Interpretation is a vital step in scholarship. Studies can be misinterpreted, and how findings are understood and internalized by a community can be more important than the findings themselves.
It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.
One slide in particular became the poster child of the problem — a multicolored spaghetti diagram with arrows linking all sorts of concepts, some big, some small. General Stanley A. McChrystal joked:
When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.
He may have said more than he realized. When I first saw this story, which was followed by mocking coverage on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” among many other places, it bothered me at a subconscious level. This subconscious burr was revealed during a recent business trip with two very smart people. We were shooting the breeze about various topics when they mentioned this article and that infamous slide’s relationship to systems dynamics. They helped me realize what was wrong with the PowerPoint/military narrative, and why McChrystal’s joke might have been both prescient and damning.
We had the picture, but we were being misinformed about what it was and what it meant.
Systems dynamics is a way of portraying the web of consequences, interactions, and relationships that invariably exist in a complex system. Want to avoid unintended consequences? Use system dynamics. Want to understand which features of a system drive behavior? Use system dynamics. Want to know how to efficiently and effectively change a web of dependencies? Use systems dynamics.
Mind maps and causal loop diagrams are primary tools of systems dynamics.
They are also called “spaghetti charts” because they look like that when rendered visually.
It’s actually reassuring that the military is attempting to use systems dynamics to understand complex social/military/cultural/economic systems. People who use these approaches create long-term solutions and avoid pitfalls.
This diagram is nothing to laugh at, and nothing to make fun of. This diagram is something to celebrate, because it shows us that our military leaders are trying to take a systems approach to the complex problems in Afghanistan. . . . Mind maps and causal loop diagrams are EXACTLY the kind of graphics that our military leaders should be creating, should be sharing, and should be using. This is not the kind of visual presentation that’s part of ‘death by PowerPoint.’ This is the kind of analysis that might save lives.
So, McChrystal was right — understand this diagram, win the war.
But systems dynamics does look messy to people who don’t know what it is or how to use it. In its raw form, it looks like a wiring diagram for your house — if you’re not familiar with electrical wiring symbols, flows, and schematics, it will look like a sort of art deco spaghetti diagram. You just want the lights to work — but it takes the wiring diagram to make that happen.
In its finished form, systems dynamics looks like SIMS or other sophisticated software; it looks like smoothly functioning distribution systems; it looks like things you rely on. Basically, systems dynamics makes complex things work.
Even the military is speaking out, with the bloggers at an official Army blog — the Combined Arms Center’s DRLO Force Management blog — writing:
. . . developing models of complexity is exactly how you go about making the unknown a little more knowable. . . . A systems dynamics model is the first step towards building collaborative understanding of complexity.
The damning part of McChrystal’s statement equating comprehension of that slide with winning the war comes when you ponder that top commanders apparently don’t uniformly appreciate the importance of complex systems when it comes to plans for victory. If military action is still believed by some to be simply to invade, subdue, and defeat, then we still have a problem in the modern military age.
That said, it is worth shaming the use of bullet points to boil down complex ideas. Bullet points can help to organize, but more often than not, they oversimplify. In fact, bullet points are the military’s main complaint about PowerPoint, if you look beyond the spaghetti diagram. But it’s been hard to see beyond the infamous slide because the narrative emerging from the New York Times’ article — that PowerPoint diagrams are silly, overly complex, and useless — is an oversimplification based on poor information and graphical convenience.
Fortunately, the narrative wasn’t completely based on reporting since the New York Times allows comments from readers. Some readers pegged it as a systems dynamics chart from the get-go.
Allowing comments may introduce complexity to the business of news dissemination. But if oversimplification of complex information is a problem the mass media still has, we’re better off with a little more complexity.
(Thanks to SM and JC for the conversation that inspired this post.)