Systems: The Purpose of a System is What It Does

When trying to understand systems, one really eye-opening and fundamental insight is to realize that the machine is never broken. What I mean by this is, when observing the outcomes of a particular system or institution, it’s very useful to start from the assumption that the outputs or impacts of that system are precisely what it was designed to do — whether we find those results to be good, bad or mixed.

The most effective and broadly-understand articulation of this idea is the phrase, “the purpose of a system is what it does”, often abbreviated as POSIWID. The term comes to us from the field of cybernetics, and the work of Stafford Beer, but this is one of those wonderful areas where you really don’t have to read a lot of theory or study a lot of the literature to immediately get value out of the concept. (Though if you have time, do dig into the decades of research here; you'll enjoy it!)

A potential negative aspect of understanding that the purpose of a system is what it does, is that we are then burdened with the horrible but hopefully galvanizing knowledge of this reality. For example, when our carceral system causes innocent people to be held in torturous or even deadly conditions because they could not afford bail, we must understand that this is the system working correctly. It is doing the thing it is designed to do. When we shout about the effect that this system is having, we are not filing a bug report, we are giving a systems update, and in fact we are reporting back to those with agency over the system that it is working properly.

Sit with it for a minute. If this makes you angry or uncomfortable, or repulses you, then you are understanding the concept correctly.

Through this lens, we can understand a lot about the world, and how we can be more effective in it. If we accept that the machine is never broken (except in the case of the McDonald’s ice cream machine), then we can recognize that driving change requires us to make the machine want something else. If the purpose of a system is what it does, and we don’t like what it does, then we have to change the system. And we change the system by making everyone involved, especially those in authority, feel urgency about changing the real-world impacts that a system has.

In my own life, I’ve found the greatest reluctance to embrace this idea, and strongest rejection of its obvious truth, comes from the politically moderate, centrist-leaning suburban folks that I grew up around and spent the first decades of my life amongst. Being from that context, I would probably still reject this idea if I hadn’t radically shifted how and where I live, so I have a lot of empathy for those who don’t want to engage with such a challenging concept. But it’s vital that we all do so.

Part of the reason I’m insistent about the POSIWID idea is because it’s a prerequisite for optimism that actually has impact. Mindless optimism says, “this system is supposed to have a good output, therefore if we support it hard enough, it’ll do the right thing.” But this results in people doubling down on investing in broken institutions, and organizations selecting leaders who become defensive and reactive to any challenge to the institution. These are systems organized around perpetuating themselves, rather than around any identifiable principle or goal. And you have to start with the principle.

We can be more effective when we fall in love with judging systems and institutions by the actual, real-world lived results and impacts that they have, especially the impact they have on the most vulnerable. Sometimes the stated values or purpose of a person or organization are useful in terms of judging what they have intended to do, but intent never matters nearly as much as impact, so we have to treat the actual outputs of that person or system as the ultimate truth when we assess them.

The next step, then, is to reflect on the systems around us now that we are cursed with the horrible truth that all of them are working correctly. Ask yourself, how do you get the power to change the system so that it wants something else, so that it can only inevitably do the right thing? Is there a reasonable path to that power? Or does that system need to be dismantled, so that it can be replaced by a system whose purpose is to do the right thing?