Systems Thinking Conference

At the end of last week was the SDM Systems Thinking Conference, the new incarnation of what used to be the SDM alumni conference. As with last year's version, a number of alumni were present but there was also a wider range of people present. And comparing to one day of last year's conference, this year's definitely seemed better.

While most of the talks were generally good, there were a few that really stuck out.

Peter Senge's talk on how sustainability can improve profitability got things off to a really good start. He started out with a bit of an overview of his views on organizational learning, one of which is around understanding complexity. His major premise for the talk was that a lack of the systems thinking needed to understand complexity is the fundamental cause of basically all sustainability problems. A couple of things that he said really jumped out at me. One of the biggest was when he asked what the purpose of a business was — most of the audience responded with “make money” or “profit”. But the thing is that profit isn't the purpose of the business… “profit for a company is like oxygen for a person; yes, you need it but you don't exist to breathe”. A second thing that really resonated was that to really improve sustainability, you need to make the shift from trying to be “less bad” to thinking about being “really good”. And it's really true in many/most areas (see Arjan's discussion of five-second Linux boot for a similar case)

He also had a number of cases illustrating his ideas which were pretty compelling. And he also used system dynamics a few times to make his point which was a nice touch :)

Oli de Weck teaches the System Project Management course but his talk on applying Darwinian principles to System Design ended up being an interesting and somewhat divergent talk from the areas we discuss in class. The most important take-away is that changeability is something which, while considered, is not considered enough when designing a system. Per the quote from Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is more adaptable to change”. And when you start looking into it, this is just as true with systems as is it is with the evolution of species. Thus, there are changes need from some of the more “traditional” systems engineering which presumes that all of these sorts of things are set in stone. Instead, he proposes something called strategic engineering to help deal with the uncertainty which is actually present for most projects. This lets you pick along the axes of robustness and rigidity to help get better outcomes.

The final speaker on the second day of the conference was Dharmesh Shah speaking on applying agile software techniques to startups. The material being presented was good. But even better was the actual presentation of the material. Dharmesh clearly has a lot of passion for what he was talking about and he manages to pull off the blend of humor and information very well. Also, even though he had slides, I was glad that his slides were very sparse and very much not the bulk of the talk.

The other talks were pretty interesting too. There was a talk from Paul Murray at Herman Miller (yes, the Aeron people) about how they've made it a goal to reduce their environmental impact and what they've done and what impacts that has had. Valerie Casey from IDEO also spoke on sustainability and was giving an overview of the Designer's Accord is looking to accomplish. There was a talk that was better than I expected about how eClinicalWorks has managed to get a significant penetration into physician offices with their software by using very non-traditional methods for selling software. And there was a talk from a Microsoft guy about their Software+Services pitch, but this was very abstract and without any real details other than the impression that Microsoft is going to be very seriously going after the Cloud.

All in all, quite good. Plus, there was free food (always a plus) and a lot of cool people to hang around and talk with.