Systems, Scale, Value
Creating things is a delicate endeavour, fraught with peril. People struggle forward through crazy marketplace and environmental complexities just to get from one day to the other. Yet I can't shake off the feeling that we make it harder for ourselves than it should be. I've been trying to work out why. There's a lot to unpack. This post is a start at thinking about it in public.


I'm going to amble along a wavy line of thought through Story, Metaphor, Model, and Example. Please join the noodling-over and ambling-off into tangents.

Story: Damaging the children

My parents are deeply systems-oriented thinkers and doers. Biased to thoughtful execution; whether short-or-long-range. Connoisseurs of checklists.

They've done it all, and then some, with their systems-oriented minds… Buying a car, planning a wedding, building warships, running schools and R&D institutes, organizing large events, helping feed stranded migrant workers, producing textbooks, caring for their elderly and infirm, helping their network build lives, teaching their children independence. And I gleefully imagine, also some top-secret classified stuff my dad can't tell me about, because then he would have to kill me. (Kid-me read too many spy novels :)).

At the big-picture level, in this household, keeping an up-to-date "death file" is not morbid or fatalist, but a simple plan for after the inevitable. An act of care and kindness. At the microscopic level, I cannot recall a single day growing up, going without a fresh hot meal on the table whether my mom was home, or away, or sick. Together, they seemingly never missed a beat even against steep odds, or even if one of them was failing, or was out of commission. And here I am, barely keeping it together. Apples do fall far from trees.

They never made the mistake of coddling us, but they did err by wiring us–my sibling and I–with standards for our actions and output. They failed to stop at ethical conduct, kindness, and good manners. We had to also pay attention to detail. Run what-if scenarios. Write things down. Be accountable to our surroundings and the people in there. Own our successes and failures. In several cases they had to push us (teenagers gonna teenage). In many others they led by example.

They also erred by letting us rifle through Daddy's Awesome Cabinet of Books and letting us borrow action-packed thrillers like "How Things Work" (Volumes 1 and 2), and "Systems in Action". Maybe my sibling was spared, I don't know. I certainly wasn't. You're a boy. And you worship your dad. And you want to be like him. So damn straight you will devour daddy's books. But you're an 8th grader, and can't know better. To what extent that material might infiltrate your brain. And the many ways that influence will mess you up in adult life.

To be clear, I adore my parents, but I don't mean to gloat about some superior upbringing. For millennia, traditional societies have been bringing up their young sensitised to cause/effect, feedback loops, and the interconnectedness of all things. My chance mental conditioning merely has different set and setting.

Nor am I advocating the merits of my superior mammalian brain. We are all monkeys. We absorb a tremendous amount by osmosis and proximity. I simply was (am) around them and they are a certain kind of people. So, monkey see, monkey do, monkey programmed for life.

Remember this for later.

Archetypes as Metaphor: A Vogon and Slartibartfast

Unfortunately, enterprise demise is rarely merciful.

Even the best systems-oriented organisations can fail through mistakes or forces outside their control. Systems-disoriented ones, though, are almost certain to end. The best case end-state is a mercifully swift death. The worst case is akin to eternal hell.

It is easy to spot hellish organisations. They are ones who mistook bureaucracy for systems. They erect tall barb-wire fences of paperwork and procedure (and of actual barb-wire, too, come to think of it). They make Byzantine mazes of confounding rules and approvals. Elaborate rituals with no memory of why. Their customers puzzle through the madness. Their staff dutifully tend to these, because that's what procedure, fences, and mazes are for, after all; to be tended to, ritually.

Unfortunately, bureaucracies frequently succeed and turn pathological.

Bureaucracies are the ones that successfully pulled off the reality-escape magic trick of turning into axiomatic self-perpetuating ever-expanding entities. And they are frequently pathological. They exist because they exist. They make rules because they make rules. They don't grow, they metastasise. Vogons.

Unfortunately, systems people look like bureaucrats at first glance.

It is often hard to understand, or indeed believe, what these so-called systems people are going on about. They appear to be infuriatingly reluctant to just do stuff. They want us to think of this feedback loop and that delay and the other thing—reservoir something. They ask too many questions and engage in that perversion of holism which our education weaned us off long ago.

Unfortunately, consummate bureaucrats are camouflage experts.

They don the colours of systems-builders (it makes for great press, and randomly it can actually become true through no fault of said consummate bureaucrat). But really it is all in service of the pathological bureaucracy that kowtows the whims of some great dictator high above. The consummate and competent bureaucrat is an endangered animal.

How, pray tell, is the hapless commoner to discern the master of Machiavellian machinations, from the grappler of vexing problems of far-reaching import? One who sees through the Eye of Sauron versus one who has vision? One who is capable of thinking and of creating?

When suddenly confronted with an alive, organic whole wrought of systems harmonised of systems, we can be forgiven for getting lost in a single detail amidst infinite splendour. Like Arthur Dent trying to comprehend the copy of Earth suspended before him, and finally finding succour in a familiar cup of tea in his own replicated home. "Amazed and lost" is quite unlike "lost in a maze". The systems-builder, meanwhile, looks on with kind empathy for our sudden loss of tongue. Silently joyous about what was realized through them. Slartibartfast. Now you're gagging aren't you? Not at the name, but at the Utopian idealism of this whole paragraph? Stay with the feeling. That's your prickly adult conditioning suppressing your intelligent, curious 13-year-old inner self.

A Vogon's employer and A Slartibartfast's employer both produce and perpetuate grand structures, intricately patterned, with unfathomable puzzles and games of life that could keep us occupied forever, and perhaps even drive us to insanity. Yet one is a simulacrum of the other.

With reference to Westrum typology, the Vogon Empire would be a Pathological Bureaucracy. So lets just say that if I were fated to go stark raving mad, and I had to choose between these opposite archetypes, I'd rather lose my mind working for a Slartibartfast. And if you find yourself under a Vogon…

Do Panic.

Model: A picture is worth a 1,000 % points

Scale is where it's at, these days. It so obviously right to want to scale all the things all the time.

Try to loudly diss "scaling". See if you don't get funny looks and wry remarks about "lifestyle business" or something appropriately classifying. Luckily, that's not what I'm going to do today. Also this is the last time fish, reptiles, dermatology, or the insides of boilers will appear in this piece. Business thinks of scaling as growing bigger and doing so faster. And we mean business here, okay?

But we're in a spot of trouble, aren't we? The word fucked comes to mind.

"Systems", "complexity", and "perspective" feel like dirty epithets in polite (board)rooms (or indeed, most rooms). And heaven forfend if you're an engineer given to worrying about such stuff. (Engineers can actually verify their Enterprise F-word Factor real quick. Use those words in your next executive meeting, and closely watch superior eyes. If they light up, count your lucky stars.)

Yet people know deep down, that such things really exist, that they matter, that we are part of the equation. But even if everyone cares, where is the time or incentive to ferret out their presence in our organisations, much less map out and observe their mechanics? We're so focused and busy pushing the numbers that denote scaling for us.

Fortunately, people have an intuitive feel for the aggregate effect of their scaling efforts.

While said effect invokes gut-feels, I bet it could also be described in hard numbers, framed as net resources expended to convert net inputs into net outputs. An abstract view that would complement more detailed / subtle systems thinking insights (which get framed as flow, feedback loops, buffers, controls, relationships).

The picture below is offered as one such "contrast material". Compare your current growth trajectory / pattern with it.

        +----------------------+ +----------------------+ +----------------------+
        |                   .  | |                      | |                .     |
        |                  .   | |                      | |               .      |
        |                 .    | |                      | |             .        |
        |               .      | |                      | |            .         |
        |             .        | |                      | |           .          |
        |           .          | |                      | |          .           |
        |         .            | |                 /----| |        .             |
SCALING |.  .  .               | |____ /---------       | | . . .                |
        +----------------------+ +----------------------+ +----------------------+
        +----------------------+ +----------------------+ +----------------------+
        |                      | |                      | |                      |
        |                   /--| |                   /--| |                   /--|
        |                /--   | |                /--   | |                /--   |
        |             /--      | |             /--      | |             /--      |
        |          /--         | |          /--         | |          /--         |
        |       /--            | |       /--            | |       /--            |
        |    /--               | |    /--               | |    /--               |
STASIS  | /--                  | | /--                  | | /--                  |
        +----------------------+ +----------------------+ +----------------------+
        +----------------------+ +----------------------+ +----------------------+
        |                      | |             .        | |                      |
        |                   /--| |            .         | |                   /--|
        |                /--   | |           .          | |                /--   |
        |             /--      | |          .           | |             /--      |
        |          /--         | |         .            | |          /--         |
        |       /--            | |        .             | |       /--            |
        |    /--               | |      .               | |    /--               |
DEATH   | /--                  | |.. .                  | | /--                  |
        +----------------------+ +----------------------+ +----------------------+

I worry for us, you know.

In our great civilization-scale hustle, we've lost the greater (systemic) perspective. Perspective crucial to the control and management of giant grizzly bears of self-made complexity. Everything seems to be on fire at all scales, but we all seem to feel… fine.

Maybe I just have a morbid eye. Please tell me I'm wrong.

Example: What's cooler than 10 Bn? 100 Bn.

The way tech startups function in India drives me to despair.

I think founders and staff lose a tremendous amount of value to avoidable chaos, needless complexity, excessive cargo-culting of tech and business ideas, severe under-investment in human capacity-building, and quite frankly rather poor attention to detail. One can very well count their true burn rate not in dollar terms, but in minds wasted, and bodies spent.

Operating in India is ridiculously hard as it is, and founders must struggle forward through crazy marketplace/environmental complexities. I think those other factors I stated previously compound to make things far worse that they need to be. It's like death by a thousand cuts.

For example, people look at me funny when I say I think that the poster-child sale of Flipkart to Walmart was a tragedy. To me, that was a $100 Bn company (or bigger!) that didn't happen. Anecdotally, I believe many similar tragedies are in progress as we speak. Value erosion of a colossal scale. Maybe I'm too much of an idealist? Or worse, maybe I'm too much of an engineer? What could I possibly know about things way above my pay grade?

Unfortunately for me, I can't help thinking there must be a better way.

Tying it together. Trying it together?

Software is extreme leverage.

Transmuting real-world idioms and processes into bits and API calls is literally game-changing. This we know to be true to experience.

However, any enormously high-leverage intervention routinely produces every conceivable externality, positive or negative or just… alien. So often, we don't even know what we're really looking at. New. NFT. WTF. Wow. That's what you get when a model in a computer can thumb its nose at the laws of Physics. Crazy variance of outcome. Power law inversions of control away from the world of brick and mortar and atoms and societies into power-centers capable of planet-scale rearrangement.

People don't scale, systems do.

Scaling begets complexity. Systems create leverage. Systems-oriented people create ways to thrive in complex worlds. Organisations that invest deeply in systems-oriented people have a shot at greatness at scale. Those that don't, risk unchecked destruction of value for self and ecosystem. It's a muscle to build. It takes persistent work. You need the stomach for it.

Unfortunately, you will likely build a bureaucracy.

And build it fast. Actually, you don't even need to "build" one, you just have to do nothing and let it manifest itself. Easy-peasy.

Suppose you suddenly learn that you are now a founder hustlin' a red-hot tech startup, and suddenly find yourself in possession of gobs of money, and honestly not much leadership experience, you may very quickly also find yourself in possession of small armies of people. The pressure to "grow" will be immense. So will be the weight of responsibility. You may feel trapped, your only recourse being to open wide and swallow as much as you can as fast as you can. You will make the cardinal mistake of adding more people to your already late launch. And when it's all threatening to go sideways, you will discover your inner Great Dictator.

It will be tempting. You feel the hurt, but you also feel the power. You tell yourself it will somehow all work out in the end. That growth will forgive all sins. It won't. Resist the urge to command and control. Resist becoming a Vogon. Resist the slippery slope to the hell of pathological bureaucracies. Strive to be a Slartibartfast. A creative, generative leader.

"Power over rules is real power."

"If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them."

— Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems.

We are all monkeys, remember? You may be the top dog, but I bet you watch your authority figures. Just as your people watch you. What are you absorbing? What are you disseminating?

You are also in the system. You are bound by its laws, even if you created it. Especially if you created it. But if you created it, you may have power to change the rules. You may even have the greatest power; the power to set/reset its goals.

How will you wield your power?

Food for thought

Practice. Or, applied systems thinking.

Perspective. Or, 80 IQ points.

Zeitgeist.: Or, stories from now.

Satire. Or, a mirror to the culture.


Thanks to Julia and Radhika for writing feedback. Thanks to apenwarr for writing their insightful post on Systems design (linked above), which reminded me of Jo Freeman's essay, which I was remiss to include in the original publication.