Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Traps when thinking in systems

I've pointed to "Thinking in Systems: a primer" by D. Meadows in prior posts, and here I go again, largely because I think she's offered a lot that is useful to managers of all stripes, not just systems people.

Here's an abridged list of 'traps' she cautions against, a list of ills we should all be cautious about:
Success to the successful
If the winners of a competition are systematically rewarded with the means to win again, a reinforcing feedback loop is created by which, if it is allowed to proceed uninhibited, the winners eventually take all, while the losers are eliminated.

The Tragedy of the Commons
When there is a commonly shared resource, every user benefits directly from its use, but shares the costs of its abuse with everyone else. Therefore, there is very weak feedback from the condition of the resource to the decisions of the resource users. The consequence is overuse of the resource, eroding it until it becomes unavailable to anyone.

Drift to Low Performance
Allowing performance standards to be influenced by past performance, especially if there is a negative bias in perceiving past performance, sets up a reinforcing feedback loop of eroding goals that sets a system drifting toward low performance.

Rule Beating Trap
Rules to govern a system can lead to rule-beating-perverse behavior that gives the appearance of obeying the rules or achieving the goals, but that actually distorts the system. Rule beating is usually a response of the lower levels in a hierarchy to overrigid, deleterious, unworkable, or ill-defined rules from above.

Seeking the Wrong Goal
System behavior is particularly sensitive to the goals of feedback loops. If the goals-the indicators of satisfaction of the rules-are defined inaccurately or incompletely, the system may obediently work to produce a result that is not really intended or wanted.
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