Warning : That Boomerang takes time to come back. But it does.

I just finished reading an interesting piece by the always thought provoking Paul Krugman of the NYT. An Article entitled ‘Eat the Future’ , talking about how the G.O.P is sacrificing the future for the present over in USA. It bought back to mind an article a while ago about free TV sets distribution by a corrupt party (are there any other?) that won elections in Tamil Nadu, India. Which I could juxtapose next to an op-ed column ‘Serious in Singapore’ by Thomas Friendman published on January 29 about Singapore’s investment into the educational sphere.

Summarized, these decisions by policy makers, should all come into one of these four boxes :

Have you read the novel Dune ? You should. Wikipedia states “Dune is frequently cited as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel”

What is the link between a SciFi novel to the above 3 earthly events in the first paragrapg. Allow me. In Dune I read about (no spoilers) a massive project undertaken by one party (Bene Gesserits) that demands investment by the new few generations so that generations much much into the future could enjoy a better future. Metephorically, think of it like a tree that needs to be religiously tended by you and the next 16 generations, no payoffs, so Generation 17 onwards could enjoy its fruits.

Would you and I even think about planting this tree ? Could our current crop of politicians and policy makers be that imaginative ? Could a company or division taxed to show good news in the next quarter ever contemplate a really long term investment ? Why does mentoring, leadership training and  executive development face minimal investment in most places ? In his absorbing memoir  ‘Straight from the Gut’, ex-GE CEO Jack Welch talks about the flak he took when he made it clear he was going to invest in a manangerial Über School inside GE (GE’s Crotonville Campus). Circles of Causality are real and Jack knew it. We all should. Esp the CEOs, Politcians and Policy Makers who call the shots on long term investment. The current crop are moslty failing us (see oil subsidy cost vs investment in renewable energy R&D). But are they only a reflection of the larger maliase of a whole generation bought up on the joys of instant gratification ? I wonder. 

I was re-reading Senge’s masterpiece ‘The Fifth Discipline’ recently and that book and the always facinating concept of ‘Systems Thinking’ it delves into allows you to examine these above policies in a light that will blow you away with what it will reveals. Here is a quick 101 on ST :

  1. ¨Look at the Big Picture- Problems are embedded in larger systems.
  2. ¨Pay attention to both short and long term consequences- Watch out that “short term fixes” become habitual.
  3. ¨We contribute to our own problems-  Not only our actions but our mental maps create problems.
  4. ¨Realize the cause and effect are often distant in time and space- Hence, “Law of Unintended Consequences”
  5. ¨Distinguish between System and Symptom- need to understand the system that generate the problem.
  6. ¨Think “And” rather than “Or”- There are multiple cause of a problem.

Here is what I want you to remember from this post as a Systems thinking caveat : Cause and Effect are not closely related in time and space. The consequences boomrang comes back in a bit and not always to the same place it was thrown from.

Senge warns us that underlying all of the above problems is a fundamental characteristic of complex human systems: “cause” and “effect” are not close in time and space. By “effects,” I mean the obvious symptoms that indicate that there are problems—drug abuse, unemployment, starving children, falling orders, and sagging profits. By “cause” I mean the interaction of the underlying system that is most responsible for generating the symptoms, and which, if recognized, could lead to changes producing lasting improvement. Why is this a problem? Because most of us assume they ARE: Most of us assume, most of the time, that cause and effect are close in time and space. 

When we play as children, problems are never far away from their solutions—as long, at least, as we confine our play to one group of toys. Years later, as managers, we tend to believe that the world works the same way. If there is a problem on the manufacturing line, we look for a cause in manufacturing. if salespeople can’t meet targets, we think we need new sales incentives or promotions. if there is inadequate housing, we build more houses. If there is inadequate food, the solution must be more food.

The next time you need to make a decision that is a trade off choose the Right quadrant. Not the Easiest one. And remember the consequences may not be visible immediatly. Nor will the action feedback.


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