The Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm that informed the Industrial Revolution has provided a way for us to order our world, solve problems and realize tremendous benefit. Accordingly our gain in knowledge and associated technological prowess have provided us the ability to develop many different scientific fields, explore the far reaches of outer space, improve medical care—adding years to our life expectancy—and also to destroy the world with a push of a button.
These accomplishments have led us to believe that all problems are solvable once reduced to simpler and more controllable parts. This approach is so pervasive that is has become part of life—personal, professional, organizational, and societal. Just consider for example the way we organize and manage today is largely a reflection of the compartmentalize-measure-and-control approach of this paradigm. Further, adding insult to injury, this approach has not enabled us to understand the inner space of our very human existence—in fact it has kept us from doing so.
Although this approach is quite effective in many situations, it is not everywhere applicable. Yet we ignore that it has limitations and apply it in every situation. Consequently, not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to solve the complex human problems we encounter in organizations and society—although it is not for not trying. Things like organizational change, quality in organizations, and at the societal level our educational system, healthcare system, and the economic system remain problematic.
For example, the distribution of vouchers as a solution to our educational decline is consistent with the materialistic belief that appealing to the economic and competitive drives of people—in this case educators—will solve the problem. As if the reason a school is doing poorly is that there is nothing materially in it for them. Or consider the way the vast majority of executives of our business organizations approach the issue of quality; they create a quality department, throw money at the issue, and then wonder why quality doesn’t emerge throughout the organization.
On a societal level, we must stop viewing economic instability, unemployment, impoverishment, homelessness, educational decline and wide spread crime and violence as if these can be dealt with as separate issues by the limited thinking of blue ribbon panels. Recall, Albert Einstein claimed that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Yet, there is no evidence that these panels ever apply different thinking; thinking that would challenge beliefs and assumptions. They only address the effects—seeking to separate one effect from another in an effort to (separately) control each. Basically, what they generally address are the limbs and leaves—the symptoms or problem-symptoms—when focused attention should be placed squarely at the root. Attending to problem-symptoms can provide symptomatic relief and minimize the pain, but such efforts don’t get at the underlying dynamics. Hence the cause(s) remain active and inevitably the problem-symptoms re-surface.
Our recurring problems are not structured and well-defined problems. If they were we’d quickly solve them and they wouldn’t recur! The difference is they involve human activity systems and are thus highly complex problems that require courage from those in authority, Level III learning and the application of soft-systems methodology. We must begin to see these symptoms as inextricably interdependent and surely different—but not separate—manifestations of the same underlying cause(s). Could the problem-symptoms we experience be manifestations of a dysfunctional system? What system might that be?
Often, when we speak of “the system” many think of the government. Hence the belief is that the government is the cause, with the ‘real’ culprit usually being the other party—another example of our tendency toward reductionism, casting everything as a dichotomy. Granted government and political parties have an influence, but they are not the cause of our problems even though they (surely) perpetuate them.
While this makes for much talk in the various news/media channels, it is not newsworthy and very counterproductive. Of course this produces profits for the newstainment industry—increasing wealth for a few—but unfortunately it keeps the rest of us occupied and from focusing efforts on discovering the underlying cause(s). It is foolish to believe that our leaders—who profit from the current way of thinking—will do anything significant to bring a different way of thinking to the problems. Ultimately this keeps us from improving life in both organizations and society. Perhaps we should seek the help of Einstein!
Yes, the real problem is the government. The Congress is re-creating history by failing to learn its lessons and recreating the great depression.
If vouchers would create “economic or competitive” drive in educators to improve schools, as it does in every other scenario, then lets give it a chance!
I suggest reading “The Great Crash 1929” for understanding the cause and role of government. Yes these were repeated in 2008, but the cause was not then nor now the government. However the government agency responsible for oversight did not act in response to the cause.
All the evidence (see Alfie Kohn’s & Deming’s work) is to the contrary that competition is the cause of improvement.
Super excellent post! The sad thing is that many MBA schools and business practices today are still held hostage by Cartestian-Newtonian thinking that also reared its ugly head within Fredrick Taylor’s 1912 Scientific Management. Taylor literally thought employees were inert and interchangeable cogs on a wheel and that any display of emotions was anathema to productivity. That kind of linear, reductionist and mechanistic thinking is still behind much of what ails today’s corporate and government “leadership.”
The good news is that smart and creative organizations today understand the lessons of complexity science which teach us that organizations are humanistic not mechanistic, that they operate through networks not silos, and that change is a constant which requires nurturing and development not “management” or containment. My favorite example is from US Marine Corps Training Manual MCDP6, Command and Control, which states:
“Like a living organism, a military organization is never in a state of stable equilibrium but is instead in a continuous state of flux continuously adjusting to its surroundings. Command and control is not so much a matter of one part of the organization getting control over another as it is something that connects all the elements together in a cooperate effort.”
Well said! And a lesson to corporate and government leaders still trapped in a systems version of Stockholm Syndrome, acting a lot like their philosophical captors Taylor, Descartes, and Newton.
Your thought-provoking post says, “Our recurring problems are not structured and well-defined problems. If they were we’d quickly solve them and they wouldn’t recur!”
I believe this to be a misstatement of the actual case. I believe that all of our problems really are “structured and well-defined” in themselves. Apart from those who, by mental defect, truly function irrationally, we are quite capable of understanding the structure of any problem we face. We have to tools to perform this analysis and we have the understanding required. Most of the rationale was actually laid out rather succinctly, yet thoroughly, in Ludwig von Mises’ HUMAN ACTION. Essentially, we KNOW the rationale by which people act, even if we cannot decipher specific actions as being rational TO US. An action that is NOT rational to us is, to the one acting, rational, even though we are unable to understand the actor’s rationale and the actor may be unwilling or unable to articulate it.
What keeps us from solving the problems is that we — especially politicians — are unwilling to go back to the INHERENT SIMPLICITY of the problem to be found at the “root” of the Current Reality. Politicians thrive on the obfuscation available to them in COMPLEXITY, and the combination of obfuscation and complexity allows them to remain in POWER.
See http://rdcushing.blogspot.com or email me at rcushing(at)ceoexpress(dot)com for more.
Perhaps my words were confusing, but I did not say that the problems weren’t definable, only that such complex problems present themselves in an undefined/unstructured way. It requires the use of systems thinking, level III learning and the application of soft systems methods to develop the requisite understanding to define the problem and devise a solution.
Hope none of mind me responding late just hapened to be reading the posts and the comments and got a little excited, some of the comments are truly great, some touched nerves others touched on things I often think about.
I think in the worlld as a whole, there is an assumption about rationality, which I think is misplaced.
Human beings what ever their inteligence and educational status have emotions, ethics and morality,, we are not like “Spok ?” off Star Trek or Robots. We also have different perspectives because of our different life experiences.
Hopefully . all of us us respond to inputs and stimuli differently, pehaps like the bell corve or some other dstribution. (now theres a topic for research)
To me the world would be a very frightening place if every body behaved rationally with out emotion, ethics or morality and responded in the same way.
Yes the way we humans are makes things a lot more complicated.
We in all walks of life need to continously adapt, and elvolve our ideas and thoughts.
As some one who works in manufacturing and design. my frustration here is that we seem to stuck with a series of Scientifc Management ideas from early in the last Century and that these have dominated and perhaps hindered the way we think ever since. I am not agianst scientific Management, just think there is a lot more to it.
My education from the late 1970’s at Engineering School in Nottingham, UK was that there was a number of other “Schools of Management Philosophy” that contained some really interesting and effective insights which we have ignored at our peril.
I really appreciate you guys trying to raise the level of debate. It is truly great reading and inspiring
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