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Systems thinking and practice
Systems thinking and practice

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3.6 Perspectives

A more feasible way of taking multiple partial views of the Albert Hall is to consider the perspectives or points of view of the people involved in its use. The commissionaires might notice the layout of the entrances and exits, and how quickly queues disperse; the acoustics engineer will see the drawbacks of the shape of the hall and how they might be remedied for better sound quality; the safety officer will see potential hazards, and so on. Once again, the more points of view you have, the more you will know about the whole. This much is obvious, but it does present a difficulty. If we each have our own perspective, how can we broaden our awareness by adopting different ones? I will briefly mention three ways in which different perspectives can be gained and put together to get a helpful picture of the whole.

The first is to be clear and explicit about your own point of view. This may seem obvious, but it is something we rarely do. People bring to any problem a whole host of beliefs, assumptions, values and interests, something known as their Worldview or Weltanschauung (this German word is often used because it is a much richer expression of the concept than the English word Worldview). Imagine a discussion at a Parent Teachers Association as to whether or not everyone should take a turn on the door at school events. I might have a prior belief that all parents should be treated as equals, so I vote immediately for the option of all of us staffing the door. After the meeting, another parent says she prefers fundraising, so can't people do what they're best at? I then realise that I have a number of other beliefs which, if I had applied them to this case, might have led me to vote the other way. I hate fundraising and I would prefer not to have to take equal turns with that. So why don't I swap my turn at fundraising with another parent's turn at doorkeeping? In other words, I can gain a new perspective simply by considering my own values and beliefs more carefully.

The second way of getting a different perspective is to make a serious effort to see the system through the eyes of others. Box 1 describes one way of doing that, through the technique of role playing.

Box 1: Gaining a different perspective: role playing

A top City stockbroker took part in a business game in which he had to play the role of a shop steward. In view of his opinions of shop stewards, he felt this would be very difficult. Yet after about 10 minutes he was deep in bargaining and using phrases like ‘My members’ expectations’ and ‘I can't take that back to the members. They would laugh at me.’ At one point, late in the afternoon, he lost his temper, banged his briefcase down on the desk and walked out of the meeting; the first time in living memory that he had ever done so – but of course it wasn't really him who was losing his temper!

The most impressive demonstration of the power of the technique came at the end of the game. When it finished he discovered that although he had won similar wage rates to other shop stewards in the game, the company which employed his workers had made far higher profits. As he has spent his professional life finding out information of exactly this kind before any negotiation, he was deeply shocked at his failure. But, again, he wasn't really himself when he overlooked the importance of this information; he was adopting someone else's role.

The third way in which we can gain new and different perspectives of a system is to look for the unintended consequences of its operation. The way to do this is to look at what the system actually does, then to assume that is its purpose, then to describe the system as one to achieve that purpose (i.e. the systems does something). For example I could describe a meeting of six people in a small room as a heat production system. The meeting wasn't held in order to produce heat, but that is one of the things it actually did, so I take that to be its purpose and describe the system accordingly. To re-perceive the meeting in this way might yield good ideas about how to heat and ventilate the room more effectively. But there is a deeper rationale for this search for unintended consequences of systems than simply generating some new and possibly useful ideas.

Very many of the systems designed or managed by human beings have unintended consequences or by-products: when code is changed in a computer program the system as a whole often behaves in ways not predicted by the designers. To take another example, a good deal of legislation ends up having contrary effects to those intended by governments. The same is true of our interventions into natural systems. It is a common mistake to brush aside these side effects as little local difficulties. When systems have been working for some time, it may well be the case that what they do was not intended by anyone – for a host of reasons they've just evolved, and you will persistently misunderstand them if you think they are still achieving what they were designed to do. Quite a few organisations have clerical systems in which many copies of many documents are faithfully made and filed, never to be looked at again. Before simply abolishing this practice it would be as well to look at its unintended consequence: does filing the documents make people more careful, and hence avoid costly mistakes? Does the employment of the filing clerks provide a crucial pool of labour at particularly busy times?