Populist books provide an important role in the processes of "thinking about things." They are simple, understandable in ways that resonant with the those not familiar with a topic, and are hopefully gateway sources to then next level of understanding. Populist books have a down-side as well. They are usually simplified versions of the underlying topic, devoid of the details, which unfortunately have mathematics that may be beyond the casual reader.
My favorite story recently involves neighbors. We decided to take a series of evening lectures on String Theory from our local university - University of Colorado, Boulder. Brian Greene was one of the speakers. Greene is one of those special people that can translate complex topics into understandable language. Brian Cox does the same. There are three levels of books for the course.
- String Theory for Dummies which contains ZERO math, but does an OK job of explaining the concepts behind String Theory.
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory, which does have some math and a little deeper explanation of how things work.
- First Course in String Theory, is where it starts to get serious. By forst course it means the fiirst time serious math is needed. The first time the actual underlying principles are worked out in enough detail to be put to work with real data.
- Superstring Theory, Vol 1 and Vol 2, is the theoretical basis of this area. The notation here is beyond me. I left the education environment around this topic before I was capable of comprehending is understanding.
So Now To Systems
Jurgen Appelo has a nice list of Systems Thinking books. These are examples of a topic that has lots of populist material. Why are they "popular", They're interesting, they're useful for general conversations, and they've got lots of connections to other topics.
But while the populist approach serves an important role, it is missing many of the attributes to become actionable in a deeper domain, in the same way the String Theory books. They are (may) be necessary but are not sufficient for actual problem solving.
Once these populist books have been read, here's the next level down:
- The Systems Bible, The Beginners Guide to Systems Large and Small, John Gall - this is about the principles of systems and how they essentially don't work. But it is not about the philosophy of systems. Instead it is about the specifics of systems and their processes.
- Systems Engineering, Coping with with complexity, Stevens, Brook, Jackson, and Arnold - this is a hands on book for managing complex systems ranging from software development to social and human systems.
- The Art of Systems Architecting, Maier and Rechtin - this is a seminal book on complex systems. Not complex adaptive systems, but systems that are complex.
These three books are the overview of managing systems development and especially complex systems. The notion of Complex Adaptive Systems in the context of human systems is important, but in the end some kind of product needs to come out the door. The failure of complex systems is based on the interaction of humans. BUT that is not the only source of the failures. If we had a well functioning set of people on a team and didn't know the answers to the 5 Immutable Questions, then the system would still fail.
I've come to realize that when agilest start speaking about human systems, they many times ignore the fundamental of managing projects. They focus on the "touchy feely" aspects of projects. This is necessary but far from sufficient for success. This may be one of th limits of scaling agile. When the group grows beyond your hand picked set of "friends" that all work together in harmony is a wonderful environment. Now let's pretend that is not the case. You've got several 100 engineers on the program, a few dozen subcontracts spread around the world.
Communication is critical, the "management" processes are critical, but in the end it is still a project that needs to be managed.
Some Critical Aspects of Systems
There is a fundamental theorem of Systems
New systems mean new problems.
The general law of systems is For large systems they usually operate in failure mode. This is best described by Le Chatelier's principle
Any change in status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system.
There is a important statement in Historical Overview section of the Systems Bible.
The present work if offered as a first approach to the goal - of axiomatic exposition of the fundamental principles of systems. The individual propositions will be argued, dissected, criticized. They will then be either rejected as trivial, erroneous, or incomprehensible, or enshrined in the literature as hving stood the test or open debate and criticism.
In many encounters with those proffering ideas in the realm of Systems Thinking the notion of debate and criticism is responded to with strong rejection. Over my years in science, engineering, and management, when I see this I smile at Gall's quote. If you can't defend your position on the facts, but instead reject criticism as an attack, then your idea is pretty much going to die a slow death.