his new way of thinking, Systems Thinking, was better suited to mass customization and knowledge work.

Systems tinkering versus systems thinking

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Dealing with a complicated world

Looking back at the industrial revolution, the dominant ‘management paradigm’ was Scientific Management, also called Taylorism. This was pretty straightforward, focussing on control of function and ‘Taylored’ to mass production. But this ran out of steam when the world got more complicated. People realized that things depended on so many other things.

From mass production to mass customization

A better paradigm emerged when Hammer, Senge, Kaplan and Nonaka shifted the focus to control of information. This new way of thinking, Systems Thinking, was better suited to mass customization and knowledge work.

Mass collaboration and complex adaptive systems

Now we have moved on to mass collaboration between multiple parties and we are in the domain of complex adaptive systems. Complex systems’ behaviour can’t be predicted – it just emerges. Systems Thinking assumes that the interactions between system components are complicated but knowable. For complex systems, this gives a false sense of control and is a recipe for disaster. Seasoned practitioners recognize the futility of grand plans for mega-projects. If the project is successful, it’s usually not due to, but despite the project plan.

Systems tinkering

Dealing with complex systems is different and requires a more experimental ‘systems tinkering’ approach. David Snowden’s sense-making Cynefin framework offers different strategies for dealing with systems that are obvious, complicated, complex or chaotic. Or simply unknown. Described in detail in the highly-cited and Academy of Management award-winning Harvard Business Review article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, the Cynefin framework often ‘liberates’ project managers and other roles from the shackles of traditional command and control-based thinking.

Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework has five domains:

  • Obvious, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense – Categorise – Respond and we can apply best practice.
  • Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense – Analyse – Respond and we can apply good practice.
  • Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
  • Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act – Sense – Respond and we can discover novel practice.
  • Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists.

Safe-to-fail experiments

I call the approach to dealing with complex systems ‘systems tinkering’ because it’s a question of taking small steps. Because you don’t know what kind of intervention will work, you just have to experiment. You recognize that a fail-safe approach is impossible, so you take safe-to-fail risks. With safe-to-fail experiments, you have to think up front about how you’re going to increase the intensity if it catches on, and how to control the damage if it catches fire. There are many parallels with Agile and DevOps where short feedback loops are used to sense how the system is behaving and being affected by interventions. In hindsight you can often recognize patterns of behaviour, but that’s not the same as being able to predict them. Don’t confuse correlation with causation!

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Mark Smalley, also known as The IT Paradigmologist, thinks, writes and speaks extensively about IT 'paradigms' – in other words our changing perspectives on IT. His current interests are the digital enterprise, IT operating models, value of IT, business-IT relationships, co-creation of value, multidisciplinary collaboration, working with complexity, and as the overarching theme, management of information systems in general. Mark is an IT Management Consultant at Smalley.IT and Ambassador at the ASL BiSL Foundation. Mark has spoken at 100+ events in 20+ countries.