Thursday, July 1, 2010

Understanding Complexity

@zennie62 claims that McChrystal is not a systems thinker. What is the evidence for this claim?

Zennie's main argument is based on the fact that U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, whom President Obama recently sacked as Afghan war commander for making disparaging remarks about various people (see Mark Urban's blog), is on record making a disparaging remark about a certain systems dynamics diagram.

In my post Visualizing Complexity, I discussed this very diagram, which is an attempt to visualize the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan using system dynamics, rendered as a PowerPoint slide. (Many people have chosen to blame PowerPoint for the complexity of this diagram.)

General McChrystal's remark was that "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war." That's the kind of remark that can be made either by someone who doesn't get systems thinking, or at the other extreme by someone who really gets systems thinking. Surely only a novice systems thinker would claim to fully understand a system as complex as this, especially while events are still unfolding.

Furthermore, there is an important distinction between systems thinking as a theoretical exercise and systems practice as a way of engaging with complex reality. From the latter perspective, it makes a lot of sense to see "understanding the slide" and "winning the war" as inextricably linked. For a practical systems thinker, the only authentic way to learn more about highly complex systems is to engage with them. (This is a critical element of what we call "next practice".)

And maybe General McChrystal just doesn't like this particular diagram. Zennie illustrates this point inadvertently by including an alternative systems dynamics diagram in his blog, using a completely different notation, which some systems thinkers might prefer.

Zennie Abraham closes his article with a further double whammy to "prove" that McChrystal is not a systems thinker

"If Gen. McChrystal knew systems thinking, and were honest, he'd realize the best course of action is not to be in Afghanistan."

"If Gen. McChrystal were a systems thinker, he would not have got himself into the trouble that cost him his job."

But these two points contradict one another. Surely if McChrystal didn't want to be in Afghanistan, the obvious course of action would be to give an interview to Rolling Stone that would get him fired. And although Ahmed Rashid calls this a "hurtful rumour" (Petraeus's Baby, New York Blog, 14 July 2010), this is exactly what some commentators are suggesting.

"McChrystal gave the interview in order that he be fired. And why did he want to be fired? He wanted to be fired because he knew that the policies he was pursuing and championing in the war in Afghanistan were not working, could not work. And he didn't want to be the one tarnished with the public blame." (Immanuel Wallerstein, Why McChrystal Did It, Middle East Online, 1st July 2010)

So maybe McChrystal is a systems thinker after all. POSIWID.

Scroll down to read comments by @Cybersal. See also Linear Thought (April 2017), Epistemology of Systems (October 2021).

Update (June 2021): I just found a great blogpost on McChrystal by Pauline Roberts, ‘Eyes on- hands off’ – are you ready to make the change? (August 2017), which comes to a similar conclusion for entirely different reasons.

Update (September 2021):

Update (November 2021): 

Zennie (who now tweets as @ZennieAAbraham) has written an attack on this post and an extended defence of his original article. His position is that if McChrystal could make a joke about a Systems Dynamics model, this could only mean that he had no background in Systems Dynamics and did not want to learn. He also presumes that McChrystal took no other action in relation to the model, since nothing else was mentioned in the New York Times story. My position is that this is pretty weak speculation on Zennie's part, and that making a joke about something does not conclusively prove a complete lack of understanding or interest.

Zennie Abraham, On Richard Veryard, Stanley McChrystal, System Dynamics, and Afghanistan (Oakland News Now, 30 November 2021)


  1. @zennie62 is making some assumptions in his piece that I would question.

    Firstly labelling people as systems thinkers (or not), rather than seeing ST as a lens to be applied in a particular type of situation. John Seddon is very prone to this. Also, the people who champion complexity-oriented practices have a tendency to use the term 'system thinker' somewhat perjoratively.

    Secondly that systems thinking equates to application of the systems dynamics modelling approach rather than being a holistic way of looking at the world, using a range of different approaches, as appropriate.

    Thirdly that systems dynamics models are always representations of the real world that are accurate enough to directly test and make decisions in the way that he describes, by "running the model". In very complex situations such as this, I see them more as vehicles for dialogue exploring different ways of looking at the world as we discussed in your earlier blog on this diagram. Along with the complexity folk, I'm sceptical that SD models can be used predictively when they contain a lot of intangible factors, and I imagine that McChrystal probably felt the same way. I would be very interested to know of people who have successfully used these models to analyse intangibles and made successful predictions which then came to fruition.

  2. There is an interesting discussion and some backround on the systems thinking diagram in the LinkedIn Systems Thinking group, along with a link to a cartoon version of it.