We are a System? Who Knew?


Systems Theory explains that when a disturbance or substantial event occurs within a system there are ripples…consequences…ramifications. And they affect every part and everyone in the system (organization, family, country).

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(And Why Our System is in Chaos.)

We certainly hear the word “systemic” used a lot recently, and for good reason.

Reminds me of the first day of the Leadership class I taught each year for graduate students. Among those foundational principles that all leaders must build upon, understanding Systems Theory ranks right at the top of the list.

“Join me for a walk in the most idyllic forest you can imagine,” I’d begin. “Suddenly, we walk into a clearing and ahead of us is the most perfectly round and still pond you’ve ever seen. It’s like glass. So what do you do? The mischievous child within you looks around, spots a rock and chucks into the middle of the pond. What happens?”

I was never quite sure how to interpret the silence and the blank faces I’d observe in my students. Oops, did I offer this fieldtrip in Spanish and they’ve not been following along?

Finally one brave soul would offer, “It… splashes?”

“Right, and then what?”

Now the silence was deafening. What is this guy asking? Is this a trick question? I’m not answering first.

Quickly arriving at the end of my “silence quotient,” I answer my own question, “There are ripples. Where do they go?” Presuming more silence I supply the correct answer, “Everywhere. Every succeeding ripple goes to ALL points of the pond’s shoreline.”

So what?

So, a lot.

Systems Theory explains that when a disturbance or substantial event occurs within a system there are ripples…consequences…ramifications. And they affect every part and everyone in the system (organization, family, country).

Starting to get my drift? Today our world is experiencing successive waves hitting our shores resulting in systemic and seismic shifts.

From a leadership perspective, here’s an example. I’ve recently been consulting (informally) with a major institution in the throes of announcing what amounts to massive corporate changes.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar?

It has become clear to me that a boulder was heaved into this group’s little pond with no anticipation, consideration or regard for the tsunami of ramifications and consequences that resulted.

A series of resignations followed almost immediately. The upheaval among the staff is palpable. The morale barometer may be at its lowest level ever.

How does this happen?

In this case, a team member who had been in the organization for a short time was elevated to a leadership role. All the red flags and issues he’d identified were not addressed now that he held a position to influence. Rather than fixing the fixable, he instead accepted leadership of the new initiative that is now tearing the organization apart. That led to a series of missteps:

· Focusing on the wrong issues at the wrong time.

· Failing to shore up a crumbling foundation, the very foundation upon which the new initiative was meant to be built and on which its success could have been secured.

· The new all-consuming task diverted his warm and caring persona to become transactional: task-focused, not people-focused.

· He lost his allies and gained a host of new enemy combatants.

· As brilliant as he was (still is, I presume), he failed to account for system-wide ripples, ramifications and consequences — especially the unintended kind.

What could he — or you — have done differently?

· Take time to breathe in your new role. Take a fresh look at the corporate landscape from the newly elevated position in the corner office.

· Knowing a major change initiative is on the horizon, get ready by moving decisively to strengthen the foundations: systems, personnel and infrastructure.

· Include important and crucial personnel (stakeholders) in a collaborative process. (Their buy-in upfront will make all the difference.)

· Use your valuable past experience to consider as many future scenarios as possible — both positive and negative — and prepare appropriately.

But he didn’t. So now what?

Repair. Repair. Repair. Work diligently to meet with disgruntled personnel. One on one.

Listen. Listen. Listen. Hear their concerns and work to fix their issues. Regaining their trust may be impossible, but now it’s your first and most important task.

Swallow your pride. Admit your role in the overreach and oversights of the roll-out.

The ancient Golden Rule prescription fits nicely: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Wonder what the ripple effects of that strategy might look like in your organization?

Norm Mintle

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