12 Fundamental of Systems Theory

Systems theory a useful way to consider the problems and opportunities of leading. Its fundamentals:

  1. Any grouping of causal actions, such as procedures or processes, including the habits of human activity, can be considered a system. Subsystems exist within larger systems. EXAMPLES: Home habits of handling garbage and personal hygiene are subsystems within a community’s sanitation system. An individual’s habits of handling expense reports (i.e., always late), is a subsystem of the larger system of bookkeeping for the accounting department.
  1. Operational Systems (behaviors) are always nested within Human Systems of belief, perception, and thinking, most of which is habitual and therefore largely unexamined. Unexamined systems are called paradigms.” EXAMPLE: The “Flat-Earth” paradigm prevailed until Copernicus challenged it.
  1. A system has inertia. In other words, it will tend to stay the way it is without change until it experiences fundamental change in its “fabric.” This inertia is called the principle of “homestasis.” EXAMPLE: Each individual’s system of diet and exercise is homeostatic and unlikely to change
  1. A fundamental change in one aspect of the system will change the entire system (though it may not last.) This is called the principle of “equifinality.” EXAMPLE: Hiring a new administrative assistant will change the way everyone works, at least temporarily, as they become accustomed to his/her habits.
    1. The smaller the system, the easier it is to make change “stick,” as there are fewer agents to influence.
    2. The larger the system, the more “inertia” it has, and the less likely a small change will produce large, and long-term change.
  1. Homeostasis experiences disruption when patterns of behavior are interrupted. The greater the disruption, the greater the system becomes chaotic. The greater the chaos, the more powerful a catalytic event (or series of events) must be to return the system to an organized state. EXAMPLE: When Hurricane Hugo came through the Carolinas, huge disruption occurred in the electrical infrastructure, which in turn caused wide chaos in the systems of human activity. It took weeks of great effort from power crews from around the country to return the grid to normal, which slowly contributed to human activity returning to homeostasis.
  1. When problems are observed in a system, attribution for the cause of those problems is often directed at a single source. This is almost never the case, and is the fundamental error of attribution.” The “>Identified Causal Source” (ICS), is almost always part of a larger system (or subsystems) of allowances, tolerances, and/or reinforcements perhaps unwittingly perpetuated by others. EXAMPLE: Timothy McVeigh “fell through the cracks” to do his cowardly act of terrorism because other systems of politics tolerated and reinforced his extreme views.
  1. Without reinforcement, a system that has been in place for some time will most likely regress to its old pattern. This can be called the principle of anchoring to homeostasis.” Unless you continue to focus change until the new homeostasis is maintained, the system will regress. Another way of saying this is: “Despite all efforts to change, the best predictor of the future is the past.” EXAMPLE: Most New Year’s resolutions fall prey to this principle.
  1. When multiple aspects of a system change, the system has a greater chance of changing for the long-term, and not regressing to its former state. This can be called the principle of EXAMPLE: When a company launches a major initiative, the more ways that the initiative is communicated and the new behaviors are reinforced, the more likely the behaviors will be embedded within the “DNA” of the company. If only slogans are launched without measurable, behavioral teeth, the initiative will wither.
  1. Changing the Structure within which humans operate, is a powerful way to effect change. Structural change can be physical (i.e., changing office locations or decor), it can be procedural (i.e., having weekly “accountability reports), or reporting-relationship (i.e., team meetings vs. one-on-ones).
  1. Though not to be dismissed, changing aspects of a system is second in effectiveness to changing “agency” Agency is defined as a function within the system that can actually create new responses, versus merely reacting to change. When the agency is human (called change-agents), the more there are, the more likely the system will change, so long as those change-agents are aligned—through intention and action—with the strategies to achieve the desired end-state. EXAMPLE: You can change to weekly progress reports, but changing the minds of those doing the reports to understand and embrace the value of the activity that is being reported is much more effective.
  1. Leadership is change-agency. The effectiveness with which the chief change-agent (i.e., the leader at any given time) constructs a system-change strategy that interrupts old habits (disrupts homeostasis), focuses and aligns effort (massing momentum), gains buy-in (leverages other change-agents), and then rigorously follows through with discipline (reinforce the desired behavior without apology) determines the degree to which the future is created.
  1. An extension of systems theory, Complexity Theory (a.k.a. “Chaos Theory”) states that small change can produce big change. “Strange Attractors” (change agents) can make huge impacts on large systems even through small behaviors. EXAMPLE: Rosa Parks changed the civil rights movement forever through her one act of living with personal integrity and refusing to give up her seat on the bus, and demonstrating the failure of society to exemplify its integrity. This is a clear case of “Change Agency”
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