Waves are not made of water

Waves aren’t made of water, just like sound isn’t made of air.

Waves just travel through water, like sound travels through air.
Tcch, Zen, eh?

The water that you see moving boats up and down isn’t the wave. The wave is the invisible energy pushing through the water, making it rise and fall and thus making the invisible wave become visible as it rushes through the water.
The water itself mainly just moves up and down, it doesn’t move much in the direction of the wave at all, what you are seeing move is the invisible energy of the wave.

The systems thinking lesson

When you see waves in the sea, you see the water is being moved by the wave, but you can’t see the wave so you presume the water IS the wave.

When you see the work operating in the workplace, you can’t see the thinking that lies behind it. You can’t see the system conditions that help or hinder. You can see the effects but because it is people who work there that are effected you presume the people are the work.


  • When you are rushed through an 8 minute appointment with a Doctor, this isn’t because she’s cruel and unfeeling. Don’t confuse the water with the wave, the thinking behind this is that its more efficient to ration expertise when meeting demand.
  • If the checkout operator in the supermarket scans your purchases way too fast to be comfortable for you to pack, this isn’t because she doesn’t care. Don’t confuse the water with the wave, the thinking behind this is that expensive resources like staff should be utilised as much as possible.
  • You are buying a camera in an electrical shop and the salesman asks you to buy an extended warranty, this isn’t because he is a pushy salesman after a bonus. Don’t confuse the water with the wave, the thinking behind this is an ideal opportunity for the shop to maximise sales.

In the above examples there is a positive intention behind each example of thinking, the resultant bad effect on the customer or patient is not intended, but this is irrelevant.  Reality does not care about intentions. The purpose of a system is what it does, not what is intended.

NB I found about waves on this amazing BBC programme.


This entry was posted in systems thinking, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Waves are not made of water

  1. James says:

    What an excellent post.


  2. antz says:

    Hey, James and ThinkPurpose. Good to see the post and the dialogue around reader’s comment. Your contributions are always recognized and appreciated.


  3. Pingback: Great Minds Tuesday | thinkpurpose

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