What systems archetypes teach us about solving the trickiest of situations


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“Everything is connected with everything else”, so said Leonardo daVinci. This is the nature of things, and if we ignored that in solving a problem, we would probably go straight to a symptom, than the cause. This will undoubtedly result in the problem resurfacing, sometimes in a more aggressive manner. Cancers work in just this manner. While I am not an oncologist, and cannot comment on biological systems, systems do behave in similar fashion. In fact, they are so predictable that experts have identified several system archetypes – predictable behaviours that can be planned upon. In this article, I shall introduce these archetypes to you, and in the ensuing few articles, expound on one or two of them in greater detail. By the end of this series, we hope that you would have a better understanding of how system archetypes impact your situations, and how you can leverage that knowledge to get to a better place faster!

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Attached is a system summary of the archetypes. From this diagram, you can see that we can apply this knowledge either to solve a problem or to grow a solution. Yet each of these paths ultimately have a reinforcing (growing) element, and a balancing (limiting) element.

The archetypes are:

1. Limits to Success; and this is a situation that we all know so well. Everything must come to an end, the limit to success.

2. Success to the Successful. This archetype describes the situation where those who are successful will tend to become more successful, often at the cost of those less successful!

3. The Tragedy of the Commons. This archetype plays out where there is a common resource. Because it is a common resource, everyone tries to exploit it as much as possible, thereby leading to a collective decline. This is best demonstrated by our environmental woes right now!

4. Accidental adversaries. When a partner puts in more effort than another, and then reaps less in proportion. Suddenly, they feel like they are competing with one another instead of working with each other.

5. Fixes that Backfire. This is a very common issue. We believe we know the cause of a problem, and rush into fixing it. Yet the fix is causes a shift in the ecosystem, creating an even bigger problem than when it first started.

6. Shifting the Burden. Because of the Fixes that Backfire, we shift the burden of support and solution, making the innocent party pay for the problems. Poor service is one such burden-shifting archetype. We pay for service (10% service charge) in restaurants, yet service is appalling in almost all establishments in Singapore. The restaurants have shifted the burden onto us, the customers!

7. Growth and Underinvestment. And from Shifting the Burden, we ultimately kill the very engines of growth, leading to underinvestment, and from underinvestment, to limited growth to…you get the picture!

8. Drifting Goals. Some solutions are slow, difficult, or costly to implement. This causes the whole system to slow down, and under-perform. Yet the stasis that results from this causes the whole organisation’s performance to drift downwards, ultimately crashing the whole business.

9. Escalation. The arms race is the perfect example of escalation. If my protection threatens you, you will take action to increase your protection, thereby causing me to feel more threatened, leading me to protect myself further, which causes you to feel more threatened, which…, which…, which…

You will see that these archetypes are intricately linked to one another, which makes solving systemic issues more complex. Yet this is exactly what we need to know, and to try to counteract, in seeking a systemic solution.

In the ensuing articles, we will see the intricacies of these archetypes in business and learn how to deal with them!

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