Tread Mindfully

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
— W. Edward Demming

Every system serves at least one purpose. That’s what a system is: a set of elements that work in interrelated ways towards a purpose. Your body is a system; its primary purpose is to keep you alive. Your body’s constituent elements compose various subsystems that support this purpose. For example, your stomach is part of your digestive (sub)system, whose purpose it is to bring energy into the body.

Systems that have evolved into their current configuration (such as your body) are well-fitted to serving their purpose within the environment they exist in. (Those that weren’t well-fitted aren’t around to read blog posts.) The particular elements that compose your body — and the ways they relate to each other — are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of small experiments that lead towards ever tighter form-context-purpose fit.

Design is, in a sense, an attempt to accelerate this process. Your business doesn’t have six hundred thousand years to launch a new product; it has six months. So you assemble novel configurations of elements and test them. Not all possibilities, mind you: a tiny set. “Intelligent design” is a redundant phrase; design is intelligent by definition. The alternative is an undirected process. In either case, the goal is good fit.

The flip side is that a currently existing system that’s producing “bad” results is working as intended. If it hasn’t destroyed itself (or its environment) yet, then it’s functioning “well” towards its purpose — or at least have the ability to adapt further. Now, you may look at what the system is doing and be horrified. You may deem its purpose to be undesirable. You can then do something about it: either tweak its configuration or shut it down altogether. (That said, there aren’t many systems that are under your exclusive control, so you’ll have to build consensus to intervene.)

But effective interventions call for clarity; for understanding what’s really going on with the system. Are you sure you know how it works and towards what ends? How do you know? Complex systems often serve more than one purpose. How do you know that an intervention meant to tweak one outcome won’t inadvertently affect another? (Possibly with catastrophic results.) Complex systems that have achieved good fit have done so for reasons, some of which won’t be obvious on superficial examination. Tread mindfully, with humility and genuine curiosity.