Borneo

To understand the complexity of cause and effect, let us travel back to the 1950s to a remote island in the South Pacific. Just as a 1952 New York Times article described a fall in the overall worldwide death rate of malaria and attributed the “spread of the use of DDT” as one of the major contributing factors, the Southeast Asian island of Borneo was experiencing a terrible outbreak of the disease. The WHO (World Health Organization) thought it would step in and “relieve” the suffering of the Borneo people by spraying DDT all over their villages and huts.

This worked well and in just a year, the percentage of mosquitoes carrying malaria dropped from 40% to less than 1%. The series of debilitating mistakes made next are instructive as to considering what causes things to happen. The indiscriminate spraying of DDT killed most of the caterpillar-wasps which fed on the thatch caterpillar population. With caterpillars unhindered, their population exploded and they ate through the Borneo peoples’ roofs resulting in ongoing property destruction that only a hurricane could match. Next, gecko lizards ate heartily on the fallen mosquitoes and wasps and since DDT passes up the food chain, cats started dying when they fed on geckos.

What Happened Next?

Since cats eat mice, you might be able to deduce what happened next. The mice population exploded. They feasted on planted fields and carried syphilitic plague throughout the island, and within a decade, Borneo experienced a plague, tragic property loss and a starving population …. all because the WHO decided to “fix” the malaria outbreak.

Systems Dynamics

Over the past thirty months, with a strong desire to improve my skills as a CEO, I’ve been getting immersive training in the science of systems. This field, called Systems Dynamics, is the analysis of the flow of energy through complex interactions… usually over time. Our minds think in cause and effect. We’re very linear. We see the red eye on top of the stove and know that we’ll get burned if we touch it. We teach our children in simple phrases like “look both ways, or you’ll get hit.” We see a correlation between speed and deaths then seek to solve the problem. But most of the world’s causes and effect relationships are non-linear. It’s kinetic, but usually there is a case of one thing leads to another with a lot of unintended or extra consequences. Fixing the problem with a simple solution rarely works. Quick fixes often lead to more problems. For example, we hide police cars all over the highways yet people still drive recklessly, resulting in 40,000 highway deaths each year. Or, we spray DDT into the complex system of natural balance and we get unintended consequences. The story of the Borneo malaria outbreak is a perfect example of how humans failed to anticipate the complex nuances of the environmental balance between humans, mosquitoes and nature.

Systems Dynamics & the Complexity of Human Interactions

There is nothing more complex than human interactions. Our relationships are complex systems of cause and effect, where our behavior is directed by our feelings, desires and interactions with other human beings. In families and inside of companies, each person is incented or aggravated to do “this” and not do “that.” To protect my child I tell him for eighteen years not to talk to strangers. Then, he can’t be a successful salesperson because of his anxiety over prospecting. We install time clocks in factories to “fix” the problem of wasting time. Then the workers have a friend clock them in when they’re running late.

 

Systems Dynamics tells us that most of the world operates in very complex loops of interactions. Every action has a reaction. Something out of balance seeks to get back into balance. It gives us a methodology for seeing cause and effect over time. When tearing apart a system, one often sees the potential unintended consequences. Instead of patching these with a quick fix like spraying DDT, Systems Thinking shows us how to “design quality” a system that arrests the problem without all the consequences- like issuing mosquito nets. After all, mass distribution of mosquito nets is one of the single most effective third world programs. They alleviate suffering, interrupt the propagation of malaria and have no negative environmental consequences.

Since starting this training, I see Systems Dynamics everywhere. The rules and principles are operating in my company. They operate in society, my body and most definitely in my own household. If you want to achieve amazing breakthroughs in your business and see the world at a different level, take up the study systems dynamics.

PostScript:

Like many businesses, 2009 was a very challenging year here at RMI. 50% of our client revenue left us by June and I had to lay off 40% of our staff. It was at this pivotal time when mentors came into my life and explained that my actions and way in which my business was designed were the root causes of my problems. One of my mentors was Bill Schwarz, the founder of the Center for Inspired Performance. He is the guru of applying Systems Dynamics to business and consults with companies on business system design for thirty years. His book, The Generative Organization is an introductory primer on how conflict and reactivity are the byproducts of bad company design. You can find out more here: http://www.inspiredperformance.org.

3 Responses to The Complexity of Cause & Effect

  1. Tom Cramer says:

    Nice article!! … You stated … since starting this training, I see Systems Dynamics everywhere. The rules and principles are operating in my company. They operate in society, my body and most definitely in my own household. I could not agree more. I see it everywhere also. I am constantly asking myself, what are the unintended consequences of this action or reaction. Doing that helps me to avoid challenges and improves my choices and decision making.

  2. brent says:

    Couldn’t agree more about the complexities of business, life and people. What I liked best was clicking on the “life” link and reading your recollections on your mother’s 88th Birthday. Happy Birthday Anne!

  3. keith says:

    WHO, DDT, and Borneo is a great analogy for Systems Dynamics. Thanks to Bill, I no longer view professionals that refer to themselves as a “firefighter” in the same way. Referencing a factory, Bill has a great example. No one wants to be part of a factory that figuratively, or in Bill’s example, literally ‘catching on fire’ on routine basis. Fire wreaks havoc on factories just as repetitive ‘fire drills’ do on organizations.

    Thinking of Ken’s analogy on DDT: every person, in some way, brings metaphorical DDT into their organization. You cannot prevent unintended consequences from occurring until you take ownership of your DDT and others around you do the same. Systems Dynamics feels like a never-ending 12-step program sometimes, and maybe it should. It is a cultural change as much as it is scientific and mathematical. Science and math are predicable, man isn’t. WHO ignored long term challenges for short term gains. Organizations do the same thing each day.

    Systems Dynamics has transformed RMI’s reach within its community of employees, clients, vendors and friends. It seems that everyone is excited to see how this continues to develop.

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