Thursday, January 31, 2008

System dynamics, black swans, and the management of business

I'm currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. While I intend to tell you more of what I think when I'm finished, I have an early impression, based on stories such as what he calls "Hume's problem" (or the turkey problem). That's a problem in which everything seems to be getting better and better, only to change direction suddenly and drastically for the worse. In his example, the turkey sees life as a daily succession of friendly humans offering food, only to have it cut short in a manner seemingly quite out of character for life as the turkey has perceived it. (As Taleb points out, it all makes eminent sense to the butcher.)

I think that's part of the reason for system dynamics as yet another tool for thinking and working. As Geoff Coyle points out in his System Dynamics Modelling: A Practical Approach, top management is concerned about things such as the consequences of actions, the likely future, and robustness against uncertainty (p. 15). One of the basic parts of the system dynamics approach is to challenge preconceived notions of the extent of the system causing the current situation: are we looking over a broad enough time span, are we including enough of the actors and actions, and are we paying attention to feedback effects (what Taleb calls recursive effects on p. xxii), where something we do today might come back and affect the situation we face tomorrow?

While there are no guarantees, that unfortunate turkey, had she had good training in system dynamics (or a competent system dynamicist at her side), might have been inspired to look at life over a 5-10 year time span, not just the few months she had experienced. That might have surfaced the fate that led to her demise as part of a regular pattern (albeit one that occurred rarely compared to her lifespan). Had she looked not only at the friendly human feeding her and the other turkeys eating with her, she might have noticed the butcher looking eagerly over the fence from time to time and asked about his role in her life. Had she realized the implications of those observations, she might have decided not to become quite so friendly with her "caretaker," she might have decided not to eat nearly as much (if she were scrawny, might her fate have been different?), and she might even have encouraged the other turkeys to join her in an escape attempt.

Now I don't think that the use of system dynamics conveys infallibility; in fact, that's why I'm reading Taleb's work, to figure out more places my insights may be fallible so that I can make them more robust.

Taleb advocates tinkering as a way to make progress; I see system dynamics as a way to tinker faster and think more effectively in support of your (and my) goal of more effective action.

While my comments may be out of the main focus of Taleb's thesis (system dynamicists tend to focus on the deterministic, not the random, even as they seek to help you be able to respond better in the presence of the random), I don't yet see them in contradiction. I offer them to you in the hopes they are of use to you. Now it's my (and your) task to try to disconfirm them; the longer we can't, the greater the likelihood there's something worth attending to!

If you want to tinker faster with the situation you find yourself in but don't want to risk your business each time you tinker, let's talk.

Thanks to Andrew Gelman for his posts that led me to Taleb's work.

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