What is reductionism? It is the theory and practice of solving problems by placing attention on its simpler constituent parts or components. In other words, solving problems of the whole—which can be quite complex—can be realized by attention to the most important constituent—the one cause or the one outcome—of the whole. Moreover this approach to decision-making and problem resolution is likely not only quite widespread it is also a way of thinking that most are not consciously aware they practice. So why should we care?
We should care because this approach when applied to anything other than locally contained situations—that is when applied to complex systems—will actually create far more problems than the solution of the moment it is intended to address. Placing all one’s energy toward minimizing the one cause or maximizing an isolated outcome will ultimately result in the destruction of the system itself.
Wise physicians know that treating the whole person is far more helpful to a patient’s wellbeing than a single focused approach toward short-term relief. Similarly, wise business executives know that a single-minded pursuit of profit at all costs is eventually detrimental to the viability of the business enterprise.
Reductionism is also being played out every day by the very way organizations, especially business organizations, are organized and managed. Since most business enterprises seek the same purpose—profit maximization—it is not surprising that they are brought to order in a similar fashion. Effectually, to exercise control, the system is reduced to (i.e. broken up into) more manageable pieces. Adding insult to injury, each part then is required to maximize the attainment of a goal in support of profit maximization of the whole. The common phrase associated with an effect of this practice is silos—and many know all too well the adverse effects of this. Some of the many unintended effects include: poor communication throughout, inadequate levels of cooperation and collaboration, waste, rework, and insufficient organizational capability to support strategy. Yet those in-authority positions continue doing this!
In regard to the problem of America’s national debt, reductionism was the approach in the problem solving recently carried out before our very eyes by the U.S. Congress. Rather than developing an understanding of the functioning of the whole and its effect on constituent parts, the approach taken involved isolating elements as if they are separate unrelated things and choosing one as both cause and solution. The impact of reductionism in this case is compounded by a narrow focus. So with only a few arguing for a systemic approach—calling for a more complete solution—reductionism won out.
Though it appears most economists predict that the effects of this single-minded action will likely have a deleterious affect on the economy and society, the full compliment of effects cannot be precisely determined, though all of the effects will emerge.
What can be said is that reductionism is not applicable to problem solving of dynamic complex systems. Why? With dynamic complex systems the concern is for the functioning of the whole and its affect on the constituent parts, and not merely separate parts locally transacting. Interdependence along with the nonlocal nature of cause and effect in systems cannot be disregarded or separated out.
Moreover doing so diminishes understanding. Because a system is a set of relationships—deeply nested interdependent relationships—every action will affect multiple relationships throughout the system. Moreover one action has multiple effects and those effects are nonlocal and nonlinear—stated simply, you can’t do just one thing. Hence understanding of the emergent properties of the system cannot be realized by breaking things apart. Reductionism as an approach to managing systems diminishes understanding and thus reduces the soundness of decisions.
Hence it is therefore foolish, futile, and ultimately fatal to attempt to solve problems of a system applying reductionism. Moreover, we can’t overcome the effects of reductionism in the management of a system by further application of reductionism to solve the resultant problems. As Einstein is remembered saying, you can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking that created them! Doing so will likely lead to destruction—greater imbalance and fragmentation—of the system, reducing everything to rubble.