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  • Tom Birchard

Trying to Change a Complex System

This will be one of my briefer blog posts to date, both because it’s a concept I’m still wrestling with and trying to fully define, but also it’s just been a very busy week! I was having a conversation with a coworker this week about a major software systems overhaul we have underway. It’s our first time as a company using the Agile Methodology for software development. For those interested in learning more about Agile here’s a good summary article - Agile. Anyways our discussion centered around the program we use to dispatch technicians and schedule/coordinate service work. My coworker mentioned that when we launched the new system, our team was likely to be very underwhelmed by how basic it is, but that it will be designed for many iterative enhancements from that point moving forward. This creates the situation where we have to find a way to communicate this and manage expectations out of the gates to garner support and buy-in.

This reminded me of a quote I recently read from The Systems Bible where the author writes, “If a big system doesn’t work, it won’t work. Pushing systems doesn’t help and adding manpower to a late project typically doesn’t help. However, some complex systems do work and these should be left alone. Don’t change anything. A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system. Few areas offer greater potential than understanding the transition from working simple system to working complex system.” So with our scheduling software, we are taking a complex system and more or less starting over from scratch with a simple system and building up from there.

Something else I’ve been reading more about lately is reasoning by first principles rather than analogies. For those interested here’s a good summary article on First Principles. I think these two concepts are interrelated, simple systems are more likely to be anchored in first principles but the more complex something gets, the more difficult it is to back into foundational first principles that made it work in the first place. I’ve been involved in several significant corporate restructurings, and this seems to be trying to take a complex system and moving to a new complex system and invariably thing “break” that we couldn’t have possibly foreseen going into it.

Like I said more of a stream of thought post this week, but I’d be interested in any other thoughts anyone has on this or other examples where they’ve seen this to be true. I’ll close with a quote by G.K. Chesterton that I think summarizes this well…”There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

Here are some recommendations from the last 2 weeks:

· Article - Jamie Dimon's 2020 Letter to Shareholders – This is a lengthy letter but I found it to be an excellent read and very thought provoking. I particularly enjoyed the sections on being a corporate citizen, the leadership lessons, and the final section on public policy

· Podcast EpisodeTony Xu on Founder's Field Guide – Tony Xu is the founder of DoorDash and this interview is great. He distinguishes between the concepts of node density and population density when developing DoorDash. I like his phrase of “dream big, start small.” Finally he touches on 6 characteristics they try to look for when recruiting for top talent. One of the few interviews I’ve finished listening to and wanted to immediately relisten to digest all the great insights

· BookThe Go-Giver by Bob Burg and John David Mann – I’ve read a couple of these shorter fictional books lately that are written around a core leadership principle. This book fits into that group and was both enjoyable but also hit home with what I think is a key and often overlooked aspect of success

· QuoteIt is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it. By Upton Sinclair

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