Anti-Pattern: Reductionist Mindset

Reductionist Mindset remains one of the key impediments to the adoption of Lean and Agile in modern enterprise environments. At the very core of reductionist mentality is the idea that in order to understand the properties of a system one needs to (see figure 1):

  1. Break down the system into components
  2. Understand the properties of the components
  3. Derive the properties of the system from the properties of its components

Figure 1. Reductionist thinking.

This mentality essentially evolved during the Industrial Revolution (roughly 1750s – 1850s) and was quite effectively applied to mechanical systems of different kinds. Mechanical systems by their nature do not fall into the category of Complex Adaptive Systems and rules 1-3 really apply quite well in such cases.

In the environment of complexity, however, things become quite different. The rules above no longer apply and the system acquires qualitatively new properties: emergence, non-determinism, non-linearity. The problem comes from trying to view the complex adaptive world through the prism of reductionist thinking. This usually leads to a number of symptomatic anti-patterns such as Outputs over Outcomes, Obsession with Predictability, Obsession with Metrics, Point-Based Thinking and so forth.

If left unattended as part of the transformation, this basically legitimizes the old mentality by wrapping it in a new and fashionable Lean and Agile terminology. This often occurs as a result of a Car Salesmen Agile approach and requires remediation.

Hands-on education in terms of Complex Adaptive Systems, Understanding and Exploiting Variability, Embracing Set-Based Thinking is key. Over-reliance on Training however, and lack of ongoing coaching makes the transition more difficult. Continuous practical support is important (see Embedded Mental Model tool).


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