We’ve all grown up with the idea that “the system” drives individual behavior. Well, that’s kind of obvious isn’t it? If you break straight drives with roundabouts, people will slow down, surely? If you create a default option in a check sheet that has to be unticked to be changed, most people will just follow the default option, won’t they? And if you create incentives for any behavior, the behavior will by and large follow, will it?
It seems obvious, but is it true? Behavior doesn’t change… until it does. The best designed systems lead to unexpected outcomes. System theory just argues that the system was not designed well enough – I should know, I wrote my first book on managing with systems. But if systems drove behavior, and systems are largely stable, why does the world change so fast?
There’s another way of looking at this. Let’s assume people actually know what they want. Let us assume that each individual is:
1. Fairly clear about their immediate goals
2. Aware of immediate obstacles
3. Cares about a few passionately, tolerates/dismisses all others
4. Irrationally terrified of losses
5. Occasionally satisfied with wins
Systems don’t drive behavior, they limit behavior. Systems offer easy access to some resources and strong pushback on initiative. Every one loves innovation but everybody hates innovators. This is by no means a bad thing because it turns out that the humans in the wild are mostly hungry and murderous. To a large extent our increasingly sophisticated and overwhelming systems have led to us domesticating ourselves. From a romantic point of view, we can miss the wildness of pride in strength and freedom, but from a day-to-day perspective, this is far more comfortable.
System analysis is good at explaining a current state but always falls short in predicting the future state. The system feed-back loops can be seen by all, but, everywhere, in practice, some individuals are testing the limits of the system constraint, and occasionally find a way to turn them, which lands them either in jail or on the who’s who list or both.
My point being that the stuff that matters is not the overall system behavior (hell, every one can see that), but the detail problem by problem initiative where individuals look for clever ways to overcome obstacles, allies to help them do so, and occasionally, stochastically I should say, succeed. The system’s opportunities, incentives and constraints are the sieve through which random human initiative is selected.
Which is why trying to apply any system more thoroughly might only lead to solipsism and weird/crazy stuff – as we’ve seen tragically again and again in the twentieth century.
The alternative is to follow Adam Smith’s core beliefs that:
1. People know what they want and if you let them get on with it they’ll find a smart way of doing so overall (yes, yes, there will be drawbacks for others)
2. People have an innate sense of fairness and justice that tempers the sacrifices we ask of others in seeking what we want. After all, liberal societies have abolished slavery, generalized healthcare, reduced poverty far more effectively than directed ones.
At company level, this might mean that in order to thrive, rather than surround oneself with brilliant directors who will implement total systems, such as the business intelligence system, the HR system, the ERP and so on, we might want to think about how to develop individual initiative and individual ability to work with each other.
This does not mean giving up leadership, it means understanding how important it is to give a clear direction both by what one says and how one behaves (every micro-decision of the top dog is obsessively observed and discussed by the pack). And then, within this direction, rather than heavy handedly impose the systems one might want to help people to look for chinks, failures, problems and come up with something new. In practice. One by one.