“The purpose of a system is what it does”, or POSIWID for short, is a dictum coined by Stafford Beer, a leading Systems Thinker in the field of cybernetics; and the creator of management cybernetics – the application of cybernetic principles to the management of large organisations.
To use Beer’s own words, from a talk he gave at the University of Valladolid, in 2002:
It stands for a bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than familiar attributions of good intentions, prejudices about expectations, moral judgements, or sheer ignorance of circumstances
POSIWID is an important Systems Thinking concept and has several implications when thinking about, and/or working on complex systems, be they political, social or business related. Firstly, it is a question to reflect upon when analysing a given situation – to go deeper and investigate what is really going on. Richard Veryard puts it well in his blog “Exploring the Purpose of Things” when he suggests:
Ignore the official purpose of the system, ignore what the designers and custodians of a system say, and concentrate on its actual behaviour. Conversely, if there is some unexplained pattern of behaviour, look for a system whose purpose this pattern reveals.
In the field of politics, this stance can be very profound, particularly in the age of fake news and disinformation. It seems, increasingly, that nothing is as it appears. Also in the corporate world, where at the time of writing, serious questions are being asked of Facebook; and the gap between what it says and what it does – an interesting example of “unexplained patterns of behaviour”.
But it is equally relevant to the design of services and service operations, not least in the more ‘political’ areas of law enforcement, education and health. Always focus on actual behaviour, not on intentions. When ‘side effects’, or ‘unintended consequences’, reveal that the behaviour of the system is poorly understood, it is necessary to go deeper, to gain a better understanding of the system you are working on.
Secondly, it requires designers to take care when defining the purpose of a service, or service operation. As designers, this is typically one of the first things we want to do. But, what we are actually defining is the ‘intended purpose’; and this may be very different from the actual purpose of the service or service operation under investigation, which may be multiple and contingent upon certain events, or conditions. The system’s actual purpose comes from its emergent properties and this is best determined by observing its behaviour. This is why the ‘discovery’ phase of a project is so critical, to first understand the situation under investigation, e.g. the actual, rather than the perceived nature of demand.
There is not a lot of published material that explores POSIWID and its implications, but I can recommend Dan Lockton paper, “POSIWID and determinism in design for behaviour change” (2012). And I’ve already included a link to Richard Veryard’s blog, but you should definitely catch his short critique on some common errors when applying POSIWID.
First Published: 13/04/2018