Laura and Derek Cabrera: Systems Thinking For Business

Entrepreneurs can realize their goal to think better, think Austrian by taking a systems thinking approach. We can ditch linearity and hierarchies in favor of distributed networks and webs of causality and create better knowledge – more aligned with the real world — and better mental models. Professors Laura and Derek Cabrera of Cabrera Research Lab and Cornell University — leading authorities on systems thinking — speak to Economic For Business on the application of systems thinking for entrepreneurs, and everyone.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

There’s a crisis in thinking in the business world.

Laura and Derek Cabrera have conducted deep research in the field of business thinking, and they’ve identified both the problems and the solution. The problems include reductionism (we’re taught to think about parts of systems instead of the system as a whole); hierarchical organization of thinking (versus complex distributed networks); thinking in categories versus breaking down part-whole groupings; thinking in terms of liner cause-and-effect versus webs of causality; and the prevalence of bivalent logic (right/wrong, black/white) rather than the multi-valent logic of many right answers.

This way of thinking is not well-aligned with the realities around us. The solution is systems thinking — the thinking of complex adaptive systems.

Systems thinking aligns with how the real world works.

Our mantra at Economics for Business is Think Better, Think Austrian. Systems thinking is better thinking (and Austrian economics fully embraces complex adaptive thinking — what Mises called constant flux and Hayek called spontaneous order and Lachmann called the market as a process of combination and recombination).

Systems thinking defines complex adaptive systems in this way:

Autonomous agents follow simple rules based on what’s happening locally around them, the collective dynamics of which lead to the emergence of the complex dynamics we see.

This description is actually a mental model of a complex adaptive system. The products of systems thinking are mental models. None are perfect representations of reality, but they help us when they are better representations of reality.

Four simple rules of systems thinking produce better mental models.

By following 4 simple rules, over and over again, anyone can become a practiced and adept systems thinker. The rules are captured in the acronym DSRP.

D is for Distinctions. Systems thinkers make distinctions between different things and different ideas. We can make distinctions between different customers, different costs, different sales channels, different suppliers, different employees. We identify boundaries, what’s inside and what’s outside. We differentiate, compare, and contrast.

S is for organizing ideas into systems of parts and wholes. Every thing is a system because it contains parts. Every e-mail contains words which contain letters which are made up of pixels. We construct meaning when we organize different ideas into part-whole configurations. We split things up or lump them together in systems of context. We group, we sort, we classify, we assemble.

R is for identifying relationships between and among ideas. We can’t understand much about anything without understanding the relationships between or among the ideas or components. Relationships include causal, correlation, feedback, inputs/outputs, influence, etc. Fundamentally, relationships are action and reaction. We live in an infinite network of interactions, including between our own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. We connect, interconnect, associate and join.

P is for looking at things from different perspectives. When we make a distinction or identify parts and wholes or identify a relationship, we are always doing so from one particular perspective, made up of the point from which we are viewing and the thing or things in view. Being aware of the perspectives we take is paramount to understanding ourselves and the world around us. If we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. We frame, we interpret, we empathize, and we negotiate from a perspective.

Systems thinking is not a set of steps but a set of rules, and from the interplay of these rules emerges the dynamics of systemic thought.

There are four types of action for systems thinkers applying the DSRP rules.

1) See Information and structure.

To construct meaning and mental models, we take in information and structure it. It’s important to recognize the difference between the information and how we structure it. A good way to do this is visualization: use whiteboards or sticky notes or software to map out systems and parts (e.g., boxes within boxes on a chart) and relationships (lines between the boxes). This physical manifestation of a system can help create new knowledge and point to solutions.

Laura and Derek told the story of a large conglomerate business that, by visualizing its divisions and functions and the information flows between them, was able to identify redundancies, see where communications and information was lacking or blocked off, and design a new and improved structure.

2) Use common patterns in the structure of mental models.

Laura and Derek use the term cognitive jigs: forms of information structuring that can be used again and again. A list is one type of cognitive jig. It can be used to order priorities or structure wholes into parts. Similes and metaphors are jigs. There’s another called a relationship distinction system (RDS) that can help solve silo problems in organizational design by identifying required relationships and the people responsible for them, and the resources required to operate the relationship. Excel spreadsheets and tables are jigs. Look for useful cognitive jigs and use them over and over again. They increase the efficiency and speed of thought.

3) Make structural predictions.

Austrians are wary of predictions because we know the future is uncertain. Here, we are not talking about predicting the future, but predicting the possibility of new knowledge existing after restructuring information. For example, a new relationship opportunity could emerge if we change our perspective. A new understanding could emerge if we break something that we were treating as a whole into its parts. We can identify gaps in our current thinking and make a bet that there’s something positive in changing that thinking. We can create new knowledge.

4) Embrace the logic of and/both.

We are taught bivalent logic: there’s right and wrong, there’s black and white, there’s X and Y. There’s an alternative: multivalent logic. There can be more than one right answer. There can be a continuum rather than fixed points.

One example of multivalent logic applies in the analysis of what customers want. They have a variety of preferences, ordered in different ways at different times and in different contexts. They are continuously learning what to want, and always making trade-offs. Bivalent logic won’t help entrepreneurs understand customers’ choices or decision-making processes.

Another example of bivalent versus multivalent logic is cause and effect compared to a web of causality. We tend to think of cause and effect as neighbors on a timeline. The cue ball of cause strikes the colored ball of effect and moves it in a designated direction. But it’s more realistic to think of the events of our lives or our business having multiple causal factors. There are so many mediating factors and external and internal variables that lead us to be more systematic in our thinking about them. Purposely look for webs of causality rather than shoehorn observed phenomena into a linear causal model that doesn’t match the reality of the world.

Systems thinking includes the recognition of individual subjective purpose and intent.

The perspective of methodological individualism leads Austrians to worry about whether systems thinking is well-aligned with Austrian thinking. I asked Laura and Derek this question. The response: “I would say that’s precisely what systems thinking entails — the notion that each individual agent is following simple interaction rules with other agents, and that those interaction rules are leading to the system and its emergent properties.

An example of an interaction rule from Austrian economics: humans act in order to improve their circumstances. Another is that they use their own subjective value system to determine what is an improvement. The action axiom, subjective value, opportunity cost in choosing between alternatives, profit and loss and the context of constant change are the simple rules of Austrian economics.

Practice, practice, practice.

Systems thinking is something everyone should be able to do. It can be practiced. Our brains are already building mental models about the world. It’s already in us and so it pays to be aware of it. 

It’s like any exercise: more reps make us stronger. Look at anything through the DSRP lens when you are feeding your dogs or driving down the highway observing billboard advertisements. Make the neuronal pathways of DSRP second nature.

This can occur at the level of individual learning or of organizational learning. In episode #152 (Mises.org/E4B_152), we discussed the organizational model of VMCL — an organization using learning to acquire the capacity to do its mission every day to achieve its vision.

Additional Resources

“How to Become A Systems Thinker” (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_160_PDF1

“Practical Systems Thinking Actions and Behaviors” (PDF): Mises.org/E4B_160_PDF2

Systems Thinking Made Simple: New Hope for Solving Wicked Problems by Derek and Laura Cabrera: Mises.org/E4B_160_Book

Cabrera Research Lab: CabreraResearch.org