Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One

I would like to continue from where I left off in my previous article on Design Thinking and Complexity by exploring the dynamic way of understanding the relationship between the whole and the parts that we introduce to readers in our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. In doing so we shall discover a way of thinking which not only goes beyond analysis but also synthesis.

There is of course nothing wrong with either analysis or synthesis, and in fact I see many design thinkers who are profoundly lacking in basic analytical skills. What is needed is a mindful comprehension of the different ways of thinking and also knowing the world and reality, a wisdom in knowing when each should be applied in which context, and an active awareness of when we are using these. When all three of these factors are in place, we will then be able to understand when we are attempting to solve complex problems by ‘trying to get to the cheese by way of the milk’.


Credit: Simon Robinson

One of the best examples of analysis versus synthesis comes from the work of John Boyd, a a United States Air Force fighter pilot and maverick military strategist:

There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: we can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.

Saying it another way, but in a related sense, we can go from the general-to- specific or from the specific-to-general. A little reflection here reveals that deduction is related to proceeding from the general-to-specific while induction is related to proceeding from the specific-to-general.

In following this line of thought, can we think of other activities that are related to these two opposing ideas? Is not analysis related to proceeding from the general-to-specific? Is not synthesis, the opposite of analysis, related to proceeding from the specific-to-general?

Putting all this together: Can we not say that general-to-specific is related to both deduction and analysis, while specific-to-general is related to induction and synthesis? Now, can we think of some examples to fit with these two opposing ideas?

Source: Destruction and Creation (1976) John Boyd

The following slides of Boyd’s thought experiment come from Franklin Spinney’s 2014 presentation Evolutionary Epistemology A Personal View of John Boyd’s ‘Destruction and Creation’ and its centrality to the OODA Loop.

We start by imagining four different separate domains each one being a pre-existing whole with a unique identity.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 14.17.00

Credit: Franklin Spinney

Analysis (or deduction) is that mental activity which understands each domain in terms of the parts and the relationships between the parts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 14.38.21

Credit: Franklin Spinney

What we can do is to shatter the relationships between all of the parts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 14.40.03

Credit: Franklin Spinney

One of the problems with certain people who claim to think “outside the box” is that at times this thinking is still constrained by the boxes, i.e. the legacy of the old domains. What happens is that we are only left with uncertainty and disorder.

It is possible to synthesise a new domain by detecting common threads, connecting attributes, qualities and operations. Can you see any in the diagram above?

analysis synthesis

Credit: Franklin Spinney

Here is a suggestion in this diagram below:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 14.48.11

Credit: Franklin Spinney

We can create a new domain or concept description by linking previously unrelated constituents.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 14.49.15

Credit: Franklin Spinney

Hurrah for us.

Boyd is famous for his development of the OODA loop, which is a decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act. Those who have characterised it in the following simplistic manner have often failed to understand just how fundamental the Orient aspect is.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 15.00.40

Credit: Franklin Spinney

As we make the case in Holonomics, if we wish to implement programmes of profound organisational change, or if we wish to look at solving complex problems, we first have to develop a dynamic way of seeing which is sensitive to the way in which our observations of the external world are filtered through the observer.


Credit: Goldengateblond

Boyd only drew one version of the OODA loop, which is described in the book Boyd’s OODA Loop by Chet Richards.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 15.07.37

Credit: Chet Richards

One of the key insights is that there is a feedback loop going from Orient to Observe, resulting in us seeing only what we want to see.

So although we can perhaps conceive the OODA loop as unpredictable evolutionary phenomena which is always prone to collapsing into chaos, through synthesis there is always the possibility that when things do become unstable or out of kilter we have the ability to learn and see in new ways.

Holonomics Holonomic Operating System

Credit: Simon Robinson

In Holonomics we extend the exploration of mental models by showing how if we develop a higher level of consciousness, we can develop a new ‘organ’ of perception which takes us far deeper into understanding the relationships between parts and wholes than can be described by analysis and synthesis. This takes us into the domains of sensing, feeling and intuition, and this will be the subject of part two of this article.


Credit: Simon Robinson

And we may also discover that the diagram I chose to illustrate my most recent article in Sustainable Brands on the challenges of authentic purpose is anything but “obvious”.

This article continues: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part 2

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Where Design Thinking and Complexity Collide

4 responses to “Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part One

  1. Pingback: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the Cheese Part 2 | Transition Consciousness·

  2. Pingback: Where Design Thinking and Complexity Collide | Transition Consciousness·

  3. Pingback: Trying to Get to the Milk by Way of the the Cheese Part 3 | Transition Consciousness·

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