three models of systems … or five

November 29, 2008

Please note that this post is NOT by Dave Snowden; it is a guest blog.  Unfortunately in the last rebuild of the web site all posts by guest bloggers were ported over without the key field that identified them.  If anyone recognizes the author please tell us and we will correct.


In a previous post, I suggested that the Cynefin framework is most coherent within a specific view of complexity. In this post, I want to suggest that it also fits with a specific view of “systems”.

In his book Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity: A Platform for Designing Business Architecture, Jamshid Gharajedagi, a student of Ackoff, describes Three Models of Systems:

1. Mindless / deterministic / Mechanistic systems
2. Unminded / goal-seeking / Biological systems
3. Multi-minded / goal-choosing / Socio-cultural systems

I won’t bother describing the (1) mechanistic model – I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.

The (2) unminded, goal-seeking biological model treats the system like an organism. Unlike the mechanistic model, parts can act independently to achieve goals, but the goal itself is set by the brain. Businesses gravitate quite naturally to this model because it resembles a hierarchical organisational structure. In this model, malfunction is generally due to a lack of information or noise in the communication channel – better communication thus generally fixes the malfunction.

In the (3) multi-minded, goal-choosing social model of a system, every part has a mind and purpose of their own – and these minds can choose new goals/purposes, and often do as a direct result of what is happening elsewhere in the system. “The behavior of a system whose parts display a choice cannot be explained by mechanical or biological models … the critical variable here is purpose“.

At the Cognitive-Edge course I attended (Amsterdam, Sept. 2008) Dave Snowden often used an ecological model of systems. I would characterize this as a system Type 2b. Obviously, there is not a single directing brain. But equally, in a non-human ecology, the goals of the participants rarely change – the parts are not goal choosing. I suggest that the Cynefin framework is most of interest to those exploring complex Type 3 social systems. A hugely important characteristic of these systems, missed with an “ecological view” is that the parts of the system are not just independent; their very purpose (goals) are continually changing within the frame of any analysis.

But upon rereading Gharajedagi for this posting, I’ve realized that my own view of Type 3 systems now differs from his. Gharajedagi’s work focuses upon aligning the actors in a Type 3 system. My current view of such systems, which I will call Type 3b, is that in many contexts such alignment is not possible. I don’t have a good name for this; for now I call it the Grid-Group model of systems.

I call it this since it is Mary Douglas’ Grid and Group structure which brought me to my current view. The implications of Grid and Group are well described by Geoff Mulgan in an obituary for Mary Douglas in Prospect Magazine. (Before I quote Geoff, I will mention for anybody exploring Grid & Group that Mary Douglas ultimately had multiple, and somewhat contradictory, formulations of this construct).

We may like to believe that we choose and shape our own beliefs—but Douglas, drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim and others—suggested that it is much easier to understand societies by turning that assumption on its head: societies and institutions think through us much more than the other way around.
….Mary Douglas’s biggest insight is, perhaps, a warning against depending too much on rational argument. How we see the world depends as much on where we sit as on what we think, and human beings can often be understood better through their rituals and behaviours than through their doctrines and beliefs.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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