The “reference mode zombie” trap

By John Huertas
Located in Panama City, Panama
Consultant and Partner at Stratendo Inc.

European Master in System Dynamics, Class 2010-2012
Interests: Small strategic models

Literature provides guidelines on which problems can be tackled with the system dynamics method (SD). However, in the short time that I have been practicing with my own firm, I have realized that not all problems that can be tackled with SD should actually be tackled with SD. Although at first sight this may seem obvious to some people, I thought sharing some situations in which problems should not be tackled with SD even if they could be tackled with SD would start a useful conversation.

A tenet of our method is that a problem can be tackled with SD if it is dynamically complex, which I could simplify as “a problem can be tackled with SD if you are able to draw a reference mode from it.” Now, add a modeling entrepreneur looking for projects to the equation, and you get what I call a “reference mode zombie”: A person eager to find for reference modes everywhere as sales opportunities.

The issue with being a reference mode zombie is that although you can draw a reference mode from a problem, and even if the problem is really dynamically complex, there are several other factors in play that should be judged before really committing into an SD endeavor. I´d like to mention some:

  • Is the problem immersed in a single discipline/field of knowledge? Sometimes you may face a problem that demands a lot of previous knowledge in a single particular field (i.e. obstetric medicine). Be careful assessing to which level your conclusions have the potential to be innovative for your clients (especially if they are experts in that field). After lots of effort, you may end up “discovering” dynamic theories that are already well known by other names in the specific discipline of study. If you are committing to one of these projects, make sure your client will appreciate the systemic, cross-disciplinary perspective that SD can offer. Otherwise, probably calling an expert in the particular discipline may be more adequate.
  • Is your client really able to influence the policies that may need to be changed in order to solve the problem? A client may want to solve a problem, they might ask for your help, and after some exchange of ideas you realize the change will probably have to occur at another level: the system is not under your client´s influence. If this is the case, do not start your engagement without making this evident to your client. We are ultimately measured by the change we can inspire, so if no change is foreseeable, assess again the value of the engagement.
  • Does the client really want to go beyond an obvious solution? Some clients may be so immersed in their own routine work that they do not realize what seems to be an obvious solution to their problems. For example, a young company has decaying sales. After some questioning, you realize the company does almost no effort themselves to get new projects: no salesperson, no marketing, just following-up clients acquired from word of mouth. So probably you would start by suggesting increased sales efforts, and then, go beyond that on how that fits into the overall strategy, but does your client want to go beyond? Be sure she will appreciate going beyond the obvious, since you may be entering subjects out of the “initial” scope of the problem. If your client does not want you to go beyond the scope, you can end up with a conclusion that looks obvious to your client, even if for your client it was not obvious beforehand, she may underestimate the new knowledge provided by the modeling process, thinking instead that they “knew it from before”.

All this is not to say that we should surrender quickly when facing any of these situations when pitching a client about a possible project, but to make sure the problem to tackle and the solution to provide is in the best interest of her. Lately we have found that while finding new projects, we have to develop carefully the problem definition with our clients, in such a way that the project is at the same time suitable for SD and with high potential value for the client. Sales opportunities need to develop far further than a potential reference mode.


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