Society and the Analytic Mindset

Society and the Analytic Mindset

As you may know by now, I assert that effectiveness of knowledge-work organisations is a function of their several “collective organisational mindsets”. In other words:

Effectiveness = f(mindset)

The collective mindset of any organisation is profoundly yet imperceptibly influenced by the collective mindset of the wider society within which it operates.

All Things are Connected

In “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, David Bohm talks about cosmology and the nature of reality. I’m not going into that today, but I mention it just to illustrate that the idea that all things are connected is a recurring theme across many disciplines. It is a common idea in Eastern philosophies, such as Zen, with the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination” (Pratītyasamutpāda). That all things are connected is an idea profoundly at odds with the reductionism inherent in the Analytic Mindset.

The Analytic Mindset does not exist in isolation, in the minds of individuals or even groups. Rather, the Analytic mindset exists as part of the fabric of all our lives, and of organisations and society both.

Let’s take a look at how that came about.


Ackoff defines the Analytic Mindset as:

“Breaking things down into parts, on the assumption that understanding the parts individually allows understanding of the whole.”

~ Russell L. Ackoff

For centuries, indeed millennia, this point of view has been at the heart of the Scientific Method.

“In the analytic tradition of Aristotle there are all the logicians and a large part of the physicists of today. Galilei, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein are thinkers of the analytic tradition. A large part of Western culture and technology is founded in this [way of thinking].

~ Carlos Cirne-Lima

Ever since Sir Isaac Newton (some may say, ever since Aristotle), society has come to believe that the Analytic way of thinking is the best way, indeed many might say the only way, of looking at our problems.

“Regrettably, most of us still cling to the truths of 17th century science, fostered primarily by the teachings of Sir Isaac Newton. Although very helpful in catalysing industrial and technological advances, this worldview has severely constrained many aspects of our humanity and impoverished our life experiences.”

 ~ Mel Schwartz

Yet modern science – and traditions other than Western reductionism – offer us alternative ways of thinking and seeing the world and its challenges.

The Three Steps of Analytical Thinking:

  1. Take “it” apart
  2. Understand what the parts do
  3. Assemble the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole
Relying on these three steps (as much of the whole world has learned, explicitly or implicitly, to do) will not help us answer many of the important questions about systems. It’s time to learn to see things differently.

Science Has Moved On

In her excellent book “Leadership and the New Science” Margaret Wheatley writes:

“In science, the beginning of the twentieth century heralded the end of the hegemony of Newtonian [analytic] thinking.”

~ Margaret Wheatley

She then goes on to talk about what she calls “Newtonian despair” – the feelings of fatigue and impatience brought about by trying to tackle interrelated, inter-twined (“wicked”) problems as though they were separate, and amenable to independent resolution.

I see this “Newtonian despair” everywhere I look, from the issues facing individual software developers and teams, all the way to the wicked problems facing governments and societies, globally.


Much of society’s collective mindset is shaped by folks’ formative experiences within the education system.

“The current system of education was designed and conceived for a different age.”

~ Sir Ken Robinson

Education, since the inception of compulsory public education for all some one hundred and forty years ago (UK), has prepared pupils as either smart, intellectual “executive” scholars and academics,  or for a productive (and compliant) role as cogs in the machines of the industrial revolution. (See e.g. Sir Ken Robinson’s animated RSA presentation).

Into the Workforce

“The system of education is modelled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it.”

~ Sir Ken Robinson

By the time folks finish education, they have learned through experience – and osmosis – many of the fundamental assumptions integral to the Analytic mindset. They then join the workforce, where these same assumptions have “flourished” and compounded since the very dawn of the industrial age.

The Analytic mindset has a near monopoly in the corporations and government bureaucracies of our “modern” world. And like the monkeys with the banana, folks working in these organisation have little or no knowledge of the original conditions that led to the rules and procedures to which, and by which, they find themselves bound.

Some psychotherapists attribute “the epidemic of anxiety, depression and general disconnectedness that engulfs us [society]” to the “analytic, reductive and mechanistic” worldview.


“There is no objective “organisation”. The “reality” we experience does not exist “out there”… it is co-created through our acts of observation, what we choose to notice and worry about.”

~ Karl Weick

The Analytic mindset is so ubiquitous, pervasive and common-place in society, and thus in our organisations, that folks rarely if ever even notice it, let alone question it.

Organisations do not operate in a vacuum. They recruit people from society at large, thus importing a bias towards the Analytic mindset with every new hire. Some organisations, like Zappos, recognise this explicitly and take great pains to try to offset this bias. These new hires may have been in the workforce for some time – having absorbed the Analytic view of work from their previous work experiences (most organisations see the world of work through an Analytic lens). Or they may be new to the world of work, yet still steeped in the Analytic mindset via their experiences at school, and through popular culture (films, TV, books, newspapers, conversations, etc.). In any case, with each new hire into a Synergistic-minded organisation, the synergistic view can be diluted, eventually reaching a tipping point where the organisation reverts to an Analytic perspective. I’m sure you can think of high-profile examples where this has happened.

Rarely do the folks caught in these regressions (a.k.a. reverse transitions) recognise what is happening to them and their organisation. In most cases, the progressive, effective folks bemoan the loss of the “soul” of their organisation, and sooner or later quit for pastures new. (Before quitting, these folks’ engagement and commitment generally tail off precipitously).

And every day, popular culture and the pontifications of vested interests and self-promoting analytic thinkers, executives, consultants, authors, etc. serve to reinforce the Analytic world view, and confound other mindsets, in thousands of organisations across all domains of business. charity, the military, the Church, etc..

Swimming Against the Tide

For organisations making serious efforts to better themselves and improve their effectiveness, the Analytic mindset is like a continuous ebb tide, slowing down their progress towards a different, more conducive view of the world of work, and continuously dragging them back towards the mean (sic) Analytic mindset.


In all fields of organised endeavour, the subtle, imperceptible bias of the Analytic mindset, simply by virtue of its near-ubiquity, causes a continual “reversion to mediocrity“. Without recognising this phenomenon, organisations of every stripe risk erosion or collapse of their hard-won right-shifts of effectiveness and mindset.

– Bob


The Analytic-synthetic Distinction (Philosophy)
The Tragedy of the Social Epistemology Commons (Blog post on LessWrong)
The Analytic-Synergistic Transition 
(Earlier Think Different blog post)

  1. Brilliant. Looking forward to the more to follow…

    We need a ‘how to’ for a shift to something that can actually solve problems. I’d suggest ‘whole system’ change as a method complementary to reductive analysis,

  2. It seems that the analytic mindset has had much success if if by that you mean “divide and conquer”. I’m struggling to understand what you’re getting at (like coming in part way through the conversation – which I’m sure I am).

    It would really help,if you could give a concrete example of a problem facing an individual software developer, how it’s misdiagnosed by “analytic despair” and what the alternative is.

    • Please define “much success” – and at what cost? The conversation has indeed been going on for some time now. Lots of resources on this blog to help you catch up.

      As for an example, consider the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of developers who have worked long and hard on software that has never seen the light of day, or been canned at the point of release.

      – Bob

      • Hi Bob, I’ve only recently heard about “systems thinking” which sounds like what you’re talking about here. The idea that “divide and conquer” in systems analysis and design hasn’t been successful is very foreign. It seems a well-accepted and natural way to approach problem solving. It is without doubt a good way to solve a problem.

        Perhaps what you’re getting at is: is it the _right_ problem. I’ve certainly seen cases of waste where people seem to be focused on the wrong thing, doing busy-work analysing/designing/coding a solution to a problem – often when this problem could perhaps have been solved in a different (and cheaper) way. As a developer, I’m not usually in a position to know _for sure_ whether the waste is warranted because of factors out of my sight. I think of this kind of thing as a failure to see the big picture.

  3. paulboos said:


    Divide and conquer works well when you have a viewpoint of a contained problem. The predominant issue is that most problems aren’t contained and using this viewpoint constrains your thinking. I’ll give two examples i am aware of…

    Let’s start with the physics problem… Force = mass x acceleration (F=ma). Constraining the problem where a mass is a constant because that was readily observable seemed to cause issues with Einstein’s observations of his environment at lower levels of size and higher velocities. The system seemed to no longer worked. Applying some creativity by assuming that perhaps the mass wouldn’t remain constant, he came to his Theory of Special Relativity and the famous E=mC^2.

    Moving to a software problem set. Suppose you receive reports of defects, some are false positives (i.e. no defect at all) and some are simple problems with very easy fixes. They come from several users. In isolation each one is simple or matter of quick training or guidance, but systematically you may be seeing a user experience problem. Perhaps the metaphor used isn’t the right one and that is what is the underlying root-cause. You would have to broaden the scope of your observations to other parts of the ‘system’ (meaning the application and user in the context of what they are trying to do) to see it. this may mean being more creative on the approach.

    To your last paragraph, perhaps you should be able to see the big picture so that you can offer other potential solutions. That’s perhaps a system problem on the organizational level.


  4. Analytic approach works when the problem is “complicated” (or “knowable” in some definitions). In other words, if the problem system behaves predictably and its rules don’t change over time, it can be analyzed in parts and its whole can be understood. Of course, most real life problems are not “complicated”, they’re “complex”. Complex systems compose of interacting agents, and adapt continually to their changing environment. It is unfortunate that the success of analytic thinking comes from it’s applicability to physical sciences (physics, chemistry, math, machines, etc.) and the huge impact these sciences have had on human societies over the last few centuries. That success has made people to seek to apply them to wrong things, too :(.

  5. Andrew said:

    I’m not sure that the Analytic-Synergistic dimension of mindset is the place to look for fault. In the realm of mindset, I’m much more persuaded by Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” argument: Fixed v Learning.

    It makes sense to me that the industrial education – that worked very well to fuel the industrial revolution – was predicated on the notion of creating one class of obedient workers and cannon-fodder, and another of professional problem solvers and manager, a system we’ve inherited into our post-industrial world.

    Some in the knowledge work fields grew into their positions through experience. But many qualified with a university education, and with that comes an immense personal investment, and investment in “self-as-degree” that comes with an implication of adequacy. “I’m a qualified engineer, and thus qualify for this role as an engineer. I AM an engineer, and I have what that takes; my qualification proves it.” And with that, learning stops. Oh for five dollars for every time I’ve been told “Oh, I’ve not read a book since I left university” with a sneer at the notion of having to read anything! Of course it’s a vile threat to someone so invested, an implication that somehow, despite their qualification, they are after all not adequate. To learn is to fail.

    Contrast this with the learning mindset. This mindset never thinks “I can’t” instead it thinks “I can’t yet”. It sees test scores as current, not permanent, sees failure as simply not getting what was expected – not as a failure of Self.

    Well, it seems simple to me. If one doesn’t learn, and someone else is learning, who is going to improve? And who will be further ahead when all’s said and done?

    Which is exactly why I’m such an advocate for agility, as learning is built into its DNA. I see it not as a way to produce software, but as the successor to industrial education.

      • Andrew said:

        I think you’re already doing it! It’s clear to me that the energy you’re putting into your work has motivations way beyond the need to earn a crust. For me, understanding aspects of life such as the impact of educational philosophy, is what has me shift from working for money to doing things because I feel I have a duty of care to do so. That sounds pompous and zealous, but it’s true nonetheless.

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