Systems Thinking III

I guess I have a prejudice that comes from my restless nature—and my great mentor at Stanford, the late (alas) Gene Webb—who was one of the world's most prominent "experimentalists" in the social sciences.

My colleagues and I (about 5 of us) in my PhD class, were, oddly, all engineers. At some point we became smitten by the emergent systems literature—bread and butter to the engineering mind.

Our charts and graphs linking this to that and the other became evermore complex—and we became evermore hooked on our "understanding of this and that." (One of the legendary systems gurus was on the Stanford faculty, and we worshiped at his egocentric alter.)

Along the way, my thesis slipped farther and farther behind schedule—though I was still in love with the central idea. (And my "finances"—what a joke—became more and more of an issue.)

One late fall afternoon, in 1976, over a good bottle of Zinfandel, my advisor-mentor-best friend (Webb) unloaded on me in a way that is still memorable, 32 years later:

"For C-sakes, quit drawing those f-ing maps and run some experiments, quick and dirty, and see if anything you are babbling on about actually works or makes the slightest bit of sense in the real world as we know it. And after you've done your real work, then you are welcome to write your 'complete theory of everything.'" (That was close to the actual script, minus many more f%^*s and about 25 minutes of elaboration.)

He hit me at the right moment—my growing frustration with whether or not I was actually moving forward, or just engaging in mental masturbation ("thought experiments" to the pure of heart), was already festering inside my systems-besotted brain.

At any rate, the experiments began the next week, the dissertation topic remade itself time and again, my true sense of connectivity grew in the process, and an original theory evolved along the way, too (a PhD requirement); I finished the work, won high honors at Stanford—and a few prizes.

Save a few forays, I found myself well clear of systems thinking—and on a path to "discovery through action," or some such.

I've hardly "lived happily ever after," but the process definitely affected some of my milestone work, such as In Search of Excellence. To a significant extent, the book was a smash to the jaw of "paralysis of analysis," systems thinking, business-strategy style circa 1980—and the basis for, among other things, our Basic #1 in the book: "A bias for action" (which we learned from the best, such as 3M and GE).

Enough said.