Don’t fall in love with your models, no matter how beautiful they are

By Jonathan Nichols
Located in Lisbon, Portugal
European Master in System Dynamics candidate

In studies using a system dynamics approach, we often build computer models to seek explanations for complex dynamic problems and search for leverage points where we might target our interventions. If our models can reproduce the problematic behaviour we’re interested in, and our model structure is a justifiable approximation for how things work in the real world, we’re off to a good start. However, building a computer model is an iterative process of trial and error, requiring creativity, dedicated research, analytical prowess and the courage to expose the assumptions we might be staking everything on. It is a highly rewarding process, but along the way it can often be very frustrating, and noticing what makes us uncomfortable can be insightful.

During the first semester studying the European Master in System Dynamics programme in Bergen, I observed that when completing course assignments, I had developed a telling habit: after having expended a significant amount of time, mental resources, and emotional energy figuring out the system structure needed to answer a question, I would gaze at the model on the computer screen before me, enjoy how beautiful it looked and fiddle with the curvatures of the arrows to get it looking just right – but I would put off the tense moment of pressing “run”. After noticing the habit, I wondered whether this could be indicative of our propensity to fall in love with our elaborate representations of reality, as well as our fear that they might not stand up to scrutiny, despite how much went into creating them.

During our first semester in Bergen, we had to get used to the process of having our models blown to pieces over and over again, not only the ones on our computer screens, but also the mental models in our heads, and not just in class. How could something that seemed so right, that made intuitive sense, that looked so elegant, be such a poor map for understanding the world, and even produce completely the opposite results to what we’d expect? Those of us who practice yoga sometimes work to let go of our inner story, to stop clinging to narratives which may once have served us but no longer do. Through the iterative exercise of building computer models, we practice the same thing through a different metaphor: we learn not to fall in love with our models, no matter how beautiful they are. In time we begin to recognise that, having built the courage to press “run”, we can face the uncomfortable process of dissolution and harvest the insights we otherwise would never have known.

About the author: Jonathan has an academic background in environmental sciences and has worked as an environmental consultant in the UK. He is interested in using system dynamic techniques to explore sustainability issues as well as organisational culture and strategy questions. Follow this link to watch a 3-minute, non-technical video summarising his mini-project, “A Tale of Two Managers”, which used system dynamics techniques to explore two managers’ mental models and seek explanations for why their policies failed to improve profits at a struggling office.

Contact Jonathan on LinkedIn

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One comment on “Don’t fall in love with your models, no matter how beautiful they are
  1. […] at 4pm GMT (find your time zone here).We’ll be talking to Jonathan Nichols about his article Don’t fall in love with your models, no matter how beautiful they are. This will be a Facebook Live […]


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