"Systems Thinking" and Me: Never the Twain Shall Meet

I just read a major article on Bill Clinton's new approach to philanthropy. It is profit-based. (Stuff, to get imbedded in day-to-day life, has to be based on sound economics.) I applaud that. The problem I had was that Clinton's principal associate is Ira Magaziner, the same "intellectual" who was the schemer-in-chief behind "Hillary care" in 1993.

Years ago, in my McKinsey days, one of my bosses was bemoaning the help we were getting from an "economic genius." He said, "Tom, consider a matrix. One axis boils down to 'simplifier' vs 'complexifier.' The other is 'smart' and 'dumb.' Thus we are dealing with a 2X2 matrix. The analyst-from-heaven is the 'smart simplifier.' The analyst-from hell is 'smart complexifier.' He is, in fact, worse that the 'dumb complexifier,' who you can simply ignore, and the 'dumb simplifier' who might actually be of help." I can't help but think (Huh? I'm quite certain) that Magaziner is the poster child for "smart complexifier."

I'm also told that Mr M is a devout advocate of "systems thinking." Well, I'm not.

The first thing I wrote that got national attention was an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal in June 1981. (It appeared 5 days before my Dad died, which was sad, because rightly or wrongly he would have been beside himself.) The article got me in deep doo-doo with my McKinsey colleagues. It was called, "Ideas. Plans. Actions." Planning was the rage, as it mostly still is—and it was-is McKinsey's bread & butter. My article claimed that "planning" was highly overrated. The best performers, I said, seesawed back and forth between "ideas" and "actions." That is, they had a "big idea." (Or a small one, for that matter.) Rather than think it to death, they immediately got the hell into the field and experimented with some element of it (a prototype). They watched what happened, adjusted, and then quickly ran another experiment—in the meantime the "big idea" also was trimmed or expanded to fit the incoming "real" data, the results of those experiments. As far as I'm concerned this approach, rather than a "planning-centric" approach, is the best (bold assertion) route to success. By the by, another definition of "my" approach is the Newtonian "scientific method," wholly dependent on ideas shaped and reshaped by actions—my studies of Nobel laureates in the sciences, for example, suggests (and not oversimplifying by much) that the winners "do more experiments faster." (Among other things, this was what my summer neighbor for a few years and winner of a Nobel for the first successful organ transplant told me of his situation, giving me heightened confidence in my beliefs.)

I am an unabashed fan of MIT Media Lab guru Michael Schrage—particularly his book Serious Play. His principal axiom: "You can't be a serious innovator unless you are ready and able to play. 'Serious play' is not an oxymoron; it is the essence of innovation." And, in turn, the heart of his serious play is ... fast prototyping: "Effective prototyping may be the most valuable core competence an innovative organization can hope to have." His intriguing connection, which makes all the sense in the world to me, is that true innovation comes not from the idea per se, though it guides the work, but from the "reaction to the prototype." In fact, in a surprising number of cases (the majority?) the collective responses to a host of fast prototypes reshape the original idea beyond recognition—or lead one down an entirely new path.

Years and years ago, while working in the UK, I delightedly heard a Cadbury exec call his approach to product development "Ready. Fire. Aim." It was love at first sound. (Mistakenly, Ross Perot is often given credit for this—though I acknowledge it captures his successful mode of action.)

Here is a sampling of my favorite quotes, from trustworthy sources, on the topic:

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say."—C.K. Chesterton

"We made mistakes, of course. Most of them were omissions we didn't think of when we initially wrote the software. We fixed them by doing it over and over, again and again. We do the same today. While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we're already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are
ready with wires and screws, we are on version #10. It gets back to planning versus acting: We act from day one; others plan how to plan—for months."—Bloomberg by Bloomberg

"This is so simple it sounds stupid, but it is amazing how few oil people really understand that you only find oil if you drill wells. You may think you're finding it when you're drawing maps and studying logs, but you have to drill."—The Hunters, by John Masters, wildly successful Canadian Oil & Gas wildcatter

"Experiment fearlessly"—BusinessWeek, in a Special Report, on the premier innovation strategy of the best innovators

"The secret of fast progress is inefficiency, fast and furious and numerous failures."—Kevin Kelly, founding editor, Wired

I won't arrogantly proclaim "Case closed"—though, secretly (not), that's what I feel based on over a quarter century of pretty intensive study.

There is lots to learn from "systems thinking"—but the heart of the matter for me will always be to cast the plan aside for the moment—and get into the lab (field) and try something concrete. Only then will you begin to learn about the practicality (implementability) of your Grand-Grandiose Design—uh, system.

(NB: The principal objection to my approach is that we end up with a not so pretty cobbled together design. True. But there is a term for that: "Welcome to the real world." Or Speaker Tip O'Neill's "Politics is the art of the possible"—all effective implementation is the product of smart corporate or non-corporate politics, as much as that idea offends purists. Magaziner's approach in '93 might well have been "perfect"—though most of us think the opposite, but its result was overcomplexity, total failure to implement—and loss, after 50 years of hegemony, of the House by the Democrats.)