The curious incident of the folder that doesn’t exist


From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.

Sherlock Holmes wrote that. If he is so clever then, what could he deduce from this?


This is a screenshot of my Outlook email account at work. Look at the folder called “systems thinking”. Why is there a separate folder with this name?
The emails about systems thinking go in there! Silly.

What is going on the rest of the time? If this is the folder for emails about systems thinking, where is the separate folder for Command & Control Thinking?

There isn’t one. This is the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the folder that doesn’t exist. It is the rest of the email account.

Every other folder and every single email in them is to do with command control work, there is no folder to mark it out as special or different from the background as is the background.

Background is always invisible until you name it as something, a thing in particular.

In my Outlook account it’s not named just as in real life it isn’t named. Nobody in my organisation knows the mental model underlying the work.

Imagine you’re in your annual performance review. Why are you in a one of these? Because your workplace’s model of work is that individuals are responsible for their performance, that your manager can spot your weaknesses, that you can do something to improve it and that all of this is objective and scientific. But nobody knows this, so can’t talk about whether this is true or useful. Instead you are trapped doing it as this is what you do.

Imagine not knowing you’re Catholic, but still going to church and saying confession, you wouldn’t know why. It would just be an unthinking act with no meaning.

A spurious privilege is gifted to things that people don’t notice because they are everywhere. If something is in full view you can hide anything away in it, as people don’t notice “normal”. If you can’t notice it, you’ll never be able to change it.

Back to that Sherlock Holmes quote at the top. You discover another way of thinking, you actually discover two, the new one and the one you’ve just discovered you used to have.
But you’ve just found more than those two, you’ve discovered that if there are two, then like Niagara or the Atlantic, there’s much more than those two.

Congratulations! You’ve discovered the biggest leverage point for change, the ability to change your opinion, and you only did that by finding out you had one in the first place.

So if you look carefully at a teaspoon of water you can infer the Atlantic and if at something seemingly dull like the folder structure in your Outlook email, look what you find….

Systems modelers say that we change paradigms by building a model of the system, which takes us outside the system and forces us to see it whole. I say that because my own paradigms have been changed that way.

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get,” at a gut level, the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into not-knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment


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

1 Response to The curious incident of the folder that doesn’t exist

  1. That last quote really hits home. And this is from one of the few other people with a “systems thinking” folder in my email.

    Mine is for emails from people in that field or where the topic is directly about systems thinking. Not just for emails from that perspective vs. other perspectives.

    The tough thing is that when you do become aware that no paradigms are really fully accurate, it can be a challenging way to live. And yet those of us who have come to that awareness have no choice but to face that challenge.


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