Monday, January 25, 2010

Systems Thinking

I'm a systems guy. I've made a career of taking large masses of seemingly chaotic and unrelated stuff, finding the patterns and relationships, and then creating simple systems that make them manageable.

There are a few things that I've found characteristic to systems guys (and gals). First, systems guys are inherently lazy. We're always looking for ways to do more with less, ways to take ten tasks and reduce them to one, ways to simplify and make things easier.

Second, systems guys don't like to remember details; we prefer to derive information based on the system. As Richard Feynmen put it, "Why spend time memorizing something that you can simply look up."

Third, systems guys always believe that they can make their system better. As a software guy building systems I've designed, I almost never finish what I've started before I start looking at what I've done and say to myself, "Hmmm... I should really redo this part."

Fourth, systems guys tend not to be that interested in the business aspects of marketing and selling their systems. They prefer to be off working on the next chaotic mound.

What's A System
A system is simply a way of organizing a bunch of stuff into something that can be explained and understood simply and succinctly.

For example, western music is built on the twelve tone equal-tempered scale, an organization of sound into a set of 12 distinct notes from which all music is derived. The notes (A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G and G#) are each assigned a frequency. Each time the frequency doubles, the sequence starts again. For example, there's A 110, A 220, A 440, A 880 and so on. Each of the notes relates to each of the others via a constant ratio, the 12th root of 2 (1.05946309). To get to A# from A, you simply multiply A by the 1.05946309. To get from A# you get to B, you multiply A# by the same ratio. The 12th root of 2 multiplied by itself 12 times gives you 2, or double the original frequency. Simple.

You might say, "why does this matter?"

The equal-tempered scale matters because it makes it possible to have one instrument (e.g., a piano or a clarinet) that can play in any of the 12 keys. Prior to the equal-tempered scale, scales were defined by harmonic series. The harmonic series is the naturally occurring set of resonant frequencies for any given tone: twice the frequency, three times the frequency, four times, and so on.

Each note in an enharmonic scale is defined by its naturally occurring frequency within the series. If you've ever heard really good a cappella quartet, it will often sound as though there are more than four people singing. This is because the singers adjust their tuning from equal-tempered to enharmonic. Doing so causes the notes to align with each other sonically. The alignment creates resonance causing other frequencies in the series to become loud enough that they sound as if another voice were there.

The thing about enharmonic tuning is that notes vary slightly in frequency from key to key. An E in the key of C is just a tiny bit sharper than an E in the key of D. As a result, to play enharmoncally, a musician would be required to have an instrument for each key.

With the equal-tempered scale, an A is an A is an A, no matter what the key.

But Wait, There's More!
One of the things that seems to amaze people is that I can hear a song, play it, and then immediately transpose to any other key. People will frequently as how I'm able to do that.

Well, from a systems perspective, there's actually no such thing as keys. You have a major scale which is simple a sequence of notes defined by their relationship to each other. Regardless of what note you start on, what key you're in, the sequence is always the same: 2-2-1-2-2-2-1.

There are 12 notes: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B. A C major scale is C D E F G A B. Start on C. Take two steps to D. Take two steps to E. Take 1 step to F. And so on. By just knowing 2-2-1-2-2-2-1, you've got the whole thing: every single major scale.

The same is the case for other scales (e.g., minor scales, modal scales) and chords. In fact, you could probably fit everything that you need to know to play any pop song you're ever heard onto a 3x5 card and still have room for your grocery list. (The little chart to the left shows you just how complicated people can make 2-2-1-2-2-2-1.)

It Can't Be That Easy!
I've explained this to lots of people who decide that it can't be that easy. If it were that easy, then how come there are these huge books on music and music theory? How come it take years to learn to play or become proficient? What gives here?

Well, there are a couple of reasons that music isn't taught this way. First, most people don't really get systems. I mean, they can use the word, but most of us don't spend our time really thinking about and understanding systems. Instead, we tend to learn 'facts' and 'examples'. We never learn the core.

Second, if you reduced everything to a simple system that anyone could learn easily and quickly, then you'd put a lot of people out of business. There's a lot of money to be made in shrouding systems in complexity and mystery.

For example, if you understand music at a systems level, there's never a need to purchase a sheet of music, ever. You can learn to figure out anything in almost no time. However, if you don't understand the system behind music, you're completely dependent upon sheet music. You can get better at playing more complex sheet music, but you'll never be free of it.

Systems and the Dialogue
Over the past week or so, we've had lots of discussions regarding judgments and the difference between judgments and assessments. Some of the discussion has served as a great example of the difference between systems-thinking and non-systems-thinking.

When you create a list of words that represent judgments and a list of words that represent assessments, you are firmly in the camp of non-systems thinking. From the list, you get a sense of what a judgment is and what an assessment is, but in the end, you don't actually understand the difference at its core.

If on the other hand you were to create a system or formula that distinguishes judgments from assessment (such as that Sree offered), then you don't have to know any words to discern judgment from assessment. The system frees you from the list.

Good and Bad Systems
Most people are not good at systems thinking. Even fewer are capable of designing systems. Designing systems requires much more than organizing a bunch of disparate stuff into a reasonably structured set of categories and steps. It involves developing an underlying theory of all the stuff in the first place; one that holds true independent of situation and circumstance. One that doesn't require the stuff to understand the stuff.

I have a friend who, in response to a fellow researcher's attempt at system development, once said, "10,000 spare parts hurtling through space in close formation does not an airplane make!" Yet, oftentimes what people offer up as systems are merely a structured collection of related or semi-related things without a cohesive, applicable theory as to how everything actually works.

To be sure, this type of organization into an approach or method can be quite useful. However, for systems people they're still akin to being bound to sheet music rather than simply understanding music.

Autism Treatment and Systems
Over the past months working with Kat, I've had the opportunity to learn a lot about Autism and Autism Treatment. Although her background is not in systems, Kat demonstrates solid systems-thinking and it's been fun to look at many sundry approaches to Autism from a systems perspective. From the perspective of a systems guy, there are lots of great ideas, approaches and techniques out there for helping kids with Autism, but there are not any great systems per se. It's been heartening to see that as the understanding of autism, sensory systems, child development and other related areas improves, many of what would previously have been considered to be treatment alternatives are on a convergence path.

Still, from a pure systems perspective, it's apparent to me that any one of the methods out there could use some solid systems work. From my perspective, there are still too many lists to be learned, to many techniques to be developed, too many names for what appear to be fundamentally the same thing. (To be clear, I'm a systems guy, not an Autism guy.)

Rather than reinventing what's already out there, Kat and I have been developing systems that could be applied to virtually any approach to Autism treatment to fill gaps, to impose better organization and structure, and to better track what's working and what's not, Kat providing the Autism expertise and me the systems expertise. In doing so, we don't replace what's there, we just provide parents a better framework for understanding what they're already doing and why they're doing it so that they can operate more effectively and more independently. So far, it seems to be really helping and I'm hoping that various organizations out there will see the benefit to both themselves and to their clients.

Not for Everyone

Of course, as is often the case when various methods and approaches start down a path towards convergence, rather than embracing their similarities, many players try to distinguish themselves in their ever diminishing differences. Things such as taking credit, maintaining brand and holding on to market share can get in the way of embracing like-minded people who are all have the same mission of helping families of kids with Autism.

Kat and I ran into this a bit with her former employer who at first saw what she was doing as taking their ideas and now I believe see what she's doing as either competitive or not beneficial to families who are implementing home based relationship programs with their children on the spectrum. I'm hoping that they'll come around because I see a wonderful approach that just needs a bit of help from a systems perspective. But, you never know.

Systems Thinking and You
Learning systems thinking is really powerful. It enables you to move quickly past the dependency on the guidance of experts into a zone where you can do more and more on your own, where you can derive answers rather than looking them up.

You can apply systems thinking to anything from cooking to running to playing music to driving to work. It starts simply by becoming aware of what you already know and what you can figure out based on what you already know. It then requires just a bit of confidence to make assertions and start testing them. It's not about getting your assertions right, it's about learning how to make assertions, what works and what doesn't. The getting right part will come.

What's nice about systems thinking is that's content independent. You can learn it doing anything. I recently discovered an online course in piano that teaches piano quite similarly to the way I would. If you're interested, check out Play Piano Today.

Also, if anything that I've written about today makes sense to you, I was thinking we could set up a little side discussion on systems-thinking, what it means and how to do it.

Happy thinking!



  1. Tef: sign me for that side discussion on systems thinking...

  2. sign me *up*, ie.

  3. Awesome Tef. thanks for the stimuli. I too am bemuzed by the protective reactiveness to anything pro-actively referencing the gift of Bruce and how Bears rolled out and utilized the gift of an option perspective. It is confusing to be suggesting a fearless approach to life, and upholding the notion of a benevolent universe, then to seem to react to evolution with fear, rather than celebrating and encouraging it. Are we not all wanting a similar outcome? Why the fear? is it rational? Is any such fear ever rational? bw

  4. Sree, ie, let's figure a way to do this. One of the things I'd like to do is to start working on a clear systematic definition of the Option method. We've got great tidbits, but I've never seen a clear and concise system presentation. Overall, from a systems perspective, the whole thing is a little sloppy right now. You have Option, but then mixed into it are concepts like Benevolent Universe (which I think is kind of silly) and radical authenticity (which I like a lot). I'd like to get back to basics and a really clean definition.

    I might take a cut at it through my next few blogs and would love to get feedback on it. I'll make them working documents.

  5. Sounds great, Teflon. Looking forward to it.

    By the way, over on the Option blog, I see Bears enumerating some foundational principles in some sort of order that I don't recall seeing before. Which doesn't mean it's new, since I haven't been to all the courses or seen all their material.

  6. Sree, thanks! I took a crack at it this morning and posted what I came up with. Looking forward to your critique. Also, I'll take a look at the Option blog.


Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...