Design Better Systems by Questioning Your Theory of Change

A major consideration in the design of large-scale systems is that humans have to interact with them.  Want to create a massive transportation system for your city?  People need to take the bus or feel safe jumping on their bikes.  Seeking to build a regional food system?  Someone’s got to grow the food and deliver it.  Someone else has to pick it up and prepare it for dinner.  Every time a “grand vision” is put in play for changing the world, there is an implicit assumption that people will participate in the alteration or replacement of an existing system.

So how DO people interact with changing systems?  That’s a question that has frustrated many a system designer.  Engineers in the IT world know only too well how difficult it is to build software that people can use (or, just as important, that customers prefer over someone else’s software).  Transportation policy experts have been baffled by the ways people choose to get around despite the design choices that went into the blueprints for that rapid bus system or congestion traffic lane.  And political activists have been bewildered by the voting behaviors of so many otherwise intelligent people who behave so strangely when election season comes around.

What’s missing from the design process when this happens?  Deitrich Dorner offers a significant part of the answer in his book The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.  Professor Dorner is a cognitive psychologist who studies behavioral patterns to observe when people make gross errors because they fail to grasp the complexity of the situations they are in.  He does this by having research subjects run computer-based scenarios where they have to decide how a village community will allocate its resources.  As subjects choose how much grain to grow and where to put the cattle, they set in motion other processes that are outside their awareness until changes emerge somewhere else in the system.  In most cases, the virtual population of villagers collapses due collapse of agriculture that leads to a widespread famine, invasion by a neighboring tribe over regional conflicts from depleting resources, or an unexpected plague that wreaks havoc on the community as rodent populations skyrocket in the pastures where cattle graze.

Professor Dorner observes the thought processes of the decisions for participants in these studies to see how their performance is impacted by what they pay attention to — and how long they do it.  Perhaps surprisingly, the single most important observable behavior is how long the participant keeps asking questions!  In early rounds of the simulation, test subjects consider their choices with care because they don’t yet understand what is going on.  But at some point they “figure it out” and base their decisions on a conceptual model that makes sense based on what has happened so far.

It is in this pivotal moment where disaster lurks.  No longer questioning their assumptions, these participants apply static thinking to a dynamic world.  Changes that don’t fit into their model are absent from future consideration… until disaster strikes from somewhere else in the system!

The trick is to keep participants in a “theory-building” mode for as long as possible.  They may not see changes coming, but critical assessments keep rolling in as they remain skeptical of their own assumptions about how the world is supposed to work.  This keeps them in a mode of inquiry that loosens their thinking and keeps them in a creative mindset.  New hypotheses are developed and critiqued as the simulation runs.  And their conceptual models remain incomplete and open to future alteration.

This capacity to actively introspect is essential for the success of humans interacting with complex systems.  Rebuking of static models is essential to the dynamism of creativity that carries people through changing circumstances.  And it is a vital part of any contingency planning process that requires people to participate in the cultivation of systemic change.

So if you want to build a social movement (Occupy?  A surprise political victory?); transform capitalism (A new currency system?  Different theory of property and access?); or simply to understand what is going on in our rapidly changing world, I’ve got one lesson for you:

Remain introspective and open about your theory of change!

Do this and you will be able to get unstuck when your conceptual model becomes obsolete.  You’ll be able to keep learning as the world changes around you.  And this will help you remain agile and adaptive in the dynamic landscape you find yourself in.  All of which gives you a decided advantage over others with a different view of the future who fail to update their models and get stuck in ruts they may not even see.

So placing humans in the system itself is key to your success.  And being sure that those humans are allowed to change alongside the ebbs and flows will help you update your blueprints as your design gets built.  This process of iteration and refinement is the heart of creativity.  And it is the mindset that will be essential for building systems that people can use in the future that won’t be like the world is today.  Design for tomorrow by seeing change unfold.  And never stop questioning your assumptions about how the world works.

It’s better to be surprised by what you don’t know than to be struck by what you thought you knew, but were dead wrong.

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.