Thursday, July 10, 2008

Senge's Laws of Systems Thinking

You have heard me talk about the need to look at the system as a whole, rather than pick out parts of it, in referring to tampering (commonly taking the form of "micro-management" by Board members); the management of SHOA's waterways (no single approach has been successful; everyone has their own favorite "solution", and we keep solving the same problems over and over, without learning); the 6-Year Water Plan (interrelationship of legal requirements, design requirements, costs, and political demands); communicating with the membership (the thirty or more methods we use while still being accused of secrecy, etc.).

Peter Senge, writing in The Fifth Discipline in 1990, provided a set of Laws of Systems Thinking.


1. Today's problems come from yesterday's "solutions." - Solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected because those who "solved" the first problem are different from those who inherit the new problem.

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. - When our initial efforts fail to produce lasting improvements, we "push harder"--faithful to the creed that hard work will overcome all obstacles, all the while blinding ourselves to how we are contributing to the obstacles ourselves.

3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse. - A typical solution feels wonderful, when it first cures the symptoms. It may be two, three, or four years before the problem returns, or some new, worse problem arrives. By that time, given how rapidly most people move from job to job, someone new is sitting in the chair.

4. The easy way out usually leads back in. - Pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystemic thinking--what we often call the "what we need here is a bigger hammer" syndrome.

5. The cure can be worse than the disease. - The long‑term, most insidious consequence of applying nonsystemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution. This is why ill‑conceived interventions are not just ineffective, they are "addictive" in the sense of fostering increased dependency and lessened abilities of local people to solve their own problems.

6. Faster is slower. - The optimal rate is far less than the fastest possible growth. When growth becomes excessive, the system itself will seek to compensate by slowing down, perhaps putting the organization's survival at risk in the process.

7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. - There is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about reality. The first step in correcting that mismatch is to let go of the notion that cause and effect are close in time and space.

8. Small changes can produce big results--but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious. - High‑leverage changes are usually highly nonobvious to most participants in the system. They are not "close in time and space" to obvious problem symptoms. This is what makes life interesting.

9. You can have your cake and eat it too--but not at once. - They only appear as rigid "either‑or" choices, because we think of what is possible at a fixed point in time. Next month, it may be true that we must choose one or the other, but the real leverage lies in seeing how both can improve over time.

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. - Living systems have integrity. Their character depends on the whole; to understand the most challenging managerial issues requires seeing the whole system that generates the issues.

11. There is no blame. - Systems thinking shows us that there is no outside, that you and the cause of your problems are part of a single system. The cure lies in your relationship with your "enemy."

-From The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, 1990.

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