Model fatigue

I’m suffering from model fatigue.

It comes from attending too many talks/presentations/lectures in which experts explain the flaws of a prevailing model (often quite well) only to present some shiny new model as an alternative. Which to my sceptical eyes often looks just as limiting in its way as the one it’s supposed to replace.

I’m especially wary when the various diagrams of boxes, polygons, arrows and sqiggly lines are supposed to describe some idealised notion of how we humans go about our business.

It’s my repeated experience that life just isn’t like this. It’s way more complex – and so more challenging and interesting – than any of these models suggest.

But once someone has a model to promote, all that complexity gets filtered to fit the model.

I sometimes hear the argument that having a model, however faulty, gives people something to rally round. But I don’t think people are quite that sheep like. In reality they’ll be doing a variety of different things, such as:

– zealously advocating the new model but unconsciously adapting/reinterpreting it

– faking compliance while carrying on as before if they possibly can

– feeling pissed off and generating yet another equally simplistic version of reality

As I’ve argued before, I think the Python boys nail it better than I ever can.

8 thoughts on “Model fatigue

  1. mike chitty

    I think this is a great post! How can we share understanding without models? What alternatives do we have? When we co-create is the product not always another model…a shared approximation?

  2. LaDonna Coy

    While I follow your work I don’t think I’ve commented before so this is my first. :o) I sometimes feel the same way about models and yet they are helpful to try to make sense of the world – despite that they are incomplete. The more inclusive and complete we think the more complex it gets and the more complex it gets the more we feel the need to simplify by creating a model :o)

    I sometimes like to do mindmaps or graphic recording to describe the concepts and fragmented pieces in a visual way. These wind up as visual representations of the concepts but not yet set-into-stone as a model.

    Yes, the Python boys nailed it – the model guides until we have a discrepancy or circumstance that causes a new model for us to choose from … again. More circular and spiraling than linear with an end. Great post – thanks for drawing me into your thinking. :o)

  3. laurent

    “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”

    D Eisenhower

    So models are useless (until they’ve been proven by experience and adjusted) but the effort of trying to model something new is critical. The key per my experience is that the model isn’t fixed and you can quickly adjust it as you learn more about what you’re trying to model.

  4. Chris Corrigan

    Hi there…I just redid my facilitation resources page an in doing so realized that a lot of what I work with are models and maps that help me orient particular processes and design well. Each one seems as good as any other, although in general I favour models and maps that are holistic, integrated, acknowledge complexity and chaos. I usually reject models that are linear and programmatic.

    Beyond that, I’m happy with the diversity, and I don’t quibble with all of these different world views. I’ll use whatever seems most useful and provide something when that’s needed too. For me, learning about many different models is exciting and inspiring.

    What I do get fatugued over is the quibbling about which one is better. Doesn’t matter to me, and I have no preference beyond what I’ve stated above.

  5. Matt Moore

    Models are a good place to start, a terrible place to finish. The injuction “all models are wrong, some are useful” should be slapped under any model you present (as said by laurent)

    What I think your Python clip indicates is our unhealthy love of certainty in an uncertain world. Beware the Certainty Snake Oil Salesmen.

  6. Ian

    Several of my favourite agenda items in there Johnnie.

    Not least the model-fatigue itself, the constant replacing of (simplistic) fashion with (simplistic) fashion in the tyranny of the 2×2 Boston grids. I thought Dave Snowden came closest with his Cynefin account of complexity whereby aspects slipped through the 2 dimensional plane, but he seems to have left that behind.

    Your three bullets “In reality …” are the Brunsson organizational-hypocrisies or the Argyris & Schon theories-of-action vs theories-in-use. The models are just rationalizations of an idealized world “incapable of recognizing the bussing, booming, confusion of paradox in reality”.

    Human models in use (the real models of how organizations work, not the ones darn on white-boards or written-up in white-papers) are an evolving “arms race” of intent, psychology & creative metaphors. Doug Hofstader’s “TabelTop” game is a wonderful illustration of this.

    The model, the tabletop is just a framework for a thinking space … the real “theatre of operations” … is another place entirely. Models have their uses but not as substitutes for or “models of” reality.

  7. Ian

    A couple of your commenters are right …

    The models have limited value, but the modelling “process” is invaluable. The plans vs planning distinction. I guess your main gripe is with those “promoting” shiny new models as solutions in their own right.

    PS two typos in my previous comment.

    “darn” is “drawn”

    “bussing” is “buzzing”

    And the quote involving “buzzing” is from Quinn & Cameron.


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