to make more by failing to take a more holistic view when we have the time to do so.

Innovation in Inner Space

KGL dragoons at the Battle of Garcia Hernandez


Long-time readers know that I have a rather varied set of interests and that I’ve got a “thing” for history, particularly military history. Knowing that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was recently reading an article titled “Cyber is the fourth dimension of war” (ground, sea and air being the first three dimensions). It’s not a bad article, but it is mistaken. Cyberwar is the fifth dimension of war. The first dimension, today and for all of time past, is the human mind. Contests are won or lost, not on some field of battle, virtual or physical, but in the minds of the combatants. For example, if you believe you’ve lost, then you have.

The painting shown above illustrates this nicely. During the Napoleonic period, infantry that was charged by cavalry would form a square, presenting a hedge of bayonets to all sides. Horses, being intelligent creatures, will not impale themselves on pointy things, thus the formation provides protection to the infantry who were free to fire at the encircling cavalry. Charging disciplined, unbroken infantry was a losing proposition for the cavalry under almost all circumstances. Note the use of “almost”.

At the Battle of García Hernández, July 1812, something unusual happened. One French formation was late in firing, and a wounded horse ran blindly into the square, breaking it up. The attacking British (Hannoverian, to be precise) cavalry rode into the gap and forced the surrender of the French infantry that comprised it. This, of course, was simply a matter of physics. However, two further squares broke up when charged due to the effect of what happened to the first one on their morale. Believing they were beaten, they failed to maintain cohesion and their anticipated defeat became a reality.

So, what’s the point?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading posts on the topic of innovation since late 2015. Greger’s latest, “Spring clean your mind”, deals with the concepts of infowar and propaganda (aka “fake news”). This is another example of what Greger’s written about in the past, a concept he dubbed black hat innovation: “Whenever there is innovation or invention there is also misuse”.

Whether you call it black hat innovation or abuse cases (my term), it’s a concept we need to be aware of. It is a concept that affect us, not just as technologists, but as ordinary human beings. We need to be aware of the potential for active abuse. We also need to be aware of the potential for problems that caused by things that make our life more convenient or more pleasant:

This isn’t to say that Facebook is some evil empire, but that we need to bear some responsibility for not allowing ourselves to become trapped in an echo chamber:

It’s something we need to take responsibility for. We can’t hope for a technological deus ex machina to bail us out. As Tim Bass recently noted on his Cyberspace Event Processing Blog:

The big “AI” processing “pie in the sky” plan for cyber defense we all read about is not going to work “as advertised” because we cannot program machines to solve problems that we cannot solve ourselves. There is no substitute for the advancement and development of the human mind to solve complex problems. Delegating the task of “thinking” to machines is doomed to fail, and fail “big time”. It seems like humanity has, in a manner of speaking, “given up” on humans developing the intelligence to manage and defend cyberspace, so they have decided to turn it all over to machines.

Wrong approach!

The right approach, in my opinion, is to be intentional and active in learning. Consuming information should not be a matter of sitting back and shoveling it in, but one of filtering, testing, and appraising. How much time do you spend reading viewpoints you absolutely disagree with? How much time do you spend exploring information?

In 1645, as he was looking back at his long and successful career as a samurai, where a single loss often meant death, Miyamoto Musashi concluded that although rigorous sword practice was essential, it wasn’t enough. At the end of the first chapter of A Book of Five Rings, he also admonishes aspiring warriors to “Cultivate a wide variety of interests in the arts” and “Be knowledgable in a wide variety of occupations.”

Similarly, Boyd, who was was a keen student of Musashi, described his method as looking across a wide variety of fields — “domains” he called them — searching for underlying principles, “invariants.” He would then experiment with syntheses involving these principles until he evolved a solution to the problem he was working on. Because they involved bits and pieces from a variety of domains, he called these syntheses “snowmobiles” (skis, handlebar from a bicycle, etc.)


Perception is critical. We are made or unmade, less by our circumstances and more by our perception of them. Companies that have suffered disruptions have done so not because they were unable to respond, but because they either believed themselves invulnerable or believed themselves incapable. Likewise, as individuals, we have control over what information we expose ourselves to and how we manage that exposure.

Sense-making is a critical skill that requires active involvement. The passive get passed by.

[Painting of the battle of Garcia Hernandez by Adolf Northen, housed in the Landesmuseum Hannover. Photo by Michael Ritter via Wikimedia Commons]

Disruptive Decency

Well, this turned out to be very much a different post than what I’d first thought.

Last Thursday, CIO published an article titled “Your Pebble smartwatch will live on when Pebble’s servers shut down” that had good news for owners of the Pebble smartwatch:

But now that Pebble has been acquired by Fitbit and is presumably nearing the end of its life, Pebble users fretted that their watches would cease to work once Pebble dies. That’s not the case.

Pebble just rolled out an iOS and Android update that frees its watches from cloud-based online servers. That means when Pebble goes offline, your watch will still work.

Coincidentally, this was one year to the day since I posted “Google’s Parent Company is Stirring Up a Hornet’s Nest”, which talked about Nest’s decision to brick the Revolv home automation hub rather than continue to support them. Fitbit’s decision was a refreshing departure from the attitude demonstrated by Nest (and lampooned by xkcd above). The punchline was going to be: basic human decency seems to be a disruptive tactic these days.

And then I launched Twitter Monday morning:

By this point, I would assume Sunday night’s, incident needs no explanation on my part. Details are still coming out, but regardless of what develops, United Airlines is the loser in this scenario. There’s an old saying is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The old saying is wrong:

The tweet above has plenty of company in the twitterverse, none of it flattering to United or beneficial to its share price. Tweets like this haven’t helped:

The perception that sticks is that an older man, a doctor, was violently removed from a plane in order to allow United to get four of its flight crew to Louisville and United’s CEO is upset about having to “…re-accommodate these customers” (not exactly what’s said, but certainly what will be taken away from that garbled message). Additionally, the poor job done on that earlier message completely undercuts the perceived sincerity of the latter one:

Given United’s past problems with customer service, one might expect more effort would have been spent to prevent incidents like this and they would have been better prepared for dealing with the aftermath of something that did go badly.

Wrong on both counts.

An excerpt from a recent interview of Oscar Munoz (United’s CEO) on Business Insider makes the situation all the more egregious:

Here, in Chicago, it’s miserable because if you don’t leave by a certain time, you are just dead. “I’m going to get there and there are going to be a billion people and the damn TSA line.” By the time you get to sit on one of our seats you are just pissed at the world.

So how do we make all of that a little bit easier? This is the thing. You’ve got that broad issue of anger and anti-industry noise. We’ve lost the trust and respect of the broader public, and so every action we take, they don’t particularly like, they see it negatively. We have to work on that broad communication. I am going to do it at this airline and allow myself to differentiate in the flight-friendly mode so that people don’t immediately have that visceral reaction.

Dragging people off a flight (literally) probably doesn’t fit into the mold of a “flight-friendly mode”.

So I will return to my original punch line: basic human decency seems to be a disruptive tactic these days.

Defense Against the Dark Art of Disruption

Woman with Crystal Ball

My first post for 2016 was titled “Is 2016 the Year for Customer-Focused IT?”. The closing line was “If 2016 isn’t the year for customer-focused IT, I wonder just what kind of year it will be for IT?”.

I am so sorry for jinxing so many things for so many people. 🙂

So far, the year has brought us great moments in customer experience like:

  • Google Mic Drop – an automated kiss-off for email (“you meant to hit that button, right?”)
  • Google/Nest and the Resolv home automation hub – retiring a product by bricking it (“it’s just not working; it’s not you, it’s us”)
  • Apple Music – cloud access to your music and freed-up disk space (“nice little music collection you have here, it’d be a shame if you quit paying for access to it”)
  • Evernote’s downsizing – because when the free plan is good enough for too many people, taking away features is the way to get them to pay, right?

Apple, of course, probably won the prize with their “courageous” iPhone 7 rollout:

Using “courage” in such a way was basically a lethal combination of a giant middle finger mixed with a swift kick in the nuts, all wrapped in a seemingly tone-deaf soundbite. This is the kind of stuff critics dream about.

Because Schiller said exactly what he said, he left the company open to not only mockery, but also bolstered a common line of criticism that often gets leveled upon Apple: that they think they know best, and everyone else can hit the road. You can argue that this is a good mentality to have in some cases — the whole “faster horse” thing — but it’s not a savvy move for a company to say this so directly in such a manner.

Apple then continued it’s tradition of “courage” with the new MacBook Pro models.

So, is there a point to all this?

Beyond the obvious, “it’s my site and I’ll snark if I want to”, there’s a very important point. Matt Ballantine captured it perfectly in his post, “Ripe for Disruption”: “You’re less likely to be disrupted if you are in sync with your customers’ view of your value proposition.” His definitive example:

I think that most of the classic cases of organisational extinction through disruption can be framed in this way: Kodak thought their value was in film and cameras. Their customers wanted to capture memories. Kodak missed digital (even though they kind of invented it).

The quote bears repeating with emphasis: “You’re less likely to be disrupted if you are in sync with your customers’ view of your value proposition.” What you think your value proposition is means a whole lot less than your customer’s perception of the value of what you’re delivering. This is a really good way to poison that perception:

Disappointment, betrayal (perception is reality here) are not conducive to a positive customer experience. Customer acquisition is important, but retention is far more important to gaining market share (h/t to Matt Collins). The key to retention is to relate to your customers; understand what they need, then provide that. Having them pay for what’s in your best interest, rather than theirs (hello Kodak), is a much harder sell.

Barriers to Innovation

US Soldiers crossing Siegfried Line in WWII


Is innovation inevitable?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading blog posts on innovation since last November. In his latest post, “Credit card fraud and stalled innovation”, Greger discusses the relatively slow pace of innovation in credit card security. Those best placed to increase security neglect it because they don’t own the risk (a concept called “moral hazard”).

Sometimes, a potential innovation is not the best route to take. For example, the situation I discussed in “What’s Innovation Worth”, where change was avoided because the payoff didn’t justify the cost. Sometimes, however, potentially valuable innovation can be blocked in ways similar to what Greger outlined.

Laws and regulations can introduce perverse incentives that distort economic conditions. Ironically, where this hurts some innovations (e.g. Uber and other “gig economy” companies), it can also unintentionally push others. Increases in minimum wage laws are making automation more likely for some jobs.

External factors are far from the only barriers to innovation. Technological innovations, no matter how promising, will fail to flourish when placed in an inhospitable ecosystem. If all the systems, social and technological, fail to complement each other, then effectiveness will be diminished via friction. Technology, organization (structure), and process are all intertwined and interdependent.

Culture and structure are aspects of social systems that can contribute to impeding innovation. Organizations which are highly focused on efficiency and stability will be disposed to avoid the risk inherent in experimenting. Likewise, rigidly siloed organizations will have difficulty with activities that require crossing reporting structures. This can be the result of deliberate and destructive office politics, or less obvious (therefore, more insidious) cognitive biases that lead to evidence being overlooked:

Yet ‘evidence’ literally means ‘that which is seen’. And here we hit right up against a fundamental problem of cognitive-bias, sometimes known as Gooch’s Paradox: that “things not only have to be seen to be believed, but also have to be believed to be seen”.

Inertia, the “indisposition to motion, exertion, or change”, is another social system innovation killer. In the seventh installment of our series on innovation, “Organizations and Innovation – Swim or Die!”, I made the point that organizations need constantly to adapt to their changing contexts or risk “death”. Sitting still in a changing world is a losing tactic.

It should be obvious that all the barriers to innovation I’ve listed are aspects of the social systems involved. The technology part is relatively easy compared to the social. Technology (at least at present) isn’t lazy, complacent, biased, fearful, or malicious. The upside is that organizations, being composed of people, can change.

To return to the question above, is innovation inevitable?

Perhaps. The better question is whether it’s inevitable for your organization. The more your organization is subject to the barriers listed above, the more likely an organization not subject to them will eat your lunch.