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”

On Persistence

The secret of success is constancy of purpose. – Benjamin Disraeli, English Prime Minister

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. – Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. President, 1923-1929

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed. – Michael Jordan, Basketball Player

On Worry

As a cure for worrying, work is better than whiskey. – Thomas Edison

Drive thy business; let it not drive thee. – Benjamin Franklin

For me, walking the tightrope is living; all else is waiting.  – The Great Wallenda (tightrope artist)

On Professionalism

Of all the motivators of performance for professionals, job challenge itself stands at the top of the list, precisely because of its association with professionalism.

Joseph Raelin, Boston College School of Management

On Ethics

Personal values will determine ethical action.  However, the more one desires the benefits  gained from an organization, the more likely one is to also “buy into” the ethics of the organization, even when the ethics are contrary to personal values.  That this occurs with greater intensity as one ascends the corporate ladder should be self-evident.  This fact thereby places even greater obligations for ethical behavior on senior leaders.  Yet this reality is sometimes willingly denied and exceptions made for less ethical behavior “because we are different from our employees.”

The ethical integrity of an organization will be determined by its least ethical leaders.  This falls under the leaking boat principle:  the soundness of a boat is based on how much it leaks; 99% of the hull may be perfectly sound, but that 1% that leaks can sink the entire vessel.

When internal stakeholders view the organization as unethical, the foundations for integrity become tenuous, but those internal problems may be self-corrected.  When external stakeholders view the organization as unethical, the entire survival of the organization becomes questionable, as it may not survive the loss of trust that is essential for positive working relations.

On Commitment

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans. That the moment one commits oneself, then providence moves too, all sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred.

A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.

W N Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition – 1951.

Leave Room for the Gray Box*

It is foolish to try to analyze everything. Few human minds are able to hold all relevant potentialities in four dimensions.

So you’ve got to leave room for the “gray box,” the part of your mind that can unconsciously process all this information and sometimes gently, sometimes loudly, proclaim the right course of action.

I am not discounting the value of thoughtful consideration. In fact, if anything, perhaps more value should be placed upon really getting in and doing an effective job in systems thinking, teasing out the chain of causality and probability to make a “reasoned decision.”

No doubt, the more experience one has, the more enlightened the Grey box is likely to be. That is why older people often have more wisdom. Yet wisdom is not solely the priviledge of our elders. Many times, the flexible, dynamic intelligence of youth, able to quickly intuit connections and place variable-weighted value on the relevant data, can see trends and possibilities that the elder mind might reject.

It is the work of the young to try to see beyond the near-term niftiness of a decision to second- and third-order effects (using the Grey Box), as it is the work of elders to use their Grey box to include more tenuous-yet-relevant data-points to grasp expansive potentialities.

In the end, this is not a recommendation to make “gut decisions.”  Rather, it is a suggestion that once the analysis is undertaken, more work must be done.  You must go to the grey box and allow its immense powers to work.  This may require quiet time and “emptying the mind” meditation, a complete disconnect from the topic (say, by engaging in an activity that completely captures the attention, like snowboarding, tennis, or a bike ride), or, if you have developed the ability, listening to your body when you entertain the possible decisions.

The quality of your performance depends on letting the power of your mind not be hindered by the size of your data set, nor your “future model.”

*NOTE:  In reverse-engineering electronics, when engineers could not discern the real operational activity of a function, they would label the unknown operation a “black box.”  This phrase would serve just as well for us; however, the phrase has been co-opted by the airline industry, since the flight data recorders have been eponymously termed “black boxes.”  Data recorders record all relevant data points, but they are backward-looking at what has happened.  The capability that I refer to is much broader and is able to export past experiences and data into envisioning future possibilities and probabilities.  Thus we call this integrative function a “grey box.”  This conveys the “grey matter” qualities of the brain, while also conveying that there is a place in Mind that is able to blend past, present, and future with immense (and somehow mysterious) power.

Professional Character

Professionalism deserving of the label requires  not just expertise, but character.

Character can be shown through “smart and savvy action.”  This might be a more appealing description, in that it focuses on behavior rather than something deeper in the core of the individual.

But I like the implications of the word “character.”   It connotes something our grandparents would have referred to while taking the measure of a person.  I like the way the term character puts the focus not just on what a person can do, but on the manner in which they do it, and their internal motivations to take such actions.  In other words, the way they accomplish something says a great deal about who they are as people.

Character can be deduced by the “intangibles” of a person, by aggregating how they handle themselves.

The reason that professionals must use and demonstrate these intangibles is that much of their work occurs in collaboration with others.  (We could call that collaboration “teamwork,” though it could also consist of any relationship that requires give-and-take, including boss-employee, seller-buyer, regulator-regulated, etc.)

The Seven Key Character Traits of Professionals

1.       Integrity:  Professionals do what they say they will do.  They do not lie, they do not spin, and they act with high standards of ethics and legal adherence.  They earn and maintain the trust of others, for they know that once someone’s trust is lost, it is very, very, very hard to reclaim it.

2.       Respect:  Professionals respect others’ differences, even while they may not agree with or believe in the value of those differences.  But they know they will not win friends or collaborators if they show disrespect, nor will they align with others in a way that might provide opportunities to persuade or influence.  Professionals show humility by respecting others, and thus set themselves up to learn and grow.

3.       Poise:  Professionals maintain poise when things get tough.  They do not lose their cool over things that are frustrating or disappointing, even while they show passion.  This way, they earn admiration and credibility, while avoiding turning off those who are turned away by their intemperate actions.

4.       Initiative:  Professionals are pro-active agents of change, not victims of circumstance.  They take initiative to get things done.  If they do not like how things are going now, then they get things in gear to change them.  This may require forming a strategy to gain buy-in or seeking the blessings of authority.  In the end, they simply do not let things that must be attended to lie down.

5.       Discipline:  Professionals demonstrate discipline in their behavior.  They maintain pace on projects through careful allocation of their valuable time, energy and resources.

6.       Courage:  Professionals have the courage to address issues of conflict and concern.  They do not let their fears keep them from advancing the agenda.

7.       Compassion:  Professionals show compassion for others and themselves.  No human is perfect; everyone makes mistakes.  If we cannot understand the situation from another person’s cognitive and emotional position, then we are either psychopaths or robots.  Further, our compassion causes us to reach out and seek to help those who need and hand, and to forgive them when they make mistakes.  All that said, having compassion does not make the professional a doormat.  Indeed, showing “tough love” and holding people accountable or terminating them if they are falling down on the job becomes easier with compassion.

Armed with these “intangibles,” people of varying skill can collaborate and effectively work in a workgroup or team environment when there are shared goals and mutual accountabilities requiring the sharing of information, resources, or work processes.

FaceBook’s Negative Ripple-Effect

Watch out Leaders!  Will it become legal for your employees to harass you in public?  This situation suggests that it might….

In a recent employment law case reported by the NYT and others, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that an employer illegally fired an employee for disparaging comments that she made about her supervisor.  The employer maintains that the employee had received numerous complaints about her behavior.  They also held her accountable for her public posting to FaceBook of negative comments about her supervisor.

The NLRB said that the company policy of avoiding disparaging comments about co-workers was too broad, and that the employee’s right to free speech was violated.

The employee stated that the supervisor was a psychiatric case; this comment drew several supportive responses [from co-workers?].

COMMENTSOn the one hand we have an employer’s attempt to protect itself by establishing a company policy that mandates employees avoiding commenting in a disparaging manner toward other employes.  I imagine that the company put this policy into place to avoid having to defend itself from accusations that the company permitted an environment that was not politically correct.

On the other hand, we have an employee who has a right to free speech.  Regardless of the lack of common-sense shown by the employee in publishing these comments on FaceBook where it could get replicated innumerable times via the Internet, employees should have the right (within bounds) to express their opinion about working conditions, their company and the competence of their supervisor.  How and to whom those opinions are expressed have moral, ethical, policy and legal implications, but the right to express them cannot be infringed.

An NRLB appeals board will decide whether the expression of those opinions in a quasi-public forum like FaceBook is permissible, or if it is something that can be circumscribed by company policy.

Irrespective of any given company policy, people can and will express opinions about leaders in online forums.  Managers and leaders should understand that employees, associates, peers, customers, and vendors can (and likely will) breach the wall of presumed private comments and actions.   If those comments are positive, then no harm and all the better.  But if those opinions are disparaging (whether true or not), then this affects the leader’s reputation, credibility, and overall effectiveness in their role as an leader.

Bottom-line:   The leader’s operating presumption should be that nothing a leader does or says is private;  all actions will be considered “fair” for public comment by someone, including the fitness of the leader for their role.  While this may have a chilling effect on leadership, it is recommended to regulate behavior accordingly.  The mnemonic must be that “Everything you do is being watched by someone, and could become public at any time.”

Success = Stress: Deal With It

I’ve been working with Ben Wilson, a Greensboro Real Estate Agent and top-flight thinker, and we developed this scheme for thinking about the reactions that people have to their success and their stressful lives.

When your Ideals match your Situation, then you are happy, and in-joy with your life.  To the degree that your Situation does NOT match your Ideals, you experience stress.

Ideals are internally created; therefore, part of the key to handling stress is defining your Ideals.  Ideals based on having are subject to a short half-life of satisfaction, while Ideals based on Doing and Being have much greater durability at the same time that they are easier to achieve.

When you are attached to achieving certain outcomes on certain schedules to certain standards, and yet it is just not happening (because your Ideals are out of sync with the Situation), then you will experience stress.

However, if you realize that there is no other place that you can LIVE but here in the present (because the future is a fantasy and the past is history), then focusing solely on outcomes is a limiting perspective.  You’ve got to fully engage in what you are doing here and now in order to achieve the outcome you want.

Process = How you do something.  If you engage in your process with the intention to give something your best, and to enjoy the experience, then you will not experience stress, but instead will experience joy.  The outcome of your process will be the experience itself.