In Ackoff’s Best, Mr. Russell Ackoff states the following
…Machine-Age thinking: (1) decomposition of that which is to be explained, (2) explanation of the behavior or properties of the parts taken separately, and (3) aggregating these explanations into an explanation of the whole. This third step, of course, is synthesis.
The figure below models the classical machine age, mechanistic thinking process described by Ackoff. The problem with this antiquated method of yesteryear is that it doesn’t work very well for systems of any appreciable complexity – especially large socio-technical systems (every one of which is mind-boggingly complex). During the decomposition phase, the interactions between the parts that animate the “thing to be explained” are lost in the freakin’ ether. Even more importantly, the external environment in which the “thing to be explained” lives and interacts is nowhere to be found. This is a huge mistake because the containing environment always has a profound effect on the behavior of the system as a whole.
Mr. Ackoff professes that the antidote to mechanistic thinking is……. system thinking (duh!):
In the systems approach there are also three steps:
1. Identify a containing whole (system) of which the thing to be explained is a part.
2. Explain the behavior or properties of the containing whole.
3. Then explain the behavior or properties of the thing to be explained in terms of its role(s) or function(s) within its containing whole.
Note that in this sequence, synthesis precedes analysis.
The figure below graphically depicts the systems thinking process. Note that the relationships between the “thing to be explained” and its containing whole are first class citizens in this mode of thinking.
One of the primary reasons why we seek to understand systems is so that we can diagnose and solve problems that arise within established systems; or to design new systems to solve problems that need to be controlled or ameliorated. By applying the wrong thinking style to a system problem, the cure often ends up being worse than the disease. D’oh!