I recently had the opportunity to visit India for the first time. It was an eye opening experience, and one the more I reflect on, think will have a profound and long lasting influence in my life.
Yes, it is a crazy, exciting, scary, and at times smelly and dirty country. One with a long and rich history, indescribable craftsmanship, and some of the biggest, most challenging humanitarian and environmental issues of our time. Issues, I have pondered waiting in various airports, on camels backs and now here in the early hours of the morning trying to adjust back to Brisbane time. I have no answers of course. But it got me thinking. How should we think about big issues. How do political leaders or CEO’s of multinational corporations tackle the big issues, those that impact a vast amount of people, the environment and countries as a whole? And can we apply these principles to our own businesses, careers or personal lives? To tackle the issues where we can’t immediately see all the variables and possible outcomes for all involved.
One answer may be systems thinking, an approach that sees things holistically and interconnected. An approach that sees the “problem” as part of an overall system and not an isolated issue.
This way of thinking comprises many different elements, but essentially tries to focus on;
- What is under our control and what is not. We should not focus on things that we can not control
- To view the “big picture” in order to view the system of relationshipsthat link the component parts
- To identify causality & how a behaviour is generated. To look at how one variable affects another, not just that they do affect each other, to recognise that there is a web of relationships within a system that are all interdependent
- To recognise that causality does not just run in one direction, but that an ‘effect’ usually feeds back to influence on the cause (see below for an example of such a feedback loop)
Illustration of a feedback loop
Thinking about complex issues, requires, well complex thinking. Its not about hit and miss whiteboarding, finding a quiet spot or a creative space. Complex thinking requires a framework, discipline, practice and reflection. Occam’s razor will tell you that among competing hypothesis, the one with the few assumptions should be selected. That other more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but in the absence of certainty, the fewer assumptions made the better. But tread carefully, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong” (Mencken).
As I said before, I don’t have the answers to the issues India faces, nor have I got all the answers to the issues I face in my professional and business life. But I do now have new way of approaching them.