Donella H. Meadows (2008) defines a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” A soccer team is an example of a system. A set of books on a shelf is not a system.
Systems can be classified, as David Snowden defined them in the 1980s, in four domains: Obvious, Complicated, Chaotic, or Complex.
The nature of each system, when viewed within an organization, is closely related to how leadership behaves, how management is conducted, and how people interact.
It is very important to understand the nature of the system in which we act, in order to underlie the search for frameworks that are more closely aligned with the system.
An OBVIOUS system, for example, is highly predictable and easily understood. In such a system, leadership understands the need, categorizes it, and responds, because the solution is already understood based on having undergone the situation before. For example, Call Center. Framework: “Best Practices.”
A COMPLICATED system is known as a “domain of specialists.” In this domain, there is a great need for specialized knowledge in which leadership and specialists understand the need, analyze it based on their knowledge, and respond. For example: Analysis project to improve the performance of servers at different sites for a company. Associated Framework: Waterfall.
A COMPLEX system, according to Melanie Mitchell (2011), is one in which “large networks of components with no central control give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution.” Example: brain, agile team. Associated Framework: SCRUM.
A CHAOTIC system is characterized by complete unpredictability. There is no possibility of prediction, because the nature of the system does not allow it. Example: hospital emergency, production environments. Associated Framework: continuous workflow frameworks.
It is notable that in the OBVIOUS and COMPLICATED domains, there is not a strong association with agile frameworks, because there is little opportunity for experimentation and learning to meet priorities.
In an organization, we encounter all four types of systems described above. A change effort to adopt agile methods should consider interactions with all of them, using prescriptive or agile frameworks, which fully account for people collaborating to attain shared objectives, which is what actually characterizes an agile organization.