But is this process not rather close to what folk already do - albeit with step 2.A. relying on management opinion from the 'mental database' and team-debate ?
A thoughtful question, but no.
Step 2A, “Find the feedback loops that are currently dominant,” is usually done reasonably well. LTG’s World3 is a fine example of that. But it did not include step 2B, which may explain why it mainly served only to identify the sustainability problem.
Where analysts usually go astray is step 2B, “Find the root cause of why they are dominant.” The pattern is they stop at the intermediate causes of step 2A and try to resolve those. That’s why in Change Resistance as the Crux
I took the trouble to present a tight definition of what a root cause is (p58):
1. It is clearly a (or the) major cause of the symptoms.
2. It has no worthwhile deeper cause. This allows you to stop asking why at some appropriate point in root cause analysis. Otherwise you may find your-self digging to the other side of the planet.
3. It can be resolved. Sometimes it’s useful to emphasize unchangeable root causes in your model for greater understanding and to avoid trying to resolve them without realizing it. These have only the first two characteristics.
The paper quotes one of the most flagrant cases of confusing root causes with intermediate causes I’ve ever seen. In one paragraph, a world expert opines on not one but five
“root” causes: (p57)
Popular consensus sees things like the IPAT factors, the human system’s growth loops, economic inequality and poverty, and lack of cooperation and other maladapted values as the root causes of the environmental sustainability problem, when in fact they are intermediate causes. These are also known as proximate causes or apparent causes, where the “apparent cause is usually a coincident occurrence, that, like the trouble symptom itself, is being produced by the feedback loop dynamics of a larger system” (Forrester, 1971, p. 95).
A broad and revealing example of this consensus comes from James Gustave Speth (cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, founder of the World Resources Institute, and administrator of the United Nations Development Programme for six years), who wrote that (Speth, 1992, italics and comments added):
The [five] transitions I will mention briefl y seek to deal with the root causes of environmental problems. . . . The fi rst transition . . . is the need for a demographic transition to population stability [the P in the IPAT equation] . . . The second transition is . . . a transition in technology to a new generation of environmentally benign technologies [the T in the IPAT equation] . . . The third needed transition is an economic transition to a world in which prices refl ect the full environmental costs [a balancing loop to put the brakes on the reinforcing growth loops of the IPAT factors, mostly the A and T, by internalizing externalized costs] . . . The fourth transition is a transition in social equity to a fair sharing of economic and environmental benefits both within and among countries. Over much of the world, the greatest destroyer of the environment is poverty—because the poor have no alternative. . . . None of these transitions is possible without a fifth—an institutional transition to different arrangements among governments, businesses, and peoples. These institutional arrangements are urgently needed to enlist the tremendous potential of the private sector in what must be an unprecedented cooperative effort . . .
These are pseudo root causes, however. Why is it so hard to quickly put the brakes on global population growth by, for example, changing to a worldwide one-child-per family policy for several generations? Why are technologies increasingly harmful to the environment? Why is the system so biased towards externalizing costs? Why isn’t the industrialized world already taking care of those less well off? Why aren’t governments, businesses, and peoples already cooperating? Questions like these demonstrate these are in fact intermediate causes. They are mere starting points for deeper analysis.
That should prove how common it is to not perform step 2B properly. Once that occurs, the remaining steps in 2 become impossible. This leads to poor solution convergence (step 3) and implementation failure (step 4). Step 2B, find the root causes, is where the entire problem solving effort either works or goes astray. Once the true root causes are found, everything else is relatively easy.
Now then, about your suggestion:
I would only note that not everything in life is a feedback loop, so do we risk people going "loop-hunting" rather than rigorously diagnosing what is happening and why?
This is a really good suggestion. For awhile I tried “forces” instead of “feedback loops” in the process definition. But I reverted to “feedback loops” for a reason. “Forces” are pretty vague. That will lead to poor process execution. Furthermore, I tend to agree with “if you don’t understand a social system’s feedback loops, then you don’t understand the system.” and of course “Positive feedback loops are the most powerful processes in the universe.” (Both from Sterman, I believe) So I put “feedback loops” back into the process definition.
But maybe it can be improved. You suggest:
...step 2.A. could be modified to "Find and confirm the causal relationships between factors giving rise to the reference-mode behaviour, using empirical evidence wherever possible for that confirmation and seeking indirect supporting evidence when such data is not available." ... which causal explanation may well include feedback mechanisms.
It could. But this is a little long and is best left in explanatory supporting text. It’s a great elaboration.
I’ve taken great care to use short, memorable sentences to define the System Improvement Process steps in a nutshell. A huge barrier to formal process use is getting it to click in newcomer’s minds. The simpler the better.
I hope the steps have clicked for you and help in some way.
I am a bit nervous about this discussion, though - surely the top professionals in our field already cracked this long ago, and I don't want to undermine established use of solid procedures that wiser and more experienced folk than me proved to be rigorous and reliable long ago.
one of the top professionals!
Putting humor aside, if the problem of an immature process was cracked long ago, then there would be no need to ask: “Why is there so little impact of system dynamics in the most important social questions?”
Also not to lose sight of the original question, which was about finding better ways to present SD findings.
I can think of no better way to present the most important findings than something like this:
Thanks once again for a thoughtful meeting of the minds,