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Reductionist and Systemic thinking: The Yin and Yang of Business Analysis

The business analysis toolkit is varied, and there really is no such thing as ‘painting by numbers’.  As skilled practitioners, we choose the right tool and approach for the context, taking into account the complexity of the landscape and lots of other nuances besides.  There are various ‘lenses’ that can be used to look at a business situation, and in this article we explore two: we compare a reductionist viewpoint to a systemic viewpoint and we describe how they usefully coexist.  Like Yin and Yang, they complement each other to provide a rich understanding of the situation of interest.

Reductionism: “Zooming In”

Reductionism is at the very heart of many business analysis techniques.  There are many formal definitions and at its essence it focuses on breaking something down into its constituent parts.  Imagine taking a radio apart to see how it works—you can study the various connections, the components and start to gain an understanding.  If you wanted to improve the radio, perhaps to make it louder, you could replace a module such as the amplifier.   You could even ‘zoom in’ on the amplification circuitry to see if there are ways that this could be made more efficient and effective.  You might change the wiring or add or upgrade an electrical component.

Like the circuitry in a radio, we often study the perceived “circuitry” in an organisation.  This might include the processes, the relationships, the structure, the politics and much more besides.  It is less tangible and harder to define than a physical circuit board, and somewhat coloured by our own perceptions too. We tend to start broad and progressively zoom in to understand problems, define requirements and propose changes.

In many ways this ‘zooming in’ is the default setting for many analysis techniques that we are familiar with.  If you have ever written a set of requirements, you have probably started with a set of goals, then high-level requirements, and then got progressively more detailed as a shared understanding of the desired solution emerges.  If you have written user stories, you probably started with goals, epics or something similar.  If you’ve used ‘5 whys’ you’ll have been descending down a logical chain of causation, getting closer and closer to a potential root cause. 

Yet, as essential as reductionism is, alone it will not be sufficient.  When deployed in isolation it can actually be dangerous:   It may lead to a situation where we very confidently implement a change that actually makes things worse… 

Thinking Systemically: “Zooming Out”

Let’s take the example of the radio and imagine that an alteration to the amplifier was made to make it louder.  If that was the only change that was made, what would happen?  It’s quite possible that the speaker wouldn’t be able to withstand the extra power and would blow, making the entire radio ineffective. If the modification did not consider other nearby equipment it might cause interference with other electrical devices, and even if it did work it might even cause annoyance to people who are nearby who don’t like loud music. 

Thinking more holistically and systemically involves us ‘zooming out’ and asking seemingly simple questions that often uncover crucial details and disagreements.  We might ask why there is a desire for the radio to be louder.  Or who listens to the radio and what their aims are.  Rather than zooming straight to the circuit diagram, we understand perceptions and perspectives first and validate these throughout to make sure nothing has changed.  We seek to understand impacts, understand what the radio is connected to, what it needs to interface with and so forth.  All of these things help us to understand the potential impacts of any change that we might subsequently make whilst simultaneously understanding what ‘good’ looks like from a range of perspectives.   Holistic and systemic thinking help us to minimise unexpected and undesirable outcomes elsewhere.  The types of situations where we put out a fire in one department only to find it moves immediately to another one… 

Most analysis techniques fit equally well with systemic as well as reductionist thinking, providing we make the conscious effort to ‘zoom out’.  Yet other techniques such as rich pictures, CATWOE/root definitions and conceptual models can help us understand and explore different perspectives on a situation.   Making a conscious effort to model our requirements can help us see connections and gaps; let’s face it, impact analysis is easier if there are a set of models to look at.

Most of all though, it’s important for us to accept ambiguity.  Reductionism can seem comforting, we are getting closer to ‘the answer’.  In the complex landscape that we live in, whilst reductionism will always get us to an answer it might not be the most appropriate.  Balancing systemic/holistic and reductionist thinking is one of the hallmarks of a great BA, and ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’ is something we should consciously focus on. 

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