Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Understanding shocks… in plain English


Every system exists and operates in a wider context characterized by ever-changing conditions. Automobiles, for instance, operate on roads that may be bumpy or smooth. Thermostats monitor temperatures that alternate between warm and cold. Cell phones are tapped, dropped, tossed, and sometimes submerged. A political system is shaped by scandal, war, or the economy. Your body’s endocrine system encounters carrots at lunch and chocolate cake after dinner.

So, there are conditions, and those conditions are always changing. We refer to the effects of changing conditions upon systems as ”shocks,” as in the common phrase “a shock to the system.” In the first example above, for instance, the bumpiness of the road is the condition, while the jolting of the chassis is the shock. Again: shocks are the effects of changing conditions upon a system.

global-warming-4Shocks, like conditions, are both internal and external. For instance, when thinking about the global ecosystem, we note that average ocean surface temperature is  affected by both changing industrial CO2 emissions (internal) and variations in solar flare activity (external).  Typically, a system’s feedback and control mechanisms are designed to deal with shocks arising from changes in internal conditions. How the system reacts to external shocks is determined by the relative adaptive capability of the system overall.

The goal of whole-systems thinking is to enable practitioners to smoothly adapt to changing conditions, and thereby minimize the impact of shocks upon their own lives. When we say the goal is to “never be blindsided by change again,” we don’t mean getting rid of change. That can never happen. Nor would we want it to happen, because change is what makes life worth living. What we mean is that the shocks that result from change won’t paralyze or devastate us any longer.

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