Systems in Organizations

The concept of Systems (systems thinking, causal loops, feedback, etc.) has been around for a long time.  The formal theories go back at least 50 years, and the philosophical ideas (like holsim) can be found in ancient texts from thousands of years ago.  So is this really of use to organizations?

Actually, yes.

The easiest way to see this is through people and organizations.  It’s amazing to see how people get lost behind the facilities, equipment, production, finances, etc., of organizations.  But if there were no people, there would be no organization.  There might be a factory full of robots, but that is not an organization.  So organizations are often assumed to be collections of individual humans.

That would be simple, if individuals added up to organizations.  Unfortunately, we also know better than that, but we sometimes don’t make the connections.

From the time that we’re kids in school, we know that people act differently in one group than in another.  Most of us are pretty clear, too, that when we go back to visit with our parents and siblings, or other family members, we fall (or get shoved) right back into old roles and old ways of being.  Anyone who has ever had training in group dynamics understands this, as well.  The setting that we’re in gives us a lot of cues about how we’re supposed to act, and we respond to those unconsciously more than because we really mean to.

Groups and organizations are not just collections of humans.  Each one creates a different context with different expectations and (usually unspoken) rules.  They are actually more like ongoing performances in which we act out roles.  In this case, though, there is no predetermined script.  We’re helping to write it every day.

There are mission statements, job descriptions, performance goals, policies, training, directives – even scripted statements and written text (like help screens) to be used verbatim by employees – all of which give cues and direction to guide our behaviors.  There are also expectations that we will use our knowledge and experience to apply to new situations as they arise.  Supposedly, all of this in done in coordination with each other, so that the organization as a whole moves as some giant flock of birds or swarm of insects, towards some common direction.

Our collective activities form the system that we know as an organization, but it doesn’t encompass everything about us individually.  We all contribute things – play parts – that create the collective process that we call an organization.

So where is the breaking point between the individual and the collective.  What is it that creates a system?

We’re capable of participating in many different kinds of organizations, and other types of human systems, in parallel throughout our lives.  We can be employees at work, family members at home, team members in sports, etc.  Even at work, though, we’re not just members of the the organization as a whole.  If it’s a large place we probably fit into a department, and possibly a division or region.  If it’s a small place we may have a number of roles that we play, moving through them at various points in a day or week.

In each place, there is something that defines the roles, and something that identifies the system as “this organization” rather than “that family.”  Individuals move in and out of different systems all the time and while it affects the system to different degrees, they remain substantially intact throughout many changes.  (The CEO is often the person to see him- or herself as the most indispensable, but things move on, as many have learned.)

If you’re going to work on your organization, then, what exactly does that mean?

It starts with understanding that you are not trying to change or fix individual people.  You’re changing a very complex network of interactions and roles between people, most of which operate at an unconscious level.  You can do some of that through information (like training programs or employee meetings or mass emails put out by the communications function.)  But information will mostly affect the things that people do consciously.  If you’re going to affect the system, you have to affect what the system is – and that starts an entirely different conversation.

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