In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. – Theodore Roosevelt
A post on social media recently introduced me to the work of Frederic Vester, a German biochemist who did work on networked thinking – combining elements of complexity, systems thinking and cybernetics.
He is not that well known because he published mostly in German and his book The art of interconnected thinking is hard to find.
A summary of the ideas, however, on his website makes for interesting, if not easy, reading.
His basic argument is that we need a new kind of thinking, one that recognises two things.
First, more things are connected to each other than we realise.
Second, the connecting strings between things are more important than the things themselves.
To see how this works look at the puppet in the picture above.
The puppet is made up of things – a head, limbs, a body and so on.
These are connected through links, ball joints and the like.
Now, you can see that the upper arm is connected to the torso, but so is the lower arm – through the first connection.
If you want to make the puppet dance, you attach strings to the things – which gives you the ability to move them.
With this picture it’s clear that the strings are the most important element if you want to make the puppet dance.
The way in which you control and move the strings will govern the kind of result you get from the puppet.
If you pull on just one string – you’ll only get a little movement – no matter how good you are at giving that string the right amount of pull.
You need to pull on all the strings – all the important ones – to get a smooth movement and bring the puppet to life.
Now, that might seem obvious with this example – but we often forget this simple rule when confronted with real life situations – ones that are more complex.
And, as a result, we make mistakes – predictable ones.
Vester draws on the work of Dietrich Dörner who used simulations to come up with common mistakes that experts made in situations.
For example, instead of trying to improve the system as a whole, they tried to solve specific problems as they saw them.
That’s akin to making a leg or arm move better while forgetting about the whole body.
Or they spent too much time collecting lots of data and carrying out endless analysis rather than looking for patterns, for the fundamental character and controls in the situation.
Sometimes they focused on a particular thing and forgot about everything else – they just didn’t notice or became blind to other data or factors.
Because their minds were locked into a particular path they didn’t think about side effects – what other consequences there might be.
If what they tried didn’t work quickly, they tried other, more powerful methods.
But when they realised that the first things they tried took time before they had an effect they stopped things just as fast.
And, when they had the power they used it to force through a particular approach they believed in – but things don’t often happen just because you want them to – however strong your force of will.
These ideas are important and the insights timeless – because we see them happening all the time.
As human beings, we’re designed for short-term, survival based thinking.
That’s what we’re good at – living for another day.
Living better – living in a way that helps our children and grandchildren needs long-term thinking – something that we can do as human beings.
But not something we can do in a hurry or in a panic.
Some of the rest of Vester’s work seems quite complicated – and I don’t know enough to know if it needs to be so complicated.
Maths is of less help in many situations, especially social ones, than you might think.
Understanding people is probably more relevant.
And seeing the strings that pull people perhaps even more so.
But if you can see those strings – then you can get better at pulling them – to improve the situation you’re in.
And that’s when you know that what you’re doing is working.