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A Framework for Thinking in General – Part 2: Mechanism

In the last post we looked at formism, the first in this series about Stephen Pepper’s World Hypotheses, a sweeping framework for ways in which we view things around us. The formist view categorises objects into groups so that we can respond to them quickly and efficiently, i.e. as a way to simplify a complicated world. For example, we know what to do when we are out in the countryside in the dusk and notice a rope-like object lying across our path.

But one limitation of this perspective is that we can’t use it when we need to think through what might happen once we do respond in certain way. To be able to do this we need to think in terms of cause and effect. If the car doesn’t start in the morning, my first thought is whether or not the battery is flat. This way of looking at the world treats it like a machine, so Pepper named this the mechanist World Hypothesis. Consider self-winding watches. A watch might consist of hundreds of parts, each designed and built with precision to perform a specific function. Watchmakers know what each part does and can assemble them together into a watch that works exactly as one would expect. If the mechanism fails because of a defective part, we know that if that part is replaced with one that does, the watch will then work perfectly again. Watches can be extremely complicated (from the Latin plicare meaning folded) but are entirely predictable.

This conception of the world as machine has been the basis in the physical sciences for the discovery of Newton’s laws of motion, electromagnetism, Kepler’s laws that explained planetary orbits and so on. In medicine the discovery of disease-causing organisms has helped us live much healthier lives. The application of a key objective of 6-Sigma – to find sources of variability and stamp them out – has led to drastic improvements in the reliability of manufactured products. The assumption underlying this perspective is that if everything about a system at a certain point in time is known, and unlimited time and computing power are available, it is possible to exactly predict the state of the system at any time in the future.

Management theory and practice has borrowed from these concepts in science to explain how organisational structures and processes operate. Organisations are often depicted, and expected to function as, reliable and efficient machines. If we can clearly define tasks, hierarchies and rules then we can predict how the organisation will behave. The history of the balanced scorecard illustrates the distinction between formism and mechanism. When it was first introduced, the balanced scorecard expanded the then prevalent focus on financial measures of performance to include three more: customer outcomes, process performance and learning and growth. Measures of performance were grouped (no more than four or five of each) into four quadrants, an example of the successful application the formist approach. As the concept of the balanced scorecard evolved, it included not only metrics, but also the intended outcome, the goal represented by the metric. In its final version, the metrics and goals were linked to each other in cause-effect relationships. The strategy map, the ‘logic’ for the articulation of strategy, is an example of the mechanist perspective. Better management of intangible capital leads to improved performance in critical processes that lead to better customer outcomes that finally lead to improved financial performance.

There are, however, some situations in which the mechanist approach fails to provide a complete explanation or help address an issue. If a part in a machine fails, it can be replaced by an identical part and the machine will then once again operate exactly as designed. But if we try to eliminate disease-causing bacteria from the body, they evolve to develop resistance to the antibiotics we use. Removal of an apex predator from an ecosystem doesn’t always result in unlimited increases in numbers of their prey. It appears as if some types of systems are held in a kind of balance that can tip over in unpredictable ways when we interfere with them. Pepper suggested that instead of using the metaphor of the machine, we should in such cases use the metaphor of the living organism. In the next post we will take a closer look at the third of his World Hypotheses – organicism.

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