In systems thinking, increases in understanding are believed to be obtainable by expanding the systems to be understood, not by reducing them to their elements. Understanding proceeds from the whole to its parts, not from the parts to the whole as knowledge does. – Russell L. Ackoff
If you want to create something new – a product, a service – it’s very tempting to start looking at the inside of the thing you want to make – how will it work, what will it need, why will people want it?
I saw a post today on LinkedIn where someone shared a drawing of the learning process they designed when they set out to create a new business. The first few years were all about starting with a hypothesis, building something, trying it out, changing things and doing this again and again until you reached product-market fit. This is the basic idea behind concepts like the lean startup model – you start with an idea and then test and learn your way to making it real.
One of the steps in the lean startup model that stuck with me was the idea of “getting out of the building.” Go and talk to users, the process urges, get out there and interview them, understand what they need and use that knowledge to build the right product for them. And there are ways of doing this well. The big tip – don’t ask ice cream questions like, “Would you like feature X.” No one turns down a feature. Instead ask them “What did you do when you came across this problem?” The best predictor of how people will act in the future is how they acted in the past – if they spent money on an issue then there is a good chance they see the value of investing in a solution to problems of that sort.
Your goal with any project that involves an uncertain future is to get as much clarity as you can on what the situation is and what needs to be done to make it better. An unknown future is stuffed full of what is called “epistemic uncertainty” and you cannot rationally and mathematically work your way to the best possible solution. Believe me, I’ve tried. You need something more powerful. Something like the ability to map a situation and think about issues and scenarios.
That’s where tools like Rich Pictures come in. Rich pictures are part of Soft Systems Methodology. What you’re trying to do is understand how what you do fits into the world around you – moving from looking inward to looking outward. For example, if you want to pick a career should you look to follow your passion or look around you to see what kinds of jobs are available for graduates in the area you want to live? There’s no right answer to that, is there? There’s epistemic uncertainty – you could end up a millionaire rock star or starving in the gutter. You could end up a rich business owner or find yourself in a dead-end job with no prospects. How do you even start to make sense of that kind of problem situation?
You start by drawing a picture. There are no rules. In the picture above, for example, I’ve mapped a common problem we come up against. We have an organisation that has operations – we could make these work better. The people who can change things are the management team, who will be influenced by micro and macro factors, from labour availability to interest rates. They will be work with suppliers and have to deliver to customers. There are people involved, in different roles with different views who need different things from work.
You can see quickly how this simple map can be expanded to fit your particular situation and create a picture, an artifact, something tangible outside your head that you can use to talk to other people. If you have a good discussion, understanding the situation you face, the way the people involved act and how decisions are taken and who holds the “levers of power”. When you’re done you can make a list of issues – the things that come up that need to be sorted, thought about and dealt with. And when you’re done you should have something that’s going to help you figure out what needs to be done next.
It won’t be a guaranteed right answer but it will be something that you’ve worked to get to and that you are happy with. And if you’re not, you still have work to do. Because what you’re trying to do is understand where your idea, your product, your service fits into the world around it. What’s its niche?
Because if you want it to succeed you have to find the right fit – ideas that survive are ones that are best suited to their environment.