• Robb G. Best

What Your Grandma and Corporations Have in Common

Imagine your grandma just celebrated her 85th birthday. She's beginning to forget things, but her doctor has reassured you that since, if given enough time, she can eventually pull the information through, it's probably not Alzheimer's.

You take some comfort in a recent study that suggests memory retrieval problems might not necessarily be the deterioration of synaptic connections, but more of a space issue.

Think of Grandma's hippocampus like a library that, over time, has run out of shelving for the books. As they begin to pile up on the floor, the librarian can still find that edition of Twain's Huckleberry Finn you're after, but it takes a a little more time to scour all the nooks and crannies of the library to locate it. The same might be true for the hippocampus, the memory library.

In any event, modern medicine has been good to Grandma. The old family general practitioner has been replaced by a whole bevy of doctors who specialize in any number of medical fields. She's got her heart specialist, her eye, ear, nose and throat doctor, her podiatrist, her diabetes doctor, her osteopath, and so on.

As a result, she finds herself traveling a regular circuit of doctors, each dedicated to improving the quality of her life and each taking advantage of the latest discoveries in pharmaceutical science.

Pharmaceutical science, like all science, operates on the principal of reduction theory—in essence, that the key to solving problems is to break them down into their smallest components and observe cause and effect. Molecular biology, and thus virtually every modern drug, is the result of this process. This systematic approach has literally built the technological world of modern humans.

There is one key problem with this approach. When you begin to examine complex systems like the human body, the reductionist technique begins to falter. Humans are composed of a myriad of structures that interact with each other, and depend on each other. The tangle of where one system begins and another end is difficult to understand, let alone observe.

For this reason, it makes more sense to understand a human being not as a series of mini structures or systems, but as one giant complex system. We need to think holistically.

When the heart doctor prescribes a heart medication, unless he knows what all the other speciality doctors have prescribed Grandma, and further understands the dynamic effect that might be created through the intermingling of medications, he might be setting her up for catastrophe and a trip to the ER. All of this despite his best intentions.

This is the peril of not recognizing that in a complex system, cause and effect relationships with other parts of the system can be significantly delayed and mask the dangers of your actions. Furthermore, the fact that internal organs are connected means the medication Grandma's taken doesn't necessarily move through her system in an isolated or linear fashion. Her heart medication might affect her heart, other medications, and/or other organs in unpredictable ways.

The effects of a medication can travel through the body like a metastasizing cancer, moving out in all directions simultaneously. The net result shows up as a cascading series of outcomes, leaving the simple, reductionist-driven ER doc in its wake.

Like Grandma's body, today's corporations have their own dizzying structure of interdependencies. Departments like sales, marketing, manufacturing, logistics, human resources, IT, and a slew of other departments abound, with more bound to come on the heels of new technological developments.

In many corporations, the depth of departmental interconnectivity and dependency is not completely recognized or understood, just like Grandma's specialists don't always understand the compounding effect of their actions in relationship to the body as a whole.

The nonlinear aspects of complex systems and delayed cause and effect loops can doom a company in the same way Grandma's new heart medication may negatively impact her other medications.The end result can put Grandma in the ER, and a corporation on its back.

Stay tuned for Part 2. Next week we'll learn the tricks to keeping your Grandma—and your favorite corporation—alive.


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