The Problem with Systems Thinking is in… Not Applying It

By | March 20, 2018

 

We often hear (and also say) things like: “avoid local optimization”, “optimize the system as a whole”, and so on… Those are very reasonable suggestions. And yet, as many of us know, organizations don’t seem to be very good at it. Actually, most of the time they are not good at this at all! It seems like whenever there’s a slightest opportunity to do some nice little local optimization, they are totally on it. At the same time, while there are important steps to be done in terms of optimizing the whole – nobody seems to notice the opportunity. It’s like some sort of selective vision impairment or some sort of a dark spell on people that mostly have university degrees and are overall considered smart.

My strong belief is that people aren’t inherently stupid, but as lots and lots of scientific evidence demonstrates, the brain function that is responsible for analytic thinking, gets often “hijacked” by the much more primitive (and yet powerful) system that utilizes various shortcuts and heuristics to arrive at conclusions that are not so beneficial in a complex environment, such as modern organizations (see references to various research results in D. Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”).

Knowing how many organizational change agents have to deal with this problem in the context of the transformation, we decided to do a little research. We simply surveyed people with a simple question (let’s call it the “Main form“):

You’re starting a new job as a team leader in a new company. After spending a week in your new role, you discovered that there’s a systemic issue that prevents the team from performing at their best ability. It looks very likely that the root cause of the issue lies in the behavior of your bosses and, therefore, is beyond your control boundary as a team leader. There’s a slim chance, however, that the problem might be due to internal dynamic of your team. This issue does not render the team entirely blocked, but significantly affects their performance. What would you choose to do?

…and the answers were:

a) Focus primarily on working with your bosses to address the issue
b) Focus primarily on addressing the issue by changing the team behavior
c) Avoid disrupting the flow, let things be the way they are and let the team continue with their tasks

Please note that we deliberately did not include answers like “Work with the team first and if that doesn’t help – work with your bosses”. The reason for that was simple: we wanted to have them make a principal choice rather than select something particularly comforting, but not necessarily achievable-as-stated in their case.

We’ve also created two other forms of the same question, purposefully “biasing” the respondents a little, to add a sense of urgency. Here they are:

Alternative form 1:

You’re starting a new job as a team leader in a new company. At the very beginning, you were told by the person that hired you that the management is not happy with the team performance. After spending a week in your new role, you discovered that there’s a systemic issue that prevents the team from performing at their best ability. But it looks very likely that the root cause of the issue lies in the behavior of your bosses and, therefore, is beyond your control boundary as a team leader. There’s a slim chance, however, that the problem might be due to internal dynamic of your team. This issue does not render the team entirely blocked, but significantly affects their performance. What would you choose to do?

Alternative form 2:

You’re starting a new job as a team leader in a new company. It turns out that your predecessor was terminated. After spending a week in your new role, you discovered that there’s a systemic issue that prevents the team from performing at their best ability. It looks very likely that the root cause of the issue lies in the behavior of your bosses and, therefore, is beyond your control boundary as a team leader. There’s a slim chance, however, that the problem might be due to internal dynamic of your team. This issue does not render the team entirely blocked, but significantly affects their performance. What would you choose to do?

The difference with the Main Form is in red font. The answers remained the same as in case of Main Form.

Here are the results:

Main Form. 53 total respondents (unconstrained demographic):

Alternative Form 1. 53 total responses (unconstrained demographic):

Alternative Form 2. 51 total responses (unconstrained demographic):

Interesting, isn’t it?

For starters, notice how the answers spread between “a” and “b” in Main Form. That is an interesting, asymmetrical response, given that the question states that the first potential root cause (the problem being caused by the bosses) is stated to be significantly more probable than the second one (it being caused by the team). The two alternative formulations clearly biased the audience more towards answer “a”. Please note that all three forms were answered by different people, without overlaps; no one had to answer the question in more than one form.

I personally had a hypothesis that Alternative Form 1 would bias the respondents toward answer 1 (as it did), but Alternative Form 2 would rather bias them toward answers 2 and 3, which it obviously didn’t. Basically, both alternative forms had approximately the same affect. But still, notice, how many respondents selected answer “b” in both alternative forms.

At that point it’s been decided that “unconstrained demographic” is an interesting first approximation, but we need to know how would a more targeted audience react to this. For that, the Main Form was selected as the only form to continue with and the survey was answered by 51 people in various middle management positions. I can’t say that I exactly expected to see this:

This time around, however, we included a text field where we asked people to explain the rationale behind their choice. 37 out of 51 respondents did so. Some answers suggested that people were primarily focused on what was in their direct area of influence (here’s one interesting example: “My job is to direct my team not change management”). Quite a few others were basically suggesting that they selected “a” to start with the team and then move to the bosses if the former doesn’t produce the desirable results, which is funny because as I noted above, we tried to constrain the answers to not include that specific “comfortable” option. Finally, those who selected answer “a” mostly explained that they want “Only real solution” and “Try to fix the root of the problem”.

To be entirely clear, I am not suggesting that either one of those three answers (“a” or “b” or “c”) was a right one. The question purposefully contained some ambiguity and our goal was to rather see what answers people are mostly inclined towards. The main takeaway for me is that there’s definitely a strong asymmetry in play:

People are more inclined to local optimization despite the fact that it is unlikely to produce the desirable results and they are aware of that.

What does that tell us? I guess, a few things:

  1. You may educate the middle management in systems thinking all you want and it may not change too much, because their decision whether to use it is significantly impacted by other factors; it is very likely that physiological safety is one of them
  2. Maybe there’s much more value in the higher management creating a transparent environment where raising systemic impediments is not something frowned upon, but rather encouraged and thoroughly supported
  3. The effect may be a cumulative result of unintended consequences of existing policies, metrics and KPIs and established cultural scenarios (“bring me only good news!”, etc.). The impact of such “blowbacks” is what the higher management needs to be educated in.

Have a good day and focus on real problems, otherwise we will pay you a visit 🙂

By Alex Yakyma, Org Mindset.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Systems Thinking is in… Not Applying It

  1. Andrew

    Interesting results. I imagine I’d land in Camp A, though part of that would be, how secure do I feel that if it blows up in my face (i.e. terminated), I have a place to land?

    Another option I thought of is, present the choice as a set of options to brief to my manager, and let him/her decide: Do you think management might be part of the problem, or would you rather me pursue working with the team first?

    Reply
  2. Alexey

    Nice article. Why does it have such a misleading title?

    The problem more about how courages a manger is or how her working environment is safe for changes.

    Reply

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