Convergence Conversation: Exploring System of Systems Thinking with Dr. Julie Ryan

Dr. Julie Ryan is a Nexialist, someone who is able to see connections between different disciplines that others may not see. A.E van Vogt coined the term in 1950 to describe the rare person who integrates science, thought, and a network of people to solve complex problems. Julie’s career has been a collection of serendipitous opportunities to work in emerging technology development across public, private, and academic organizations. Her contributions in intelligence, information technology, and cybersecurity are numerous. She is also a builder of human networks. If you are a part of Julie’s network, your network will grow with the incredible introductions she makes. She has an uncanny ability to spot personalities, experiences, and perspectives that should come together.

Julie and I met while serving on the National Academies’ Air Force Study Board. We recently collaborated on a series of workshops to investigate the changing paradigm of time and knowledge in modern-day warfare. In this Convergence Conversation, Julie and I explore complexity in today’s world and how system of systems thinking may help some of the hardest problems humanity faces.


Defining System of Systems

Deb: For the layperson, what is system of systems thinking?

Julie: As a term, system of systems is incredibly misused and the definition engenders debate. People like the concept because it feels intuitive, but it really isn’t. It is important to first understand what a system is.  For this concept, I typically defer to the simplest definition, which is a group of related elements that are working together to achieve a goal. For example, a bicycle is a system where the elements, wheels, brakes, handlebars, etc., are conjoined together to take input from the rider, pedal pushing, steering, braking, and provide output to the rider movement in a chosen direction and speed.

The idea of a system of systems was developed to address situations in which multiple discrete systems could be made to operate synergistically to achieve a larger goal than any one of the component systems could do independently. For example, let’s consider a multimodal transportation system that has trains, planes, and ships. They are independent systems that can be made to operate together via an overarching structure and specific components designed to move between the member systems. Shipping containers are a good example. They are engineered to fit on ships, rail platforms, or trucks. They can even be put into certain types of airplanes. The containers are designed to make the system of systems work more effectively and efficiently. If you neglect to look at the individual system and the component systems as capable of working together, you won’t see the opportunity for creating the modularized systems that can move from one component member system to another component member system.

It’s intriguing to think of the moment in time when someone stepped back and thought ‘Hey what if we synergize the operations of these different systems that all operate at different speeds, timetables, capacities, and cost points?’ By thinking about the potential to synergize operations across multiple modes, you can start to see the opportunities to create moving parts that can move between the systems. So instead of simply offloading a ship and then repackaging it at a warehouse to go onto an airplane or truck or rail system, the opportunity is created to take the container off the ship and put a right onto a truck. The result is reduced cost and downtime.

Deb: Some people say that system of systems thinking is about trying to control from the top. But in your example, each one of those systems is owned, operated, and possibly regulated by independent entities. What do you think about top-down control versus bottom-up innovation?

Julie: That’s the challenge, isn’t it? There must be a benefit to each component system for all of them to play ball. If it doesn’t make the rail system more money in the long run, why would they bother? Because there is an added cost to participating in a collaborative way. The benefit must outweigh the cost. It must work both ways. The component member systems need to collaborate to develop a capability that matches their independent regulatory, safety, infrastructure needs.

Using System of Systems Thinking in Organizations

Deb: How might organizations use system of systems thinking to operate in our very complex world?

Julie: A system of systems is fundamentally a partnership. Think about NATO—it is a system of systems comprised of the systems of Germany, France, Estonia, the United States, and more. Each of these individual systems collaborates for an overarching goal. There are controls put in place to help organize NATO operations. But those controls don’t cover every aspect of the overarching system of systems, not by a long shot. There must be benefits to each of the participating countries to join the NATO partnership.

Each of the member systems is enormously complex — in fact, they each are a system of systems. If the countries began by trying to determine how they could align each structure, they wouldn’t get anywhere. It would be too overwhelming. The alternative is to simplify the question to something very specific, in this case, how we can collaborate to keep the Russians in check. Those are two very different approaches. What started it as a mutual defense agreement has grown into collaborative research, staffing, and exchanges. We do joint exercises across NATO. There are many kinds of collaborations going on. But it started as something very simple: the need to work together to keep the Red Army out of Europe. As NATO members confronted problems and overcame them, the structure and the nature of the collaboration has changed. It has become more complex, more integrated, and more effective.

Business Applications for System of Systems Thinking

Deb: What about business?

Julie: When you step back and think about things in the environment, such as work, school, and home, you start seeing the component systems that exist. When this happens, you are using system of systems thinking. Understanding that these systems can be synergized to accomplish something larger to help people manage activities in their environment more effectively, more efficiently, or more productively creates possibilities for innovation. Businesses are examples of generally unrealized system of systems. For example, you may have a system for hiring people that operates independently from the system that does strategic planning for the company.

Managers are tasked with making sure each of their areas of responsibility operates appropriately but rarely do companies take a step back and analyze how overarching synergy can be achieved. In fact, in some companies, managers have been known to actively sabotage cooperative activities between units. A company I’m familiar with had a CEO whose favorite line was “fish swim faster when there are sharks in the water.” He used to actively encourage and promote competition between different company elements, with the result being that there was no inter-company trust. There was even the occasional active sabotage. The company was successful to a degree, but I wondered how much more successful it could have been if there had been collaboration and synergy across the company. 

Another company I knew tried very hard to synergize operations across all the component elements. But there were limits to how much they could actively do because of the structural differences between the commercial side of the business and the government side of the business. The challenges were substantial: different rules for accounting, pricing, and managing projects made it simply impossible to coordinate activities between those two major subcomponents; the company eventually split up into two separate companies. I think this is an important point: synergy is only possible if there is an agreement about how, when, and what to cooperate on. Analyzing and recognizing these opportunities is the challenge.

Collaboration and Complexity

Deb: What about something even more complex, such as the U.S. Infrastructure?

Julie: That’s a great example of why I’m pessimistic about the future. You can only create synergistic activities and opportunities if people are willing to collaborate, and it appears there are a whole bunch of people who are not willing to work together to solve these types of hard problems. They seem to be operating on a short-term benefit structure, for their own gain, as opposed to a long-term benefit structure that benefits future generations. It is astonishing how those currently in charge of making decisions are neglecting the long-term consequences for their organizations. This is no way to solve complex problems. And we have a lot of complex problems to be solved. We have to have people working together who are not only focused on the benefit of a few, including themselves, rather than taking a broader view of who they are responsible to.

Deb: What does complexity mean to a leader trying to build trust in their organization?

Julie: It is sometimes easy to get overwhelmed by complexity. Simply looking at a complex situation with many moving parts can appear to be an intractable problem. It helps sometimes to simplify the way you look at a situation by ignoring the complexity. Just stepping back from the situation and stop getting lost in the details. Stepping back gives perspective, like looking at the earth from the moon. Seeing that big blue marble from the perspective of another celestial object changes the way you appreciate the earth. 

Such simplifications can give leaders a different language to use to communicate with employees. And language matters. When employees are talked to in a language that emphasizes the common goals, they respond differently than when they are talked to in a language that emphasizes the complex details of their jobs. The commonality of goals builds trust. Differentiation between job details creates sets of “others.” Trust comes from belonging. Distrust comes from being an “other.”

There’s a confluence between common goals and how people’s performance is assessed. For example, operating to maximize shareholder profit rather than maximizing the good the company does in the environment. If you look at different cultures around the world, some are focused on altruism and others are focused on individuality. Here in the U.S. I think we need to rebalance our culture of individuality towards one more about community. It needs to be a balance. We can’t go too far the other way because that brings its own set of problems. We need to make sure capitalists and business managers go back and study the original Adam Smith discussion. The one that says that rent-seeking is dangerous and should be regulated. Regulation serves to balance the benefits of capitalistic activity with the needs of communities.

Decision-making in Systems

Deb: There is incredible momentum towards relying on advanced technologies for decision making, how do we incorporate balanced decision making with technology development. What are the warnings?

Julie: There are good reasons to rely on technologies, particularly for things that humans are bad at, like repetitive tasks or pattern analysis. However, when we rely on technologies for the things that humans are good at, such as imagining or creating shared aesthetic experiences, we will begin to lose our humanity.

At some point in time, probably very soon, technologies will be building the technologies. But for now, humans are building the technologies, and we have biases, perceptual differences, and cultural differences that we don’t consider. Human aspects are reflected, sometimes very subtly, in the technologies that are created. And it’s likely that next-generation technologies that create their own new technologies will have some semblance of these biases and differences as legacy aspects. It’s also likely the creator technologies will have their own biases. For example, it may program in a tendency to favor energy efficiency over computational completeness.

Convergence Spotting

Deb: When you look over the horizon, what convergences are you seeing?

Julie: The convergence is climate change. I call it a convergence because it’s a bunch of different things coming together to touch us personally. The things that are converging can be addressed separately, but doing so almost guarantees that some important aspects will not be addressed. The effort will have uneven focus and be ineffective. This is why I see a convergence of all the elements of climate change being the thing that we most need to collaborate on, bringing together our different skills and capabilities, and even changing our own behaviors, like trying to stop using single-use plastics.

I’m starting to research cooking techniques that require you to take out a plastic bag to tenderize meat and add spices. What did they do before we had plastic? They did something. What was it? Was it because we had more time to cook? Have we gotten used to not having a mess? Maybe there weren’t any leftovers? I think we have all been seduced by advertising to buy things and create these behaviors which we may not even know we have. We must change these behaviors. We need to challenge our behaviors and choose differently.

Future Focus

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Julie: I really hope we can solve these problems. I hope we can solve our infrastructure problems. I hope the countries of the world come together and enact meaningful controls on carbon emissions. I hope researchers develop technologies to address greenhouse gases. There are some researchers in Australia developing soil amendments that suck in carbon. I hope we continue to make breakthroughs in alternative fuels and energy sources. It’s just human nature that is problematic.


Our hopes, dreams, desires, and basic needs make up a human system that binds people together. Julie reminds us that the intricacies of the human system and our organizational systems are vast. Each connection point in these systems has the potential to represent and influence exponential impacts to environmental, social, geopolitical, and financial considerations, amongst others.

Some of those outcomes, like innovation markets, are opportunistic and have a positive impact on humanity. Others, like the devastating results of climate change, forced cultural migration, cyberattacks, food shortages, water crises, and pandemics, represent global-scale risks. Because we are so hyperconnected, the potential for sweeping consequences and disruptive impacts grow exponentially. But so does hope for a better tomorrow for all. One thing for certain is we need more nexialists to help us make important discoveries for the future.

Engage a human-centric perspective

Contact Deborah’s team for advisory services and speaking engagements.