Systems Design #

I’m getting really tired of people not having a Systems perspective, so I really want to break down a systems perspective very simply.

Systems is all about figuring out how to make things happen. When used properly, it can enable you to do literally anything as long as you have a clear understanding of what you want.

At a very high level, systems thinking is very much like normal problem solving.You find situations where the thing you want happens in some small way, and you find situations where the thing you want doesn’t happen, compare the two, and make changes so that your situation is more like the situations where the thing you want happens rather than the situations where the thing you don’t want to happen.

This is pretty common and typical. However, systems thinking incorporates some additional core principals to make your problem solving significantly more effective.

The first core principal of systems thinking is about considering as many things as you can at once considering things one-by-one.

It’s a lot like a game of codenames. In codenames, you want to think of words that match your team’s words. If you just think about the cases that match your word, the word you’re about to say might sound great. However, it’s also important to consider the cases that aren’t your team’s cards. You might notice that your word actually matches some of those cards better, or you might notice that your word matches more of the bad cards, or you might notice that your card strongly matches the assassin card, in which case, doing that thing would be very bad.

Another way to think of it is that this principle is about considering things holistically, or in other words, as a whole rather than as a component. Imagine that someone decides to start learning art. They look at all the art that they really like, which happens to be cyberpunk art, and they notice they really like hot pink as a color so they start using it in all their art. Well, as artist we should know - that doesn’t always work! there might be colors that are clashing with that particular shade or the color looks weird in what’s being drawn.

Yet another way of thinking about it is that this principle is about considering things statistically. Imagine someone named Bob, who makes dinner for his friend Alice. While cooking, Bob talks about how excited he is to make a dish for Alice with MSG. Alice tries the dish and finds it to be quite bad. Alice might walk away from this experience thinking “Wow, i guess I really dislike MSG”. However, this perspective would be discounting all the other foods she might like that have MSG in them, like Doritos, Pringles, or Chick-Fil-A, among many others.

The second principal of systems thinking is building up understanding rather than acting on simple connections. Typically, people when people see connections, they make assumptions.

The first big assumption they make is that connections are casual. What this means is that, when people connect two things, they tend to think that one caused the other. In reality, it’s possible that many different things are going on. It’s possible that the two things are totally unrelated, or it’s possible that those things were both caused by a different unknown third thing, or it’s possible that something even more complicated is happening.

The second big assumption is that connections are linear

The third big assumption is that connections have no other effects.

One of my favorite examples for this is a smoking advertisement I once saw. It said " People who smoke are less likely to get Alzhimers". This is a 100% statistically true fact. There is absolutely a connection between people who smoke and a decreased likelihood in getting Alzhimers. It also passes the other two assumptions. After all Smoking does make you less likely to get Alzhimers and the more you smoke, the lower your chances of getting Alzhimers gets.

Of course, the reason that all these things are true is because smoking increases your chances of dying before you’re eligible to get Alzhimers.

With developing a deep understanding, you don’t want to leave things at a simple “Oh, these things happened together so they’re probably related”. You want to investigate get to the bottom of what happened.

A great tool for this is called “The Five Whys”. Basically, the idea is that you should understand the situation well enough that you can go five "Why?"s deep into explaining how the situation works. If you can’t go five "Why?"s deep, there’s a decent chance you don’t have quite enough understanding to properly solve the problem. If any of the "Why?"s start being things you don’t know for sure as facts, start questioning those.

Of course, there is a downside to systems thinking and perspective - it’s not easy.

If you’re not used to it, it’s a ton of work and exhausting. If people had enough time and energy to apply a systems level perspective to everything they were doing, every problem they have would be solved, but who could possible have that level of time and energy? With small things, it’s totally fine to run off of your natural base assumptions and "ehh probably"s. Realistically, you only have time time and energy to apply this perspective to the most important things in your life, but that’s fine! After all, those are the things you’ll the get most milage out of improving anyways.

However, systems design is a skill. The more you practice and study systems design, the easier it gets to use it passively for all sorts of things. I have a number of resources for people who want to dig into this, but it will naturally take time and effort.

The second part of systems design that’s difficult is that a systems perspective will give you answers, whether you like them or not. A systems perspective WILL tell you that you are wrong. A systems perspective WILL tell you that what you’re trying isn’t working and is never going to work. A systems perspective WILL tell you that the best way to move forward will often be copmromising something else that you value. This won’t always happen, but this will happen a decent amount of the time. Hearing that is difficult for a lot of people. I think that, for many people, hearing those kinds of things is so hard that they would rather not improving things rather than hearing the things that would upset them.

This is totally reasonable. None of us are immune from being hurt and it’s reasonable to not want to put the quality of most things over your mental well being. This is also a thing you can get better at, at finding your sore spots and your sensitive areas and learning to massage them and work them up. The solutions that maybe require you to hear something that’s hard to hear will always be there when you’re ready.

However, as you get better at overcoming these hurdles, I honestly think that the framework of systems design can give you everything you want in life. Consistently, the most impressive, talented and capable people I know are people that have a strong knowledge of systems design and have incorporated it into their lives. These are people that are able to work on 10 things at a time, pick up new skills and knowledge on a whim, and are able to make new things happen where-ever they go.

In my entire life, this is the most important skill that I have developed and it’s helped me achieve some incredible dreams. Hopefully, It helps your achieve your dreams as well. :)