Systems thinking is a powerful way of viewing the world that I have just begun to explore. It provides perspective that takes into account more of the complexity and interactions of real world issues when compared to other forms of problem solving tools, such as root cause analysis (RCA). That complexity involves reinforcing and balancing loops, input and delays, all of which can create counter intuitive outcomes, often at odds to the original desired result especially when looked at over different time scales.
Peter Senge writes in “The Fifth Discipline”
“From an early age we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world. This apparently makes complex tasks and subjects more manageable, but we pay a hidden, enormous price. We can no longer see the consequences of our actions: we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.”
System Archetypes are behavioral patterns that can occur in different setting but with common fundamental structures. Being able to spot these patterns allows you to apply pressure at high levels of influence, improving the chance of an effective outcome. As these patterns are similar, despite occurring across a wide range of process settings, understanding what works well in one setting, can be frequently be applied across other settings, both in time and context.
This is a classic example of building on mental models that are generic in nature to solve many seemingly unrelated problems, and provide a very powerful tool to have in your problem solving tool kit.
The theory behind system archetypes is that situations with unwanted results or side effects can be mapped to the common behavior models. Given the knowledge available about system archetypes, problem solvers, in general, can apply its principles and arrive at a rich diagnosis of a situation and plan a recovery. The knowledge base on system archetypes provides guidelines for determining what archetype is at play and, once identified, how to approach an intervention.
The archetypes consist of different combinations of reinforcing and balancing loops, and when applied to business problems, can yield insight into the struc- ture at work and reveal possible high-leverage interventions
Organizations can use the archetypes to become more effective at tackling complex issues in at least three different ways.
- First, the archetypes can be used as diagnostic tools for developing an understanding of a current situation.
- Second, as planning tools, they can help us anticipate future consequences and for them.
- Third, the archetypes can be used as theory-building tools to help build a growing body of knowledge about our understanding of the world.
Fixes that fail — A solution is rapidly implemented to address the symptoms of an urgent problem. This quick fix sets into motion unintended consequences that are not evident at first but end up adding to the symptoms.
Shifting the burden — A problem symptom is addressed by a short-term and a fundamental solution. The short-term solution produces side effects affecting the fundamental solution. As this occurs, the system’s attention shifts to the short-term solution or to the side effects.
Limits to growth — A given effort initially generates positive performance. However, over time the effort reaches a constraint that slows down the overall performance no matter how much energy is applied.
Drifting goals — As a gap between goal and actual performance is realized, the conscious decision is to lower the goal. The effect of this decision is a gradual decline in the system performance.
Growth and underinvestment — Growth approaches a limit potentially avoidable with investments in capacity. However, a decision is made to not invest resulting in performance degradation, which results in the decline in demand validating the decision not to invest.
Success to the successful — Two or more efforts compete for the same finite resources. The more successful effort gets a disproportionately larger allocation of the resources to the detriment of the others.
Escalation — Parties take mutually threatening actions, which escalate their retaliation attempting to “one-up” each other.
Tragedy of the commons — Multiple parties enjoying the benefits of a common resource do not pay attention to the effects they are having on the common resource. Eventually, this resource is exhausted resulting in the shutdown of the activities of all parties in the system.
Goodman and Kleiner in an article posted on “The Systems Thinker”
have produced a family tree of Archetypes to help work through which one is most useful for a given situation.