Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Blame it on the System

A sad event occurred for me on Monday - the candidate I was supporting and volunteering for in the Toronto mayor's race pulled out. Sarah Thomson had been running third or fourth in most polls but didn't have the resources to continue. In particular she didn't have the money to advertise to get her message out to the voters and since she was in third or fourth place, the press didn't pay as much attention to her as to the front runners.

I bring this up because it is an example of System Dynamics - how a system can influence the outcome of a situation. In all political races, the front runners have considerable advantage because of reinforcing feedback loops: whomever is perceived to be the front runner is accorded more attention by the press, who then publicize the candidate more, which raises their profile and (generally) their support. Polls show the front runners as more popular, so the press pays more attention to them. Awareness of and support for second tier candidates tends to drop. (Of course the added attention can also mean increased scrutiny, which is why political strategists are always afraid of "peaking" too early in a campaign.)

System Dynamics can reveal a lot about the outcomes that result from our organizations. I recently facilitated some sessions of a System Dynamics game - a team based simulation of the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of products played on large table sized boards. Participants place orders and ship products over "weeks" of play, and they we look at what happened. It turns out that no matter who plays the game, the results tend to be qualitatively similar, with their decisions resulting in excesses and shortages of products. These outcomes result from two related factors: the system as designed provides little immediate feedback for the decisions people make, and people don't tend to think ahead and consider what is about to happen. It is extremely rare for a group to do really well; a system designed this way coupled with the way people think and make decisions will invariably give poor results.

Participants tend to take away lessons particular to their situation, but the overall message is that the system produces the behaviour. (The current political environment tends to produce certain behaviours as well; approaches such as simple messages, attack ads, and so on work because the majority of voters are not that interested in deeply exploring complex political issues. This is also a reinforcing feedback loop; as debate degenerates, people are turned off, and want to spend less time paying attention...)

Understanding the effect of System Dynamics can provide powerful insights into strategy, marketing, sales, social media, and many other areas. It often reveals why unintended consequences occur. And a System Dynamics analysis can provide a foundation for better decisions.
The next time you are confronting a particularly thorny issue, it may in fact be valid to "blame it on the system."

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