Systems and levels of thinking

· October 23, 2018

Approaching a problem from a systems perspective means considering the structure, process and norms/incentives that support that problem, and not just focusing on the problem itself. 

Doing this effectively requires what Howard Marks calls “second level thinking” - the ability to hold both the point of view of the direct action, and the point of view of the system. 

This isn’t just seeing the bigger picture - there is a fundamental tension as you must:

  1. Perceive the bigger system 
  2. Identify within that system the critical structures 
  3. Formulate action from the perspective of yourself as an element within the system
  4. Consider how other elements of the system will perceive and respond to your action and adjust accordingly. 
  5. Do this quickly. 

This is a tall order, but if you miss any part you are likely to have trouble. If you don’t see the big picture, you’re clearly operating in the dark. If you don’t identify the most important structures for your challenge, you have a high chance of addressing something which ultimate doesn’t matter, and therefore your intervention failing. 

You then have to come back down to your situation - “if only I was in charge I could fix this” is not a good place to be, as it doesn’t result in action. When you have identified your action you need to scale up again and think how it will be perceived and responded to - many well thought out, clever ideas have been blocked because they threatened someone who was in a critical position. Finally, systems are dynamic, so you have to do this quickly enough that your view is mostly still tied to reality. 

If I had to pick a weakness in my own approach to this, it would probably be step 2: its very tempting to have a flash of insight and shoot forward without understanding whether you’re addressing a critical pillar or merely some cruft that has built up over time.