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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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7.2.1 Trap 1: representing the problem and not the situation

This trap is one of the most fundamental mistakes you can make in systems thinking. There are lots of metaphorical phrases in English that can entice you into the trap. We can talk about ‘the nub of the problem’, ‘the key issue’, ‘the basic problem’, ‘the real difficulty’ and so on.

Like all traps, once it has sprung, it can be very difficult to get out. The trap seriously limits one's ability to think about the situation in its full complexity. This is precisely because, by identifying every problematic feature as stemming from one single interpretation of the problem, you limit your possible ways of dealing with the situation to those that might be answers to this single problem. You have imposed simplicity on the situation, which does not reflect the very complexity that makes it problematic.

In contrast, one of the reasons this case study seems to be complex is precisely the difficulty of identifying anything that could be described as the key issue. It seems to be a tangle of interrelated key issues.

The whole point of a rich picture is to represent all you can about the situation. To identify the problem within the picture, or to include only the elements that seem problematic, is to prune out potentially important elements of the complexity.

So, the check for avoiding this trap is to ask:

  • Does this rich picture represent the situation or is it just my interpretation of what the problem is? Does it include all the features noted as problematic?