Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Fifth Discipline: Systems Theory

All human organizations are systems. They share common patterns, behaviours, and properties with electrical, and biological systems that can be understood and used to our advantage.

We can define a “system” as “ a web of relations among elements”. The structure of any system – the many circular interlocking, sometimes time-delayed relationships among its components – is often just as important in determining its behaviour as the individual components themselves.

Think of the solar system – a system of planets dominated by a sun, many times bigger than any of the other planets. Only the planet earth has the right distance from the sun so that the sun's energy was enough to support the development of life but not so much as to destroy life.

And life itself is a global system that has interacted with and changed the earth's atmosphere, climate, geology, and chemistry over hundreds of millions of years.

In a system, all the parts interact and influence each other in ways that aren't predictable . Think of the Beatles – who could have imagined the evolution of their music and the vast audience that could be created by those four guys as separate individuals?

Human organizations are built up to serve various purposes. Like a machine, it is individuals that make up the parts of the whole. But, unlike a machine, human organizations can learn and improve themselves. They can change and evolve.

A machine is built to further someone's goal. All of its parts are created and put together in the pursuit of that goal. Human organizations have goals, but those goals can evolve over time and come to influence those who serve in the organization as well.

You want to keep a machine running smoothly, but a human organization is much more than a machine because its components are living individuals with their own attitudes and goals. What is more, unlike the components of a machine, as human beings we care about each other and the world around us. This caring for others means that we are emotionally involved in social systems.

To be emotionally involved, to care about others, makes seeing the whole picture much harder to do because in order to see the whole we need to stand back from it and get some distance. Think of your own family as a system. It's not easy because we can't usually distance ourselves from our family. We care too much. But families are interacting systems of individuals just as much as a rock band, a corporation, a hospital, or a school.

When we learn how what we do is part of a system, we can picture ourselves as a participant rather than just a lone individual. We can be more effective than we could be as a lone individual. We can learn how to improve the system, make it work better. Sometimes we can even change its goals if we have a strong vision of what is most important to us.

The more accurate we are in seeing the workings of the system the easier it is for us to find the the points of greatest leverage and change the way the system works.

Obviously, not all change is beneficial, Some changes make things worse, which is why every organization needs to strive toward continuous learning. We all need to learn to see things accurately so that we profit from our mistakes as well as our successes.

We need to encourage diversity within all organizations because it is diversity that supports successful adaptation to change. According to Bill O'Brian, CEO of Hanover Insurance, a manager's fundamental task is in providing the enabling conditions for people to lead the most enriching lives they can.

As Peter Senge puts it in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization “In effect, the art of system thinking lies in seeing through complexity to the underlying structures generating change... It means organizing complexity into a coherent story that illuminates the causes of problems and how they can be remedied in enduring ways."  Ideally, that's what I see myself doing as a columnist and a blogger.

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