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Systemic Complexity

Updated: Sep 11

In these articles, and the related lecture, I posit that while our products are complicated, the cultures which develop those products are complex. (Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, refers to this as 'detail complexity' and 'systemic complexity' respectively.)

To develop a complicated products in complex culture often result in scandal, and the solution lies in systems thinking; a more encompassing topic than is systems engineering.

Below are two long-form articles by me, followed by lecture video, developed for the PLM Road Map & PDT Fall 2021 (

Better Products Need Better Cultures (GM Ignition Switch)

Better Products Need Better Cultures
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Idea in Brief:​

  • When products result in scandals, an immediate response is to find a bad actor to be blamed, but this fails to recognize how bad actions are the result of cultural dysfunction.

  • Products are developed based on requirements, the completion of which are decomposed across many groups (for example, the Systems Engineering "Vee-model"). It is this decomposition which creates dysfunction and leads to scandal.

  • This article details how the decomposition approach led to the General Motors ignition switch recall. It further discusses how the legal team which investigated the scandal reinforced the “bad-actor” fallacy, and it provides a counter-narrative to the legal report.

Additional References:

Complexity Beyond Imagination (Boeing 737 Max)

Complexity Beyond Imagination
Download PDF • 539KB

Idea in Brief:

  • Modern products are increasingly intelligent, and their development increasingly complex. Such complexity is managed through documented requirements, but these are decomposed and assigned to subgroups, eventually leading to a lack of product clarity and organizational dysfunction.

  • The Systems Engineering methods used to manage complexity are not up to the challenge, and we need Systems Thinking. Product Lifecycles are more complex than we can imagine, and we need to reduce, rather than manage, complexity.

  • This paper investigates how complexity and dysfunction led to two crashes and the eventual grounding of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft and notes similarities in the case of the GM Ignition Switch Recall

Systemic Complexity (Lecture)

Idea in Brief:

Systems Engineering techniques based on decomposition follow a Blind Men and the Elephant paradigm, where we assume (wrongly) that individuals can understand the entirety of the system by understanding it's component parts. To understand complexity, Systems Engineering is not enough, we must adopt Systems Thinking.

From the conference program:

Rising to the challenge of engineering and optimizing . . . what?

How should we rise to the challenges currently facing mankind and society as complexity is increasing into limitations caused by resource constraints, sustainability and global warming? In this talk, Dr. Hillberg makes a distinction between Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking, and between Complicated-ness, and Complexity.

There is no more urgent task in developing a sustainable future than continually upskilling the new (and old) workforce. Are academic systems designed for this? And what about the classic Systems Engineering methods - are they ripe for a major disruption?

Digital Enterprise Society Podcast

Interview on same with Craig Brown of the DES. 141: Solving Complex Problems with Systems Thinking - Digital Enterprise Society.


And this is a fun video on how pendulums will synchronize through systemic reinforcement, and towards the end of the video discusses the limitations of "Reductionism" (which is analogous to "Decomposition") in understanding complexity.

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