Essay

On Thinking in Systems

A few years ago I worked on a project for the Chief of Staff of the Army regarding how the Army would potentially operate in megacities (cities with a population above 10 million people).  During that endeavor my team and I discussed many aspects of this extremely complex environment. I penned the attached essay based on those discussions. It is a perhaps somewhat whimsical view of how we tend to look at complex problems. In the essay I am critical of the Army’s (and most of modern society’s) automatic bias towards reductionism, the proverbial “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” While reductionism is useful in some systems, particularly mechanical systems, it has probably done more harm than good when dealing with complex, nonlinear systems (like large urban environments).

Elephants v2

Recommended Reading

Bob’s 2017 Reading List

This year’s reading list is geared towards helping people develop as leaders. To me, being a good leader requires a variety of skills: self awareness and empathy (understanding yourself and those you lead and follow), clear thinking, strategic thinking (including systems thinking), an understanding of your context (the environment within which you are working), a robust understanding of your work, and some flare. The books below don’t cover all of these characteristics, but they are a good start. “Thinking about Thinking” helps leaders understand why they and others think the way they do. Strategic Thinking helps leaders understand where their problems exist within a larger context, and gives insight into what external things may be influencing your problems.

The section labeled “Leadership” touches on mentorship, motivation and creativity in leadership. If you are looking for a basic primer on straightforward techniques on leadership you can do a lot worse than the basic Army doctrine manual, Field Manual 6-22 Army Leadership.

“Thinking About the World” introduces some different opinions about some emerging areas influencing society. Data, social networks, different views that challenge conventional wisdom… the point is to question the accepted views on a variety of topics, not to change your mind but to exercise your ability to consider different views.

“Just to be Different” section is really about introducing and exercising divergent thinking. How might this make you a better leader? Look, everyone is trying to do the same things as everyone else, only better. The way I figure, everyone is trying so hard to be “normal” that we are missing out on the things that can really make a difference in our organizations. If you look throughout history for those folks who really made a difference you don’t find too many conformists. Yes, you have to figure out which rules you need to follow, but following the herd isn’t going to make you a great leader. Think differently.

The final section is geared towards my own organization and our specific context. You should develop a short reading list for your place as well. One of the best ways to get folks socialized is to send them a book that helps them understand their new firm before they arrive.

I know it’s a long list… but you have as long as it takes. I recommend reading one from each category, taking a break (read some fiction… I’ll recommend some in a later post), and then looping back through. Continue reading