The system: the cause of and solution to a business’ problems

People do dumb things.  Or rather, they fail to do smart things, even though it’s obvious to everyone else what the right thing to do is.  They also do dumb things even if they also know in their heart of hearts that it’s dumb.  I’m including myself in this, of course.  While I like to think I’m the master of my own destiny, I know I’m not an island and am subject to the vagaries of the systems I’m a part of.

I consult with a number of people who sometimes despair at the dumb things their managers do.  They throw their hands up in frustration at the dumb things their company asks them to do.  In saying this, however, I am not leaping to the conclusion that people are dumb.  There will be many factors as to why we don’t do the smart thing.  Upton Sinclair, for example, said, “It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his (or her) salary depends on his (or her) not understanding it.”  We endure anti-social bosses or mindless busy-work or bizarre hierarchies because in a lot of cases, making sure we pay for food on our tables and a roof over our heads takes precedence over what our hearts or guts tell us.  Sad but true and I’ve been there myself.

My thoughts come out of a synthesis of some conversations I’ve had with clients of late.  Even in the face of good hard evidence, we still do dumb things.  There has been enough analysis of the global financial crisis, for instance, to indicate that letting loose the dogs of war on the floors of the world’s financial exchanges was, in hindsight, dumb.  By grossly unregulating global financial systems, the conditions were set for the crash to happen.  Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, said recently that they should have “shouted from the rooftops” their concerns about the impending catastrophe before 2007-08.  Apparently, he saw something coming, but was too timid to tell anyone.  But now with crystal clear 20:20 hindsight, you’d expect those with the power and authority to do something about modifying those conditions to actually do something about it, wouldn’t you?  If they saw how everything is connected to everything (and if they really cared), you’d expect those who can see what happened and the hardship it has created for people far and wide to adjust the regulations so that it doesn’t happen again, wouldn’t you?  You’d expect those with the capacity to shift the culture away from short-term greed and entitlement, to take the bull by the horns and reign in financially and socially irresponsible behaviour, crafting a system founded on greater accountability and sustainability.  Wouldn’t you?

I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they did, but I wasn’t at all astonished to hear the UK Minister of Defence saying that consumers must accept responsibility for their part in the financial crisis.  Sure, it’s true that the banks were not the only ones who were behaving badly.  Governments did it, consumers did it.  Not to excuse anyone and at the same time, not to blame anyone, who set the conditions?  Who set up a system that not only condoned, but encouraged and modelled unreasonable borrowing?  Who unregulated the financial systems?  Who let the dogs out?  I think if we had leaders worth their salt, they’d take a good look at themselves and realise that the responsibility and the authority now rests with them to change the rules of the game.  It is dumb to blame people for playing by the rules you set for the game.

While managers do dumb things, they sometimes inherit dumb (read: not fit for purpose) systems.  Here’s where the leader’s responsibility sits.  When faced with a dumb system, we can either:

  • blame someone else and say “It’s just how we’ve always done things around here.  What can you do?”
  • pretend we see nothing and carry on doing the same dumb thing until the laws of physics hit us hard.  The words “sub-prime”, “derivatives”, “Lehman” and “Brothers” might be springing to mind.
  • actively set out to create a system or a culture that is fit for purpose, that is humane and that allows people to learn, do meaningful work and bring themselves to what they do

In the same way it is dumb to blame consumers for the financial crisis, it is unfair to say your manager is being dumb when they are doing what the system is set up for them to do.  To paraphrase Deming, “Every manager supposes that he (or she) is doing their best, (however), their best is embedded in the present system of management.”

It is often the system of management that is dumb, not the people within it.

It’s an interesting paradox that every manager will be subject to the forces that act upon and within the system they operate, while at the same time, systems thinking suggests that the job of a manager is to manage that very same system.  To borrow from Homer Simpson: “Ah, the system.  The cause of and solution to all of our problems.”  This is especially challenging because, just as a system cannot observe itself, it is hard for a manager who is within the system to get a good big picture view of it.  It is also hard for a manager who lives the effects of the system to extricate him or herself from it.  For example, in a business where people struggle to keep to deadlines, senior managers will often struggle with the same thing.  In a system characterised by crossed lines and miscommunication, managers will similarly experience the same frustrations as everyone else while at the same time causing said frustration in others, sometimes failing to see themselves behaving in the same way.  If the senior leaders cannot see this dynamic, it will continue to be a blind spot and, unseen, will remain unaddressed.

When Deming said that “the prevailing style of management must undergo transformation,” I believe he was pointing the way to a sea-change in what managers believe their jobs to be: from “Doer-in-Chief” to “Steward of the Culture” or “System Steward”.  By taking up the role of Steward, I believe leaders will be much better placed to take the bigger picture view that is required in order to effect the transformation of the system.  The place to exert influence is not at the level of what people do (their tasks and function), but at the level of values and mindsets. A leader who sees themselves as Chief Doer will orient their management practice more to what people DO.   If they take up the role of Steward instead, they will diagnose the working of the whole, not viewing the business as a bunch of bits, some of which appear to be working well and some which appear to be dysfunctional.  One particular manager who I believe to be a really effective Systems Steward would say that without his big picture perspective, the appearance of a well-functioning “part” may only be smoke and mirrors.

Not for nothing do they say that culture eats strategy for breakfast.  Culture is the thing out of which emerge the results, so the systems leader will focus their attention on the cause and not try to manage the results.  No amount of intense planning can mitigate for the cultural, or systemic, phenomena which impact far more on what gets done and how it gets done.  Once again, the point of leverage is not at the “doing” level; it’s at the culture level.   One of the challenges of a Systems Steward is to identify the most likely drivers for real change from a bigger picture perspective and to develop and nurture organisational processes and patterns that support a healthy and effective culture.  An overly deterministic and linear results-based management style will not achieve this.  Establishing a set of guiding principles and values, formulating and communicating a vision and direction, promoting ongoing learning and setting rough boundaries within which the business will operate are the way ahead if a manager wishes to behave as a Systems Steward.  I’m watching that manager I just mentioned doing these things and it gives me heart.

A Systems Steward attempts to overcome systems blindness, that inability to see what we are currently mired it.  One of the symptoms of systems blindness is that people within a business fail to see or misinterpret key relationships within the business.  In other words, staff begin to mistrust senior management, senior management begin to mistrust middle management, sales staff begin to mistrust administrative support staff and so on.  This occurs because, when afflicted with systems blindness, people lose sight of one of the key binding agents: relationships.  Don’t underestimate the amount of attention that should be put into positive working relationships throughout the system.  Once established, they also need to be maintained.  Always.

A leader who acts as Systems Steward will also aim to assist the system reconnect with itself, help it understand itself better.  This can be facilitated by ensuring that processes related to feedback, information sharing and knowledge management are in place and functioning well.   These things lie at the heart of transformation and ongoing renewal.  If relationships are the connective tissue of a business, information and knowledge are its nutrients.

Are you a Systems Steward type of leader?  Do you know any Systems Stewards in business?

What experiences have you had of systems blindness?

As always, I welcome comments.


14 thoughts on “The system: the cause of and solution to a business’ problems

  1. I like this post very much. During Familiar days, I and several others, whom in other organisations may have been called “Directors”, chose to call ourselves the “Stewards” of the company. Exactly because we saw the power in stewarding the culture and the way the work worked.

    – Bob

    1. Nice one Bob, I like it. There is a Maori word, kaitiaki, for which the closest approximation is ‘steward’, which I believe correctly describes the role we need to take with teams, businesses, the environment, most things really. I think seeing ourselves as stewards keeps it all in perspective: we are here for a short time, we are here to care for, we are here for others.

  2. Excellent article, indeed.
    “It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something, when his (or her) salary depends on his (or her) not understanding it.”
    “It is dumb to blame people for playing by the rules you set for the game”.

    “It is often the system of management that is dumb, not the people within it”. I suggest to cross out “often”.

    I wonder if dumb systems are not made by dumb people to make more people dumb as well….

    1. Thanks Michel. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are not willfully dumb and that they do not willfully set up dumb systems. I think that as flawed humans we will always do things that are not ideal; the key for me is to set out on a path of self-awareness and systems awareness to improve on what we have.

  3. Hi John,
    Another excellent post! Deming’s principle of driving fear out of the workplace comes to mind and the corrosive effect that fear continues to have in keeping systems in place.
    You point out so many levels where, I believe, fear is the greatest driver of the behaviors that result in dumb choices.
    I don’t think we can move into the steward role without confronting fear because to do so requires that we loosen our grip on trying to control outcomes. Stewardship requires that we expand our emotional palette and fear constricts it.
    Thanks for another article that stimulates asking the big questions.

    1. You are so right Louise and thanks for adding in. As soon as I published it, I had another read and thought about the whole area of self-awareness and understanding our emotions that is part of this mix. Your comment reminds me of the other big questions that are inevitably connected to change and systems.

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