The System is Down

(Via StrongBad / Homestar Runner)
I read a book about five months back by John Gall called Systemantics: The Systems Bible. The book goes through a derived (by the author) set of principles or axioms about systems of all types, why they get created, how/why they don’t work, and much, much more.

When it comes to creating systems, you have to start somewhere — the reason systems get built in the first place — if I recall, Gall calls this the “Primal Scenario.”

It behooves us all to etch it into our brains:

“THINGS (THINGS GENERALLY/ ALL THINGS / THE WHOLE WORKS) ARE INDEED NOT WORKING VERY WELL. IN FACT, THEY NEVER DID In more formal terminology: SYSTEMS IN GENERAL WORK POORLY OR NOT AT ALL

Sometimes obvious things need to be stated, and channeling Elon Musk’s derivation-from-first-principles approach to learning, I think Gall’s point here is all-encompassing. Everything struggles to do the thing it wants to do/is designed to do and only succeeds in part while also failing and spawning problems.

Acceptance that you can’t escape the fundamental truth of the primal scenario: that your best case scenario to solve any given problem in life, your own habits, work, teams, relationships, or whatever will only work imperfectly at best and is very much more likely to both fail and cause new confounding problems.

It’s the Primal Scenario.

And the default state of dynamic existence doesn’t mean you don’t try to solve the problems or fix the existing flaws through building new systems, it just means that you will struggle and toil at doing so, expecting otherwise is naive, often reckless, and sometimes even dangerous.

Often prosaic, Gall’s governing laws were just what I was looking for to make sense of various organizational problems I was experiencing in my dayjob. I’ll spare you the details (though I’m sure close friends have heard me speak to them ad nauseum). Suffice to say that the day to day happenings in any large company are highly governed by the laws of systems.

I can’t recommend at least reading all the axioms once. That said here are a few favorites (Gall often wrote in ALL CAPS — these are direct quotes form the book):

  • NEW SYSTEMS MEAN NEW PROBLEMS When a system is set up to accomplish some goal, a new entity has come into being—the system itself. No matter what the “goal” of the system, it immediately begins to exhibit systems-behavior, that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems. Now the system itself has to be dealt with. Whereas before there was only the Problem—such as warfare between nations, or garbage collection—there is now an additional universe of problems associated with the functioning or merely the presence of the new system.
  • Systems are like babies: once you get one, you have it. They don’t go away. On the contrary, they display the most remarkable persistence. They not only persist; they grow. And as they grow, they encroach.
  • THE UNIVERSE IS NOT LIKE A MACHINE except in certain trivial ways. Rather: THE UNIVERSE IS LIKE A VERY LARGE SYSTEM.
  • THE SYSTEM ALWAYS KICKS BACK (Justin: the idea is that the system will fight change)
  • THE REAL WORLD IS WHAT IS REPORTED TO THE SYSTEM —or, in the world of Diplomacy: IF IT ISN’T OFFICIAL, IT HASN’T HAPPENED (Justin: anyone in a large organization with managed metrics will see this as meaning the only truth is that which is reported by the system; alternatively, “IF THE SYSTEM SAYS IT HAPPENED, IT HAPPENED”
  • SYSTEMS ATTRACT SYSTEMS-PEOPLE (Justin: you know, like middle management types! Michael Scott anyone?)
  • IF A SYSTEM IS WORKING, LEAVE IT ALONE. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING 
  • LARGE COMPLEX SYSTEMS ARE BEYOND HUMAN CAPACITY TO EVALUATE 
  • IF SOMETHING ISN’T WORKING, DON’T KEEP DOING IT. DO SOMETHING ELSE INSTEAD (Justin: Fun fact: John Gall was a lifelong pediatrician [seriously, how bizarre, right?] and he led seminars on hacking parenting. This is one of his core ideas — that if some parenting strategy to elicit behaviors out of your kids isn’t working, try something else!)
  • Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a System, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the System itself. New Problems are created by its very presence.[a.] Once set up, it won’t Go Away; it Grows and Encroaches.[b.] It begins to do Strange and Wonderful Things[c.] and Breaks Down in Ways You Never Thought Possible.[d.] It Kicks Back, Gets In The Way and Opposes Its Own Proper Function.[e.] Your own perspective becomes distorted by being In The System.[f.] You become anxious and Push On It To Make It Work.[g.] Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is What You Really Wanted all the time[h.] . At that point, Encroachment has become complete. You have become absorbed. You are now a Systems-person.
  • The System must not be built too tight nor wound up too tightly or it will (1) seize up (2) peter out, or (3) fly apart: LOOSE SYSTEMS LAST LONGER AND FUNCTION BETTER (Justin: My current org, which is matrixed, is more of a tight/rigid system; this one hits close to home)
  • (A) YOU CAN’T CHANGE JUST ONE THING —and at the other extreme: (B) YOU CAN’T CHANGE EVERYTHING

Gall talks a bit about complex systems — that they rarely work and that designed complex systems will never work. He observes that if you find a working complex system, it evolved from simple systems that work. Personal experience seems to validate Gall’s observation both in that I’ve lived (am living in) through pretty complex systems that were top-down designed that work very poorly; while the ones built from the ground up that evolved organically work the best (while still having problems).

I could go on, but I wanted to share this here for a long time. If you’ve read this book or read on via the link above, let me know what you think!

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