Be Careful Where You Tread Edmund O’Shaughnessy on LinkedIn

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Be Careful Where You Tread

  • Published on January 26, 2021

Edmund O’ShaughnessyLead Delivery Coach at IAG5 articles Following

The year is 1915, passengers are gathering on the Chicago River wharf to board the Great Lakes excursion steamer Eastland. Within a matter of minutes, 844 passengers will have lost their lives. With 2,573 passengers and crew onboard and still tied to the wharf, the Eastland rolled over in 20 feet of water [1]. There was no time to launch the lifeboats, more passengers died than in either the Lusitania or Titanic disasters – no Hollywood movie has ever been made about the Eastland. What caused the Eastland to ‘turn turtle’? The 1912 sinking of the Titanic had given rise to the ‘lifeboats for all’ movement, and the US Congress passed a bill requiring lifeboats to accommodate 75 percent of the vessel’s passengers. The intervention intended to save lives had resulted in the Eastland becoming top heavy and a catastrophe waiting to happen.

In large-scale, sociotechnical systems where we have a desire to bring about improvements or a need to mitigate problems, rather than jumping to conclusions about what to do, it is best to start with the question, what is going on here? Stepping back and looking at the whole helps to situate ourselves and consider more clearly what we think we know, what we don’t know, and what we can know. We start by drawing a boundary around the problem space and considering what we can measure at that boundary. As we get a better sense of the situation we can move, extend or contract that boundary to understand the whole at different scales and levels – recognising always that our boundary is arbitrary and subject to change.

If we take the current pandemic as a case study, we could choose to draw the boundary at the level of a country; ideally, one with clear sovereignty and delineated geography as this reduces the number of variables to control for. We can treat what lies within the boundary as a ‘black box’ to reduce the level of complexity we have to reason about while not becoming simplistic (excessively simple or simplified: treating a problem or subject with false simplicity by omitting or ignoring complicating factors or details).

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