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Wherever you are at when reading this, your car is likely in the vicinity.  I’m obviously playing the odds; most of us own cars, and most of us are almost always just a few steps away from it, or perhaps a short elevator ride from it.

And, for the minority of you that either don’t own a car or are not around your car, let’s assume for this exercise that there is at least some car in the neighborhood for you to have in mind…

Okay, let ‘s get started.  Let’s take apart your car.

Literally; let’s imagine that you and I and perhaps a friend or two go out to your car and disassemble it.  Completely.  And then we carry all the pieces/parts to where you are right now reading this.

So you are now reading this with all of your car’s pieces/parts around you.

Do you have your car with you now?

Of course, you would say no; you would say you have your car’s pieces/parts all around you, but not your car.  And of course you would be absolutely correct.

So now let’s say we take all those pieces/parts and put them all back together again.  Would you now say you have your car with you?

You might say, well, yeah, I now have my car with me, if, of course, we put the pieces/parts together just the way they were before.  Big if, I suspect, for most of you, and most of our friends, and, most certainly me.

You might further say that you have what looks like your car with you, but you’d have to be convinced that the pieces/parts were all put together properly.

How might you do that?  You would, of course, need to drive your car.

So now we might add that you could only say that you have your car with you if in fact it works like a car should work.

Good God, John, get to the point please!

We’re not quite there yet.

It’s not about the pieces/parts; it is what the pieces/parts do.  In fact, more specifically, it is what the pieces/parts do together.

It’s about the whole.  It’s about the precision interactions; the information flow; the information processing; the outcome … the result … the performance.

SO WHAT!  Criminy, John; why does this matter?  Are we there yet?

Let’s think about fixing your car in an attempt to make the point of why this matters.

Other than in this exercise, when your car doesn’t work right, what do you do?  Depending on your knowledge of the car and how one works, you might throw your hands up immediately, have it towed to your local mechanic, and just say something like it just doesn’t start!

Or you might say it doesn’t start, and I think it’s either the battery or the alternator … and the mechanic will start testing the parts, starting with the first ones you’ve mentioned, unless of course they were preposterous suggestions my car doesn’t start and I think it’s the suspension system…

With our blog post scenario though, we know that all the pieces/parts worked perfectly fine before we took them apart and then reassembled them.  (Let’s just go with this assumption!)  It is of course not the failure of one or multiple individual pieces/parts.  All the individual pieces/parts are entirely capable of performing their unique function upon reassembly as they were before disassembly (assuming of course, that we didn’t damage them in that process.  Let’s assume this as well please!).

So if the problem is not in the pieces/parts, it must be in the interaction of the pieces/parts.

We’ve been taught to analyze tough problems.  Analyze means to separate into constituent elements, or parts.  Break it down;  take it a piece at a time; see what works and what doesn’t work; isolate the cause of the problem, and then fix — repair or replace — it.

Often — in fact, increasingly often, given the increasing complexity of things like technology and communication networks and such — analysis is not quite what we need.  What we need is to see the system of parts, to map the quality of the interaction of the parts, to find what is off, insufficient, or missing in the network of to and from, give and take; the input/process/output cycles that flow into other input/process/output cycles, to really diagnose the problem.

We need the opposite of analysis; we need synthesis.  We need systems thinking.

I apologize; for in this post I have intentionally belabored.  I have because I feel compelled to make the point that to think effectively systemically — to holistically diagnose problems to get a solid read on cause and effect — is not obvious, not straightforward, and most definitely not easy.

Hence, it is not common practice.

And when you do run across someone who thinks systemically, it can be irritating (like this blog post?) because it is long, comprehensive; it considers many factors, some entirely non obvious, and it is difficult to keep them all in scope and see them all together.  I know from experience, being the irritator…

Systems thinkers tend to come off as know-it-alls.  We actually do tend to know it all, just not in the way you think!

Speaking of irritation — sorry about your car … call your mechanic.

I would bet that if you have a great mechanic, he is a great systems thinker.  He knows it’s really not so much about the pieces/parts.

If he isn’t a systems thinking mechanic; you’ll know he isn’t when you get the bill for a new battery and a new alternator and a new suspension.  Ouch.

And therein lies the last point in this already too long post — solving problems by analyzing, repairing and/or replacing the constituent pieces/parts is costly.

Especially when the system in question is not a mechanical system like a car, but a social system like an organization.   Because there, the pieces/parts are people.