Systems Everywhere

Sometimes when I bring up the word “systems” in conversation, I notice people’s eyes glazing over. (As a result, it’s on my list of “careful where you use” words.) I suspect many people are turned off by having to think about systems, perhaps because systems evoke complexity. This is unfortunate because systems are everywhere. Knowing they exist and understanding how they work can make everyone more effective at… well, pretty much everything.

For example, you’ll often hear people talk about wanting to lose or gain weight. (Mostly the former.) You’ll see them modify their behavior in the pursuit of this goal. They’ll eat less, eat different things, exercise more, or all of the above. They’ll measure the effects of these actions by weighing themselves and taking note of the numbers to see how they vary over time. They’ll notice their clothes fitting more loosely, and will look at themselves in the mirror and notice changes to the shape of their body.

In doing these things, they’ve tapped into the power of a system. Diet and exercise are levers the person uses to influence this system. (Eating less will have one effect, eating more another.) Weight, the shape of their body, and the fit of their clothes are the feedback mechanisms that let the person know whether or not the levers produce the desired effect. Paying attention to what’s going on allows these people to notice changes over time. If they vary how they eat and exercise, their weight and the fit of their clothes will vary.

This seems like a simple system. But as anyone who’s tried to manage their weight knows, it’s not easy to do in practice. That’s because there’s much more to the system than this simple model. For one thing, there are aspects of the system that are not obvious to the dieter. For example, varying the intake of food and exercise affect the body’s metabolism, changing how it uses up energy. As a result, the effects of manipulating these control points are not linear. For another, the dieter’s mind is also a component of the system — and the mind can do tricky things like becoming frustrated at the lack of progress, or accepting exceptions “just this once,” or going nuts at the office holiday party, or becoming disappointed by something someone else has said.

There are other components of this system that are even harder to grok. For example, the pursuit of a particular body shape is a goal suggested to us by our culture, a broader system we participate in whether we want to or not. The stewardship of the body-weight system will vary depending on what the dieter’s ultimate goal is: Their attitude and approach will be different if they’re dieting in service to a healthier body than if they’re dieting in service to a socially constructed image of what a “good” body looks like. Also, some people’s body chemistry is just different than others’; the “expected” behavior of the system will not work the same for these folks.

But enough of this weighty example. Let’s focus now on your work. Any project you undertake will be subject to systems dynamics that have parallels to this weight management example. You’re expected to perform to certain standards as you strive towards particular project goals. Perhaps you’ve committed to deliver some artifact by a particular date, and there are consequences tied to your ability to meet this goal. Working towards the goal may require some struggle on your part; perhaps you need to stay up late for a few nights in a row or put off going on a vacation. Incentives drive you to make these sacrifices; perhaps there’s a bonus if you deliver on time (carrot) or you may lose your job if you fail (stick.)

Whatever the case, you’re participating in this system. Your effectiveness will at least depend on

  1. whether you understand the goals you’re driving towards (e.g., delivering a particular thing to a particular standard by a particular date),
  2. whether you understand what you’re being measured on (e.g., is the date more important than the quality of the work?), and
  3. whether the appropriate feedback mechanisms are in place (e.g., regular check-ins to validate that things are going in the right direction) and everyone understands them.

You’ll notice all three of these conditions call for better communications. For this system to work effectively, you and the person who has requested the work need to be “on the same page” — i.e., speak the same language. Most of the problems I’ve encountered in projects have been due to communications breakdowns. This is something you must proactively work at, because in many cases these systems lack good communications mechanisms.

And of course, your mind is also a component of the system. The same mind tricks that can trip you up when managing your weight can affect your performance at work. This is aggravated by the fact that most people work in groups, and groups bring with them interpersonal dynamics and politics which add a great deal of noise and complexity.

You can’t expect everyone to understand they’re participating in systems, or the importance of communications to the effectiveness of these systems — but you can. Doing so gives you an edge at work and in life.