Systems Thinking Vs The Tyranny of Small Decisions
We make thousands of decisions every day. What to eat. What to wear. Whether to apply a security patch. Whether to style a button blue. Often these decisions are inconsequential, but sometimes they have long term ramifications which can be expensive to undo.
It is easy to make decisions in isolation, only dealing with 'right here, right now'. I need a yellow button, so I will style it yellow. However, it pays dividends to stop, and consider how your decision affects the other elements of the system within which it exists.
Systems thinking is not new. For several years now, design and engineering communities have espoused concepts such as design systems and component-based architecture. In programming, the DRY principle (Don't Repeat Yourself) is a great first step towards systems thinking.
Thinking about a system means thinking holistically about the whole entity. It is about asking questions like "sure, I can style my button yellow, but do I have any other buttons? Should they be yellow too? How many button colours do we have at the moment? Should this be configurable?".
Let us look at an example.
Meet Sam and Mel
Sam is asked to make a (now famous) button yellow. They decide to apply a specific style to that specific button and make a small decision to get the job done. Later, Sam is asked to make two more buttons yellow. They do so, accidentally using a slightly different yellow.
A month later, Mel is asked to change button colours across the site to red. They make a far reaching general change, which changes all the buttons they can see, but misses a few, accidentally affects some unintended elements, and crucially Sam's buttons are still shades of yellow because of earlier small decisions.
It will quickly become expensive to expand Mel's work, undo Sam's specific work and resolve any unintended consequences of Mel's half-baked approach.
Considering the design as a whole system brings sanity to an otherwise chaotic environment. If Sam and Mel had figured out how to apply their styles in a way that contained their changes (component based design), without duplication (do not repeat yourself), their jobs would be easier, and the project less expensive.
Styling buttons are one thing, but let's now consider bigger, data-driven systems. In every business, there will be a boundless array of spreadsheets. People can easily create spreadsheets at a whim. However, the small decision made to create a spreadsheet will likely create a store for duplicated information, which quickly becomes outdated once the underlying source data changes.
Thinking in a 'systems' way might mean considering all the data sources, e.g. an ERP system, or an e-commerce system, or a contact relationship management (CRM) system. Instead of copy & paste, these systems might be able to integrate with each other, giving rise to richer reporting which is unavailable with isolated data silos.
Imagine now what could happen when major management decisions are made based upon information presented in a spreadsheet - one with out-dated information. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where one could lose customers as a direct result from such decisions, and ultimately from the small decision to rely on a spreadsheet. Sometimes 'good enough' is actually not really good enough.
Customer Data Portal (CDP) systems are an excellent example of systems thinking at its best: CDPs aggregate information in different silos to provide a single holistic view of a customer. This gives marketing professionals more accurate insights, enabling them to make better decisions.
So the next time you are presented with a project, consider whether you are facing the tyranny of Sam and Mel's small decisions, or whether you can think system-wide and create something truly great for your business.
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Anthony Lindsay Director of Managed Services
With decades of experience, Anthony leads the Annertech Managed Services Team, delivering top quality design, development, and, ultimately peace-of-mind services to all of Annertech's wonderful clients.