system failure

Our world is a system that contains many sub-systems: the oceans, the forests, the climate – all are complex, fragile, and well-calibrated organisms with a system character. If one of the parts is not running well, the others will suffer as well: one weak spot will influence the overall performance. Systems can repair themselves, once they are not running well – unless the weak spot is getting larger than the self-curing ability of the parts involved. Then the whole system can collapse: system failures are the most wicked problems around us.

Also, a business is a system: it consists of separate parts that in order to function are heavily dependent on each other. A customer is one of these parts that belong to the ‘business system’, and is mostly considered to be the weak spot. No wonder that most businesses have a tendency to exclude the customer from the system they are involved with.

Specifically in agriculture, we deal with nasty wicked problems popping up. As soon as the self-repairing forces are out of balance, e.g. through extreme monoculture, over-fertilizing, or aging stocks, a system collapse is looming.
That’s why farmers have developed their ‘street knowledge’ or shrewdness, by which they are able to ‘handle’ the system. By following their ‘gut feeling’ they can intervene with the system to avoid that fatal errors occur. This gut feeling, acquired over thousands of years ‘in the field’, resulted in a system-thinking that, if captured and transferred properly, can serve many farming generations to come – as long as the system stays and responds the same…

Over the last two centuries new, functional thinking has emerged, fostered by industrialization. This thinking focusses on the optimization of the parts and the increase of efficiency through machines and technology. The use of these new means, within the old system of agriculture, inevitably influenced it’s characteristic and behavior. Now tribal knowledge (gut feeling) had to be combined with the new tools and that has not always lead to improved situations, as we found out: once ‘mixing up’ the feeding of cows and the system is about to collapse, causing madness and fear. The ice on which we skate is getting thinner…

Eventually, this function thinking dominates all of us, the workers, clerks, and the like. We focus on developing perfect sub-functions and our view on ‘the whole’ gets blurred: we can’t overview the related systems anymore, since we only stare at theĀ  (functional) parts. And since these machines give us an immediate response, turn our orders into immediate action, we forget to look beyond them. Because a function is admirably simple, straight foreword, and accordingly ‘functional’, hence easy to comprehend.

A system on the contrary is complex, in-direct, and difficult to grasp. A response from a system has a time delay. In order to find your way around within a system, you need to oversee the total, as well as the parts – difficult! That’s why we tend to keep an eye on the speedometer whilst driving, and not on the car 200 meters in front of us – even though all experienced drivers can assure that the latter can avoid severe errors from happening. Predictive driving is a systems thinking that can avoid wicked problems!

The same happens in business, where this functional thinking holds the upper hand. Business people focus on their ‘speedometers’ that display turn-over, margin, or customer satisfaction (factually it’s the rear-view mirror!). And like in a car, these ‘instruments’ only show what’s in front of your nose, and not what is to be expected. The business is so addicted to the immediateness of these responses, that they want to control the system with it. But they don’t have the ‘tribal knowledge’ to project the feedback of those measurements onto the overall system behavior, in order to anticipate what the following effects might be.

When a car cueing ahead of me hits the brake, I also hit it: I don’t wait till the one just in front of me does. Even better: I get out of the way (and then observe how the car that was behind me crashes into the tail of the traffic-jam?).
That’s why businesses discover that they have to add another tool to their current abilities: predictive design!

Systems have a response delay due to their complexity and the many sub-aspects they posses. Like with lightning and thunder, signal and response are de-coupled. Unfortunately, within a business it’s not flashing before it thunders – you only notice when you’re hit!
In order to survive in an economic system, you need a forward-looking approach, anticipating or empathic thinking and the tools to create options for system-supporting, and thus sustainable solutions. This means that you cannot just rely on feedback (e.g.. customer feedback), but that you have look for indicators that give a hint on what might come.
Next to experience or tribal knowledge, it also needs an attitude that allows for shifting the focus from what’s directly in front of you, onto the what is in the blurry distance. That’s a system thinking, or design thinking, which my grandfather always called ‘plain common sense’. I also call it design focus.

If you really want to measure things directly, then focus on these:
– sustainable targets: like value increase over 10 years plus instead of quarterly results, or usability instead of time to market
– loyal motivation: like the customer and employee loyalty instead of satisfaction, or referral rate instead of market share.

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