My first job after leaving university required that I learn about (computer) operating systems. At the time (1979) the most important ones included MVS and VM from IBM, RSX and VMS from DEC, and UNIX: PCs were yet to really emerge.
For a while, books on operating systems were my bedside reading (yes, geeky, I know). I loved to understand the way these systems worked – scheduling work, handling resources and managing interactions with the computer terminals of hundreds of people – all at what seemed incredible speeds.
I learned to write programme code and played around a little with the internals of these complex beasts. But, really, I was much more interested in understanding the models involved. What fascinated me, I think, was how a few relatively simple constructs, when implemented rigourously, could create complex behaviour.
I’d studied psychology at university, not computer science. And thinking back I’m now clear that it was always models that interested me, not behaviour. I was mainly interested in mental models and particularly assumptions – about how people constructed the world.
Later I studied social, cultural, and other models. Throughout my life, this desire to understand how things work – through the lens of models – has been fairly constant. Today it is still human models, but also business and organisational models, that often gain my attention. For me, all these are systems, and worthy of understanding.
People sometimes say I am “conceptual”. And I guess it is true – my interest in models would support that idea.
But there’s another factor which I think leads to that conclusion. Sometimes I refuse to give specifics, to describe behaviour. That’s not because I don’t have a view. It’s because I want people to work it out for themselves. You see, I also deeply believe in distributed leadership – decisions being made independently by the people involved.
A model may set the limits within which behaviour occurs – but it doesn’t predict the behaviour in a deterministic way. I like that – and the freedom it implies.
Not everybody likes to think in terms of models. But one of the best explanations of the importance of models comes from Donella Meadows. The late environmental scientist and teacher wrote a brilliant list of the most valuable leverage points in systems which prompted an earlier post.
Wikipedia lists the twelve leverage points and I won’t repeat them here. The least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these deck chairs while the ship is sinking.
The three most powerful (in Meadows’ view) are:
- The goal of the system.
- The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
- The power to transcend paradigms.
Models are paradigms. And, like Meadows, I believe that understanding models sets me free.
I believe that if people understand the model they inhabit, they can choose it, or change it; and they can also choose their behaviour within it, rather than acting because of forces they don’t understand.
What does all this have to do with Conscious Business?
Models are everywhere. Business today operates within a model (a paradigm) – containing invisible assumptions about goals (make money), structure (me on top, you below), rules (you must do what I say) etc.
Businesses also contain models – we have business models, organisational models, rewards models, innovation models, skills development models and so on.
So, why not take the time to bring into your consciousness the models that drive or control your world? Set yourself free.