Recently I read somewhere that scientific method is all about making a hypothesis and verifying it with actual observations. If it gets supported by reality then it is likely to be useful; if not it can always be modified or dropped. I like the tentativeness of this approach and would try it with a hypothesis to explore during the New Year.
Scientific method starts with asking a question, making a hypothesis and verifying it with observations / measurements. My motivation for such an exploration is the New Year resolution I made for 2011 and shared here, which was, “work to increase the energy flow in the systems I identify with”. The assumption was that it can be done by identifying and removing the bottlenecks which restrict smooth energy flow through the system. A side effect of such bottlenecks is creation of toxins in pockets where there is stagnation and such toxins would seriously affect the health of the system.
So first the question,
What are the factors that create bottlenecks in a system and hinder smooth flow of energy and what are their symptoms?
There is a beautiful and thought provoking book “Buddhism without beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor where he states that “Lines are drawn in mind; there are no lines in nature” He further expands on this as “(Everything that we see) emerges from a matrix of conditions and in turn becomes part of another matrix of conditions from which something else emerges. Everything that happens emerges out of what precedes it. Everything we do now becomes a condition for what is possible later. Whatever emerges in this way is devoid of an intrinsic identity: in other words, things are empty. And so is each of us. There is no essential me that exist apart from this unique configuration of biological and cultural processes.”
Inspired by this insight my hypothesis is,
The nature provides for unlimited nameless interactions in a matrix of cause-effect relationships. But as human beings we need a shared language for communication which is based on names or identities. Once we give names, we need definitions to clarify what it means and what it does not. This starts creating boundaries around the named systems. Even though we build a shared language, each of us may have a different interpretation of what the system by that name means. We also may perceive different boundaries for it. Thus for any system, its identity and its boundaries are a result of our collective psyche.
For a given system, different systems from its ecosystem may relate to it at different levels. Some may be just observers with no intervention; some may interact from outside but not participate; others identify with and participate in it. The level determines the extent of bonding. Higher the bonding more is the expectation from the system to behave in a certain way.
Since the identity of a system is created by the collective psyche of the ecosystem, the collective strength of expectations determine the forces which try to preserve / protect the identity of the system (let’s call these P-forces). But the system also has an inherent impulse to return to its natural state by transforming / transcending itself (let’s call them T-forces).
The P-forces give it the stability / predictability but too much of it tends to lose its touch with reality. This leads to attachment, ignorance & inertia which act as bottlenecks to the free flow of energy. On the other hand, T-forces give it agility and make it responsive to dynamics of the reality, but too much of it also makes it unstable / unpredictable. This is not liked by the ecosystem which tries to resist and create pressure & hindrances which act as bottlenecks. Therefore, a right balance between P & T forces is very essential to avoid the bottlenecks & toxins and to keep the system healthy.
Giving identity to the systems and creating boundaries around it for effective communication through a shared language is a limitation of human mind. The nature promises unlimited potential to tap the tremendous energy available, if only we can successfully manage to let the systems we deal with, by carefully releasing our grip on them and let them progressively go back to their natural potential. The concept of “Structured freedom” can be very useful which is about providing right structures so that the system can maturely enjoy its freedom, while at the same time protecting the interests of the ecosystem.
This hypothesis has some similarities with Yin-Yang system from Chinese philosophy. Both consider interaction and balance of opposing forces and see its effect on the energy flow (chi in yin-yang system). But there are major differences in terms of the opposing characteristics considered. As per Wikipedia, Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive. Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive. In my hypothesis, I am considering the P-forces & T-forces as the opposing & balancing elements.
To summarize, this hypothesis is about the importance of collective psyche of the ecosystem in creating bottlenecks & toxins as well as in helping the system to tap its potential by carefully providing right kind of structured freedom.
What are the practical uses of this exploration?
If this hypothesis stands the test of verification in different scenarios, at the systems level such an understanding would help us in improving our ability to predict influence and control the systems that we participate in or interact with. Nearer home, it would help us to know the factors & their symptoms which affect the fine balance between the production & innovation systems leading to the organizational excellence.
I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above. I will continue to share the outcome of my exploration from time to time.
I had a discussion with a colleague after my recent blog on the subject of system health. One point that emerged was related to successful systems and a question whether they are same as healthy systems. It led to some interesting discussion and subsequent thought chain, which I would like to share with you.
We call a system successful when it meets or exceeds the goals or benchmarks set for it. So the success is always relative. Same level of performance may be considered successful or unsuccessful based on whether we set easy or tough goals. For example, an average student studying in ordinary school may think of himself as successful but when he moves to another school with a record of many toppers in the merit list, he may suddenly feel challenged. His performance has not changed but the standard has.
Another aspect of being considered successful is relevance of the standard to the current situation. Our education system is a good example. If the basis of judgment was relevant for the primary reason for education, which is development of each individual student, we would not have had so many cases of students committing suicide.
Even for the students who don’t commit suicide, there is a small percentage that considers itself or is regarded as successful. Most of them go through a grind and lead fairly distorted lives from the health perspective, especially in final years or a few days before the final exam. Studying late, not taking care of food, not having adequate time for exercise all take their toll on health, effects of which are apparent much later when generally it is too late.
What is true for an individual is also true for systems. A system is considered successful when it meets or exceeds its goals. An organization is also a system. We have seen many cases where an organization suddenly shot to fame, was everybody’s talking point, people rushed to buy the stocks and soon enough it plummeted to a catastrophic failure. Probably our yardstick for measuring success is at fault. Were the organizations concerned successful? Probably yes. Were they healthy? Obviously not. There was something more fundamental which we overlooked. When the whole industries become unhealthy but superficially successful, it leads to an economic downturn as we recently witnessed.
What is then the health of a system? While success is about achieving, health is about being in balance. It is the fine balance between the opposing diverse elements and the synergy that comes out of such balance giving the system the ability to respond to current & future challenges effectively. When the fine balance is disturbed, it may lead to an uncontrolled cancerous growth of some aspects of the system threatening other aspects and ultimately the whole system. The disturbed balance also constricts the free flow of synergy and creates toxic waste which is poisonous and leads to the deterioration of the system and its ability to face the challenges.
Is health just absence of illness? No. It is much more than that. The positive aspects of health make it so. On the other hand, presence of illness does not necessarily indicate lack of health. For example, a person is having fever. Does it mean he is unhealthy? Not necessarily. Fever is a mechanism to fight and kill the undesirable elements. So it is natural reaction of a healthy body to manage the risks. However, if there is frequent fever at slightest provocation then it may indicate a problem with health.
What are the practical implications of the above? Firstly, too much emphasis on success & failure may be undesirable. We need to pay attention to the real indicators of health. In case of software development, it would mean we should have a fresh look at our measurement systems to see which of them help us to measure health of a project & project team.
Healthy systems may appear unglamorous but in the long run they are successful in the true sense because they not only remain alive & well but also make other systems healthy in whom they participate or with whom they interact.
Any thoughts or experiences that support or challenge what is said above?
Each of us is a system, we participate in other systems and we interact with yet other systems. For example as an employee in a software company, each individual is a system by himself. He participates in the activities of his organization with visibility into the internal working and also interacts with client organizations but only through the interface exposed by the client. We can have many more such examples in terms of the family, society and even nations but the basics from systems perspective are same.
When as a system we deal with other systems, either from inside or outside, it is in our interest to be aware of the workings of that system, as dispassionately and objectively as possible. Such an understanding would help us to plan and effectively execute both our proactive actions as well as reactive responses.
I find it useful to understand a system in terms of factors which have a strong influence on the system health. In my opinion these factors are diversity, co-existence, openness, agility and balance. Diversity helps the system to respond to different challenges known & unknown. Co-existence involves both competition & cooperation. Unless the diverse elements making up a system can co-exist, there are unnecessary tensions and conflicts. Co-existence gives it the required momentum. A system needs to be open to the dynamic reality. Otherwise the momentum soon turns into inertia. It is not enough for a system to be aware of the reality of its environment but it must also be able to respond quickly and appropriately. This is agility. Last but not the least, the system needs the fine balance between opposing forces to remain healthy. Too much tilt in either direction can put the system health at risk. Such a balance is required between the diverse elements, between competition & cooperation, between preservation & openness, between momentum & inertia and between agility & stability.
The next step is to find ways to understand these factors both being inside the system as well as from outside. I will try to find out what others have said on these aspects from literature. If you are aware of any good references, please share them with me.