ESSAY: SYSTEMS THINKING ENABLING PROSE

Fabián Szulanski, Director System Dynamics Centre Instituto Tecnológico de Buenos Aires fabiansz@hotmail.com

PURPOSE AND FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES The author expects that sensibilization of system dynamicists possessing different expertise levels through this essay, prompting them to de-jargon and use simple phrases and questions that enable systems thinking, it will be a point of departure for a much comprehensive and larger collective work that will engross a conceptual portfolio, together with examples for each additional concept, that will serve as a leverage to make systems thinking available for the ‘base of the pyramid’, (people unaware of the existence and usefulness of Systems Thinking) who are the vast majority of the world population.

INTRODUCTION
It is known that being able to think systemically contributes to strengthen the decision making process of people of all ages. On the one hand several authors say (especially Prof Jay W Forrester), it is convenient to provide systems thinking capabilities from an early age, and continue until the end and beyond the academic and professional learning process. On the other hand, typical visual and conceptual tools from systems thinking constitute strong barriers of entry to learning systems thinking, which can even frustrate the novice wanting to initiate her learning process of the systems approach, at every stage of the learner’s evolution. The author of the present essay proposes, and makes the first step, the introduction of a portfolio of key phrases and words that should be encouraged to be used in everyday communication situations, that will enable and sensitize systems thinking concurrently. Phrases and words should be adapted to each learning stage and level of expertise.

PROPOSED TAXONOMY
The following concepts and ideas are proposed by the author, as a point of departure Causality • • • Direction Intensity Polarity

Feedback Delays • • Information delays Material Delays

Nonlinearities Dynamics • • • Sense of variation Intensity Trajectory Shape

Structure • • • Feedback Loop Stock Flow

Following this taxonomy, some “communication molecules” will be presented for each category.

COMMUNICATION MOLECULES

Causality
Affects or is affected by – influences or is influenced – impacts or is impacted – provokes or is provoked by Direction: The former impacts the latter Intensity: It can take the binary concepts of strongly and weakly, or fuzzy concepts such as very weakly, weakly, fairly strongly, a lot, intensely, very intensely. Polarity: When this variable increases, the other decreases - When this decreases, the other increases- When this increases, the other increases as well – when this decreases, the other decreases as well. Both change in the same direction – The two vary in opposite directions -Both increase – Both decrease.

Feedback
That information is useful for deciding / designing… - It is necessary to know about that variable for…

Delays
After a certain time – Everything takes time to accomplish – Nothing happens instantaneously – First that will happen, then the other process will start Information delay: We decide based on our perceptions – Forming our opinions take time- We make decisions filtering information from the real world – We observe, we plan, we expect, we fear, we report… all those filters take their time to build up – Everything depends on what lenses do you use – It takes some time to be aware. Material delay: Take care of your strategic resources – Avoid rapid depletion – Try to make your resources last longer.

Nonlinearities
Isn’t proportional – This subtle action has a profound impact in – Changing that persons attitude will take an enormous and long effort – When certain threshold is trespassed, an effect starts to build up.

Dynamics
Change – Variation – Way – Movement – it isn’t static– Turbulence – Chaos – Apparent stability. Direction: Grows, goes up, increases, inflates – Decreases, goes down, decreases, deflates, depletes. Intensity: very subtly – subtly – fairly – something – pretty intensely – intensely – very intensely – enormously Trajectory Shape: Linear – Flat – Slope – Oscillates – Smoothes gradually – Smoothes quickly – Grows quickly – Oscillates and then it gets calm. Grows and then reaches a limit – Boom and bust – it adjusts to its goal- it oscillates in a sustained way.

Structure
What originates that behavior? What elements could’ve been interacting so that the issue appeared? “Why, Why, Why?” Feedback Loop: Growth Process – Adjustment Process – Smoothing process – Grows steeply – Grows exponentially- Both variables oscillate – This process controls the other- This is limiting the resource’s growth. Stock: It accumulates- Delayed – Inventory – Backlog -What is your main resource? – What are that process main stages? What is your perception of this issue? What do you think the biases of your decisions are? What is it that is the most important? Resource – Strategic Resource. Flow: What impacts on that resource’s growth? (Depletion) - What are your main activities and tasks? What are your common corrective actions you implement? – Processes

EXAMPLES
• • Aesop Fable: During the last part of the race, the rabbit couldn’t reach nor surpass the turtle. XYZ stock price has been increasing in a sustained way for the last 5 years. However, after the financial crack, it collapsed catastrophically, generating a stampede of investors wanting to get rid of the stocks. Information saturation generates stress. The ever growing mass of information provokes an exponential growth of stress level in knowledge workers. This indicates that something has to be made, as the cognitive saturation level from workers could be in risk of being surpassed, increasing the probability of health illnesses, and productivity decrease. An apparently inoffensive and effective policy could backfire. Let’s see the following example from one of Dilbert books: A software company manager designed the following incentive policy: An incentive will be given for each coding error discovered. What was programmers’ reaction? They started to invent errors so they could increasingly ‘discover’ them. This move generated unreal and too high incentives. What did the manager do? He changed the policy: He offered an incentive for each percentage of coding error decrease. This way, he kept motivation high, while increase coding quality and dissolving the previous programmers’ reaction. Reputation is one of the main factors that contribute to an organization’s brand value. An increase in reputation generates an increase in brand value. Concurrently, each product and service has attributes that in turn could increase the firm’s reputation. Examples: Safety features in automobiles, punctuality in mass transport systems, quantity and quality of clients of a bank, manufacturing quality in high end products, among others. On the other hand, if those attributes happened to decrease, reputation would resent. It is known that consumers spread negative comments much more than positive ones about the products and services they consume. Thus it’s important to keep an eye on all those reputation enhancers.

PROPOSED EXERCISES
Using as many of the “communication molecules” presented as you are able, develop on the following exercises: 1. Choose a significant event in your life that could be described as “something” that has changed in some direction. After the description, ask yourself “Why?” three times, and answer each of them. 2. Describe your financial risk aversion. What does it depend on? Why could your risk tolerance threshold go up or down? 3. Narrate a recent history process, including what has been happening, what the impact of those things was, the possible short and long term consequences, and how to face or avoid them in the future. 4. A company is used to consistently hire consultants for the majority of its challenges. What’s the potential problem with this? (Short and Long term) 5. What’s the growth engine of your profession? Present the initiatives you’ll implement for achieving your objectives. Anticipate the possible challenges that could decelerate your professional growth, and how would you face them.

CONCLUSIONS
The author has introduced a conceptual systems thinking related taxonomy that could be verbalized, communicated and acknowledged easier than when using the classical, and more complex systems thinking tools. Using the communication molecules could help people grasp systemic issues in a more fluent manner. Some generic examples have been provided, with more concrete examples. Additionally, the author has provided some examples. This is the very first step and a humble point of departure that might inspire other people interested in change the way they do storytelling.

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