How Can Analogy Reveal Systems’ Structures—and Information for Decision-Making?

This webpage provides:

§         What Do We Need to Know about the Structure of a System and How Can Analogy Reveal It?

§         What 8 Methods Can Help Us Succeed in Working with Systems?

§         A Tip: Choose Habits to Help Your Problem-Solving Skills


What Do We Need to Know about the Structure of a System and How Can Analogy Reveal It?

To deal effectively with a system… [w]e need to know:

§         … on what other variables the goal variable that we want to influence depend.
We need to understand, in other words, how the causal relationships among the variables in a system work together in that system.

§         … how the individual components of a system fit into a hierarchy of broad and narrow concepts.
This can help us fill in by analogy those parts of a structure unfamiliar to us.

§         ….component parts into which the elements of a system can be broken and the larger complexes in which those elements are embedded.
We need to know this so that we can propose hypotheses about previously unrecognized interactions between variables.


How do we acquire knowledge about the structure of a system? One important method is analogy, as illustrated above. (p. 79)

If you would like to see another method for revealing structures of systems—examining variables over timeclick here.

What 8 Methods Can Help Us Succeed in Working with Systems?

Dörner provides many methods to help us understand and act usefully with systems. These are basic ones plus those specific to use analogy Also see his methods with interrelated variables and his methods with working with change over time.

1.    Use analogy to understand the whole system. Possible application of the method: to help begin the process, a piece of cheap notebook paper and a pencil so you can draw three vertical lines lets you rapidly sketch what you know and do not know. The left column is for the questions or categories you find; the second column, everything you know about one system; and the third, what you think you know about the system you are trying to understand.

 [Dӧrner covers several ways to understand the structure of different systems, including analogy]


[Uses example of watch production and person who used analogy to process for self-manufacturing of cigarettes. Analogies are presented as a powerful way to learn. The participant as able to notice the commonalities in the “production process”:

§         The need for “raw materials”

§         The “certain sequence” and “set plan” with those raw materials to create the product

§         The need for “energy” and “how much is required”

§         The “skills do the makers of watches have to have”]


By thinking of watch production as analogous to rolling cigarettes, this participant was able to develop a mental picture of watch manufacturing. This gave her a basis for asking further questions about watch production and enabled her to grasp quickly the essentials of the field she had to work in.


This kind of analogous thinking is possible only if we consider things in the abstract. We must understand that making watches is only one narrow form of the broad concept of production process. And all production processes have in common is using energy to put different materials together according to a set plan.(pp. 76-77)

2.    Ask questions, particularly questions about why something is done—with those why questions helping with method 3as well.

Thinking by analogy may seem, after the fact, a rather primitive and obvious step, but many of our participants never made use of it and therefore bog down hopelessly in concrete situations. The prerequisite for making connections between watch production and rolling cigarettes—and therefore for thinking of useful question to ask—is an abstract understanding of watch manufacturing as a production process. [bold added] (p. 77)

The good participants differed from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses. The bad participants failed to do this. For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated “truths.”

Then, too, the good participants asked more why questions (as opposed to what questions). They were more interested in the causal links behind events…. (p. 24)

3.    Look for interrelationships and “minisystems” within the system. Possible application of the method: With complex systems and interrelationships, a chart (such as the one on the customer service model for diverse fields, including higher education) can allow you to see what can be a very large system with many “minisystems.” Such a chart can also let people collaborate (as with this chart) to show each other how their “minisystem” works and to record the components in a very brief space.

One basic error accounts for all catastrophes: none of the participants realized that they were dealing with a system in which, though not every element interacted with every other, many elements interacted with many others.… They did not take into account the side effects and repercussions of certain measures. They dealt with the entire system, not as a system but as a bundle of independent minisystems. And dealing with systems in this way breeds trouble: if we do not concern ourselves with the problems we do not have, we soon have them. (pp. 86-87)

4.    Notice not only what looks like it is not working, but also focus on what is working and therefore you want to retain. Example: Look at the high school chart in this context.

How can we avoid this pitfall? Simply by keeping in mind, whenever we undertake the solution of a problem, the features of the current situation that we want to retain. Simple? Apparently not.


As Brecht observed late in life, advocates of progress often have too low an opinion of what already exists. When we set out to change things, in other words, we do not pay enough attention to what we want to leave unchanged. But an analysis of what should be retained:

§         gives us our only opportunity to make implicit goals explicit [Example of an implicit goal from page 52:  Health is not a goal until one is sick. Identifying what we want to retain may help us avoid the problems we “do not have (yet). ]

§         and to prevent the solution of each problem from generating new problems like heads of the Hydra. (p. 58)

5.     Look for parts of the system that have “time lags.” Possible application of the method: Identify those “time lags” and plan on measurement after that point. Example: Look at time after changes in the first years of two mandates, including district wide policy mandating minimum grades and look at examples of current students.

[Analogy can also help people identify “time lags”]

In the refrigerated-storeroom experiment, the essential point for participants to grasp was the time lag between an action and the effect produced by that action. A participant who saw an analogy between setting the regulator [for temperature] at a new value and sending bills to customers (‘I do not get my money instantly either’) may not have developed an earthshaking idea, but he did hit on the one idea he needed to solve his problem. (p. 160)

6.    Resist labels for groups of things. Instead, focus on observations. Possible application of the method: With complex systems and interrelationships, it is hard to get hold of the information because of its size and interrelationships. Once again a chart (such as the one on the customer service model for diverse fields, including higher education) can allow you to see a lot of individual details. Recording briefly and in context gets rid of tons of words.

By labeling a bundle of problems with a single conceptual label, we make dealing with that problem easier¾provided we’re not interest in solving it. Phrases like “urgently needed measures for combating unemployment” roll off the tongue if we don’t have to do anything about unemployment. A simple label can’t make the complex nature of a problem go away, but it can so obscure complexity that we lose sight of it. And that, of course, is a great relief. (p. 55)

7.    Use analogy to avoid self-deception in your choice of solutions. Analogy helps understand the conditions when a solution worked and realize that a solution for one problem may not apply to another problem. The brain can deceive by “a tendency to respond to similarities more than differences” and using “generalization and abstraction to freely.” Possible application of the method: Once again a chart or even the sketch of a simple two-column table can allow people to see what is alike and different and therefore whether or not a solution that works for one case will work for another.

[This is from a section about a participant in the computer simulations who persisted in a solution and could not see it was not applicable to new problems.] The experience of success left an indelible mark. “The promotion of tourism,” this participant believed, “pays off.” But this abstract formulation was an overgeneralization based on only one success story.


His promotion of tourism had proved successful only because it had coincided with a favorable constellation in the environment… But our participant did not take note of that constellation of conditions in formulating his abstract concepts….


This “deconditionalized” concept¾this concept removed from the context of conditions bearing on it¾led our participant into disaster…. The English psychologist James T. Reason thinks that this kind of error is the result of a general propensity for “similarity matching,” that is, a tendency to respond to similarities more than to differences….


The effectiveness of a measure almost always depends on the context within which the measure is pursued. A measure that produces good effects in one situation may do damage in another, and contextual dependencies mean that there are few general rules (rules that remain valid regardless of conditions surrounding them) that we can use to guide our actions. Every situation must be considered afresh. (pp. 94-95)

A sensible and effective measure in one set of circumstances can become a dangerous course of action when conditions change. We must keep track of constantly changing conditions and never treat any image we form of a situation as permanent. Everything is in flux, and we must adapt accordingly. The need to adapt to particular circumstances, however, runs counter to our tendency to generalize and form abstract plans of action. We have here an example of how an important element of human intellectual activity can be both useful and harmful. Abstract concepts are useful in organizing and mastering complicated situations. Unfortunately, this advantage tempts us to use generalization and abstraction too freely. Before we apply an abstract concept to a concrete situation, we should submit it to “strategic” scrutiny to decide whether it is appropriate to the context. (p. 98)

8.    Make sure your goals mean you can measure whether there is progress in achieving the goal. Examining all of the sections on goals in Dӧrner’s The Logic of Failure can be very helpful, but this one is key:

A goal that remains unclear, one that is not broken down into concrete partial goals, runs the risk of taking on a life of its own. Without concrete goals, there are no criteria that can be used to judge whether progress is in fact being made. (p. 60)

A Tip: Choose Habits to Help Your Problem-Solving Skills

Dörner identifies good and bad habits of problem-solving. For a list of specific traits and information about each one, click here, It also pays to watch your own habits of problem solving.

[Dӧrner’s next sections cover how people are distracted from understanding the whole and acting accordingly. Among the examples:]

§         repair-service behavior: the mayor solves the problems that people bring to him.
In a traffic accident, for example,…minor injuries…the seriously wounded are no longer screaming and therefore no longer calling attention to their plight. (p. 59)

§         She solved not the problems she needed to solve but the ones she knew how to solve.
A goal that remains unclear, one that is not broken down into concrete partial goals, runs the risk of taking on a life of its own. Without concrete goals, there are no criteria that can be used to judge whether progress is in fact being made. (p. 60)

§         An interim goal happened on by chance may seduce him [a problem solver] into a flow situation he is helpless to escape (and perhaps may not even want to escape). (p. 62)


If you want more quotations from The Logic of Failure

For who Dörner is and the basics about systems and systems thinking, click here. For all of the quotations from The Logic of Failure and these topics, click here:





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