Simulation Is Not The Answer

I figured this might be be an interesting title for an article written by someone who makes their livelihood doing modeling and simulation. And yet, I have come to understand it is a most appropriate statement of truth. After having been involved in numerous modeling and simulation efforts, which produced far less than the desired results, the nagging question becomes; Why? This is the question I intend to address.

As I ponder this question, what I should understand from previous activities or engagements makes me curious as to why I repeatedly fall into the same trap. A trap of my own design. Although the trap appears different from time to time, it is in fact the same trap. The trap is one of failure by design, which seems a rather ludicrous statement. Why would anyone design a situation to fail, when failure is the thing least desired? And, even though I know this so well, it is my actions which are responsible for the failure. Truth hurts! Embracing the truth promotes progress.

From one perspective or another I have been involved in most of the management fads of the last four decades, which were most aptly labeled by McGill (1988).

Thanks to the work of Stalk & Hout (1990), Peters (1992), and Hammer & Champy (1993), we are in the midst of another decade of fads. And, the work of Senge (1990) would seem to imply that yet another one is gaining momentum. These might be appropriately labeled:

The intent of this tirade is not to berate or belittle the developers of the foundations for these decades of fads for the basis for potential understanding they have provided is most noteworthy. The problem lies not in the concepts associated with the basic disciplines which become fads, but in our less than astute application of the disciplines.

Proponents of personal development and motivation, such as Covey (1989), Fritz (1984), Garfield (1986), Robbins (1986), Robbins (1991), and many others too numerous to mention, seem to have a thread quite common with the 6 decades of fads identified above. All accomplishment is reduced to a formula, and if you apply the formula, you will achieve the desired results. Oh, if it could be that life were only so simple---it is not! And if it were, it would probably be most boring.

And, even the formulization of a prescriptive action is not quite the heart of the problem, even though the formulas are incomplete. The real basis for the difficulty is in fact what we believe. And it is not just one belief that is incorrect. There exists a whole set of false beliefs which contribute to our continuing failure to achieve what we set out to accomplish. And the real annoying dimension of all this has to do with our own lack of awareness of the beliefs and the influence they have. You might refer to these beliefs as mental models as per Argyris (1982) and Senge (1990) or paradigms as per Kuhn (1962).

A partial list of the invalid beliefs in operation would seem to be:

For the most part these are simply reworded variations of a single false belief. That being, "It is possible to define the actions necessary to produce a specific result." This belief is so well ingrained within each of us that you are likely to reject it as you read it. Yet, with considerations of the writing of Bateson (1988), Bertalanffy (1975), Bohm (1984), Capra (1975), Davies (1988), Gleick (1987), Kelly (1994), Penrose (1989), Penrose (1994), Waldrop (1993), Wheatley (1992), and a host of others relating to systems and chaos, it seems rather apparent that it is simply not possible to completely define the starting conditions, the path of events and travel, or the final state. Yes, most definitely we have a perception of each of these, yet the perception is not sufficiently succinct to allow complete explicit definition.

At this point I would expect you to be asking at least a couple of questions. First, "What, if anything, does all this rambling have to do with the title of this article?" and second, "If we can't define the beginning, the actions and the path, or the end, then how do we ever get anything done?"

Regarding the first question, what I have seen over the past twelve to eighteen months in the arena of modeling and simulation leads me to believe the discipline is rapidly heading the same way as the fads of the six decades mentioned above. From attending numerous trade shows under the rubric of business process reengineering it seems that the majority of the companies that were hawking data modeling and business process modeling in the IDEF fashion have now changed their focus. If they are not currently doing modeling and simulation they swear they will be shortly. The number of simulation products which have shown up in the market place over the last year is very difficult to keep up with.

The discipline of modeling and simulation is in the process of being oversold to a most unsuspecting audience. An audience still operating under the same misguided paradigms which have fostered the emergence of the fads of the past and present. And I suspect the failure rates of modeling and simulation projects will rank right up their with the dismal results of total quality management and business process reengineering. Modeling and simulation is a discipline to promote a deeper more complete understanding of how things work. If one expects the discipline to provide answers they will tend to believe the results which a simulation provides, and find that it leads them to all kinds of problems for the answers are not correct, they are only indications.

There is a segment from Peck (1978) which I refer to often as it seems to reacquaint me of the reality of the situation we face.

Seek greater understanding, but do not expect greater detail. There are many who by virtue of their passivity, dependency, fear, and laziness, seek to be shown every inch of the way and have it demonstrated to them that each step will be safe and worth their while. This cannot be done. For the journey of spiritual growth requires courage and initiative and independence of thought and action. While the words of the prophets and the assistance of grace are available, the journey must still be traveled alone. No teacher can carry you there. There are no preset formulas. Rituals are only learning aids, they are not the learning.

I guess this gets me to the second question regarding how we manage to get anything done when we can't define the beginning, the action and the path, or the end. Although we cannot define any of these in absolute terms, we do have perceptions. We have a perception of where we are, a perception of where we want to be, or what we want to accomplish, and a perception of the actions or path to be taken to get from one to the other. The perception is not an absolute, just an impression. Then, as we progress from beginning to end we make a countless number of course corrections along the way, most of which we are not even aware of. This reminds me of Buddha's response when asked what he was. Buddha responded, "I am awake." We spend our lives only partially aware of our actions and what is happening around us. We spend much of our lives operating on auto-pilot so to speak.

When we have succeeded in achieving a result we set out to accomplish we go back and review the journey and identify the major components we consider were significant in our achieving the result. From these apparently significant components we construct our formulas. Formulas which we believe would allow ourselves and others to achieve the same results under similar circumstances. Yet, the formulas do not account for the countless number of minute course corrections made all along the journey. Minute course corrections which, although minute, were just as responsible for the successful result as the major components identified during the post-success analysis.

So, is there an answer? Of course there is, otherwise why would I have started this paper in the first place. The answer lies in two areas. First, we must admit that we simply don't understand. And, second, we must pursue understanding. Not answers but understanding.


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