Of adversaries, fixes that backfire, and tragedies of the commons – more system archetypes


We continue with our discussion of systems archetypes. Today we talk about competition – of fixes that backfire, accidental adversaries and the tragedy of the commons. We also discuss how we can prevent them.

Fixes that backfire

Suppose you go into a partnership to meet mutual needs. At least that was what you thought. However, over time, you realize that the solution you sought from the partner didn’t materialize; and whatever problem you had sought to overcome through the partnership backfired. This is brought about by the balancing loop of a system, remembering that all good things don’t last; and that there will be balancing forces that can turn an initial good thing into a bad one. This can cause your partnership to turn sour.

Accidental adversaries

Suddenly, the balancing forces end up making you feel betrayed by your partner, making you both accidental adversaries.

I’d like to give you a practical example. Alpha and Beta are two companies whose products can be used in complementary fashion to meet a bigger objective. They decide to collaborate, and agree on joint marketing and sales. Because Alpha’s sales people are more aggressive than Beta’s, when they go on joint sales, the two staff fight for the business. This strains the relationship between the two companies, and they decide to find other ways to fulfill what the other company had been able to provide previously, thereby becoming accidental adversaries. Do such things happen? Absolutely!

The best way to overcome accidental adversaries is to constantly grow each other’s business, ensuring that they focus on the other partner, instead of oneself. By each focusing on the other, there will be a collective growth, thereby circumventing this system archetype.

Tragedy of the commons

Another very important archetype is the tragedy of the commons. This is brought about through competition, when there is a finite amount to gain. Examples are fishing, mining and other common-pool resource. Whenever there is a common pool, especially when there are no controls, then the tendency is for one party to out-compete the other, thereby killing the total pool. Let’s take fishing as an example. The ocean is capable of maintaining a certain amount of fish. If they are over-fished, the fish cannot self generate, and there would be fewer and fewer of these fish in the ocean. Examples are dolphins and whales. The over-fishing of these fish causes them to be closer to extinction; and if there were no regulation on their catch, these fish would long be forgotten. And these regulations need to be enforced, otherwise those who are fishing would find it more beneficial to fish as much as they can get, so that their competition cannot get their hands on them. This might tip the whole ecosystem into extinction. This is the tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons affects all common-pool situations. You see this happening to the typists pool system, the water system, the garbage system, even the logging system. Anywhere where there is a common resource, there is the potential for the tragedy of the commons.

To overcome the over-consumption of these common pools, regulations are needed. And these regulations need to be enforced by credible offices. There must be sufficient restrictions to ensure that there is sufficient time for the systems to regenerate. This is a fine balance, but one that needs to be properly managed. It is better to err on the side of caution in these situations.

Systems archetypes – they are seen in all aspects of life and it would do us well to be aware of them, and how to manage them.

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