Can You See Them?


I’m always amazed by night vision or heat-seeking goggles that allow the user to see things that otherwise would not be visible to the naked eye. Wouldn’t it be great if the same technology could be used to develop “systems-seeking” glasses to help you identify and focus in on the unseen forces that may be derailing a leader’s best-laid plans?

The systems that impact our efforts may seem “invisible” to the untrained eye, but just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t hard at work. What exactly do I mean by system? Systems are individual actions/functions that interact in a prescribed way to achieve a specific outcome — much like a set of gears that work together to run a machine. Too often in a work environment, we try to change or impact a “single gear” and then don’t understand why our effort isn’t successful… maybe our people just aren’t trying enough… perhaps they haven’t grasped the larger vision you are trying to achieve… or maybe, just maybe, you failed to see an underlying system.

Short of someone inventing system-seeking glasses, a few pointers regarding systems that might help you recognize their existence:

1) When multiple people are behaving in ways that don’t make sense to you, start looking for the system that is shaping their actions.

If one person is behaving in an unexpected way, it may be a misunderstanding, a learning curve, or some other unique circumstance. However, if multiple managers respond to a request in a similar manner and it feels like, from your perspective, they are just being difficult, start looking for the system that is shaping their actions, because…

2) The “job” of a system is to create a consistent, efficient response — in effect, to maintain the status quo.

Think of a bureaucracy (because it is often easier to see someone else’s systems). Everyone is funneled into filling out the same forms and following the same steps because the job of the bureaucracy, the system, is to achieve a particular result and someone decided this series of steps leads to the desired result. When systems are working, they will resist change . . .that is the purpose of a system! Pushing harder on your people to change, without addressing the underlying systems within which they are working, frustrates everyone — you and your people.

3) To increase the odds of success in a change effort, start by asking what systems will be impacted.

Too often, change initiatives are planned in a vacuum and focus solely on the intended goal of the effort rather than considering how the initiative fits into, or will impact, larger organizational systems. It is much easier for your people to embrace a change when it is presented in the context of the current organizational systems.

The good new is, once you know how to look for “unseen” systems they become easier to recognize… Guess maybe you don’t need those glasses after all.

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