Out of Our Reductionism

Compression - Reductionism and the silo syndromeMay 27, 2011

“Reductionism,” just now edging into management literature, is too new to have begun degrading, like “linear thinking” for example. That buzzword meant to explain something using a simple model, and linear is simple. However, overtaken by buzzword decay, “linear thinking” is now derogatorily used to imply that someone’s logic is ridiculous.

But linear thinking, reducing an explanation to its simplest terms, has an honorable history. It led to remarkable scientific discoveries. Discoverers were extolled for cutting through the clutter with explanations sharpened by Occam’s Razor, which is, “Explain a phenomenon the simplest way possible.”

“Reductionism” is not the same as linear thinking, but is related. Reductionism is inferring the nature of a whole system from studying its parts. Most scientists remain reductionist, but because systems studied are increasingly complex, they question this logic. The nature of an animal, for instance, cannot be understood from its cellular chemistry. Weather models cannot precisely predict violent storms; nor seismic models earthquakes. A few astrophysicists now surmise that the universe evolved partly by happenstance “black swans,” so no ultimate theory of everything can fully describe how it came about, much less predict its future.

Definitions of reductionism are squishy, but the effects of reductionism are easy to see in organizations. For example, we regularly experience “silo effects,” the inability of a bureaucratic pyramid to integrate best practices of many specialties into a smoothly functioning whole. Right hands can’t see what the lefts are doing, not even with big databases. From inside one silo it’s easy to be deluded that if all the rest did as we do, everything would be great – which is inferring the nature of the whole from one part, or reductionism.

Lean sheds a lot of this hand-off waste by creating value streams across operations. Extending lean thinking to supply chains eliminates a lot more waste. But most lean organizations are still improving efficiency, as they or their customers see it, and mostly by improving the service of offerings similar to those provided in the past.

Beyond efficiency lie deeper questions. What outcomes would customers like over a long period of time? What outcomes might they need, even if they are unaware of them now? What is a minimal-resource way to provide them and still care for the planet? Such questions can’t be “answered” precisely, but without seeing a company’s milieu as part of a bigger world system – getting beyond reductionism – they can’t be addressed. When we do, we see our world differently. We might even define efficiency differently.

Difficulty seeing the world this way leads us to assume that maximizing our own welfare in our little corner of it will surely benefit all. That’s reductionism. Company-centered P&L statements buttress this thinking.

Cost models are reductionist if they assume that the sum of minimized local costs is the minimum overall cost (monetized silo effects). Economic theory is reductionist if it assumes that the sum of many efficient work organizations assures efficiency of the whole (whatever that is). GNP is reductionist: It assumes that if the total of all transactions is higher, we’re all better off. And the financial system presses us for short-term results, assuming that long-term considerations will thereby take care of themselves. No wonder the snarkiest criticism about reductionist thinking is directed at economists.

So how can we start working out of reductionism?  Consistent practice of rigorous problem solving is one way. It does minimum good to solve problems if we can’t actually hold with countermeasures. Once into this, however, keep broadening the Concerns raised (per the ILS 4C model) until people see and solve problems from a long-term, global perspective.

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