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!