Thursday, October 13, 2011

Expanded Views

You ever have that experience where, when your brain keys on something, you keep seeing that thing, running into it all over town? That's what's been happening to me this week with systems.

The subject of all the readings in my Federal Acquisitions class this week were on Systems Engineering, including an excellent look at the Coast Guard's Deepwater program as a case study for a system of systems approach to acquisition.

I went to a forum on campus where DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and MD Governor Martin O'Malley spoke about homeland security issues spanning federal, state, local and other partner agency initiatives, like the START  (Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) program at the University of Maryland. Governor O'Malley said that where his generation was told to specialize, ("go into plastics, young man...plastics," was his quote), today we need people who are more generalists, able to look at things and see how they function as a system. Secretary Napolitano used the word "holistic" regarding the approach needed to address homeland security concerns.

I had an energy audit done on my house last week. It's a leaky ol' buggah. My windows leak; there are holes in the drywall that leak; the crawlspace leaks; the attic leaks...but with a systematic approach I can get all those leaks sealed up and improve the energy efficiency of my house. I guess what makes this a systems issue for me was Pascale's description of the current state of my crawlspace. It isn't included OR excluded from the's just kinda haphazardly there. To include it within the house, I could seal it along the outer perimeter; to exclude it from the house, I could seal under the floor and all the "through-hull fittings" (sorry, couldn't help to default to my comfort zone) like the gas, water and sewage pipes. So, I need to make a decision one way or the other, instead of just letting it hang out in undecided limbo.

But, in true system fashion, the crawlspace does not exist in a vacuum (how *could* it, being so leaky?). There's a sump-pump down there, installed well before my tenure in the house, which leads me to believe that there have been water intrusion issues. I may have influenced the amount of water reaching the crawlspace with the installation of rain barrels at each of my downspouts, but I've been reluctant to actually visit the crawlspace to see if there are damp spots. Damn it, it's raining today...would be the perfect opportunity to check it out. Ugh, creepy crawlies, spider webs, dirty paws and knees, here I come. Back in a sec...Ayup, it's wet down there all right. The sump pump is sitting in a low spot in about four inches of water. I don't know what the power source is for the pump, so it will stay idle until I can get an electrician to check it out--some of the wiring looks decidedly suspect. And here's the irony: in the middle of all these grand revelations about systems and systems thinking, I just wish sometimes that things were *simpler!* That it didn't take a weatherizer, general contractor *and* an electrician, never mind a brick mason and a painter to get my house in order. I guess that's not really irony, but just reality about all systems.

I've had two sort of insights with all these systems issues in my face lately. First, I think I may have finally found the usefulness to my current career of my background in agriculture. It's easy to see linkages and relationships, dynamic complexities (in Senge's parlance), in living ecosystems. While I got a great education at Berea College, there were some short-comings in the agriculture curriculum when I was there (that have since been so well corrected that I hesitate to bring up skeletons from 20 years ago). I distinctly remember sitting in one of my classes, probably Plant Science, and being completely horrified at the professor's recommendation that to rectify an over-application of nie-ter-gin (that's nitrogen (N) to the rest of us), all ya had to do was irrigate more...that would send all that extra N on out of your field because N is water-soluble. I think I got asked to leave the class for being disruptive when I asked what about the neighbors' fields down-stream, or the water table that got contaminated with N and produced a bulge of methemoglobinemia (I had to look up the technical name), aka blue baby syndrome, in the local population. Never did think too much of that professor. But even then I understood the interconnectedness of ecosystems. It's fairly comfortable for me too look for the relationships between things and what externalities affect those relationships.

Second, I really like the idea of expanding my view of an issue to see the entire picture. In my Managing Conflict class, one of the barriers to "inventing an abundance of options" is the idea of a fixed pie. More money for you means less for me. I love the example in Getting to Yes:
"Chess looks like a zero-sum game; if one loses, the other wins--until a dog trots by and knocks over the table, spills the beer, and leaves you both worse off than before.
Even apart from a shared interest in averting joint loss, there almost always exists the possibility of joint gain. This may take the form of developing a mutually advantageous relationship, or of satisfying the interests of each side with a creative solution."
 But in either case, it requires looking at more than just one's own side of things. You *have* to broaden the scope of the negotiation to include the other side's interests. This expansion often reveals that a) there is much more common ground than originally perceived, and b) creative problem-solving can sometimes help resolve the remaining disparities.

Somehow for me this also dovetails with Senge's feedback concept. " systems thinking, feedback is...any reciprocal flow of is an axiom that every influence is both cause and effect. Nothing is ever influenced in just one direction." Maybe it's an expansion of being able to mentally include more than just linear relationships, of being able to see inter-relations or structures separate from behaviors. "This distinction is important because seeing only individual actions and missing the structure underlying the actions...lies at the root of our powerlessness in complex situations." Guh, there's *something* there, but I'm just not making the connection yet.

Ok, I've beat this drum enough today.

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