Our organisations are complex, messy environments, not machines. We need to start making our decisions accordingly. Since the rise of the industrial age, we have viewed the way our organisations work, and indeed the way the world around us works, like machines. Today, thanks to systems thinkers such as Fritjof Capra, Margaret Wheatley, Peter Senge and more, that perspective is changing to a more natural way of seeing things.
Our organisations are in fact complex, messy environments of interdependent elements, not a group of clean, tidy parts – more like the Amazon jungle than a Ford motor car. So, how do you see your organisation?
Before you answer, think about the ripple effects of your last decision. Chances are there was fall-out beyond your intended results. In the day-to-day, this can be mostly invisible or mildly annoying, but in extreme situations it ends with far more dire consequences (think Chernobyl nuclear reactor or Columbia Space Shuttle).
In keeping with our compartmentalised, machine-like view of things, we correspondingly view cause and effect in a linear fashion. But it never operates that way. Our decisions cascade outwards in many directions, overflowing into seemingly unrelated areas.
For example, a decision to promote Joe to a senior executive role instead of Mary causes Mary to leave the organisation. Mary leaving creates a gap in communication and loss of knowledge about several key divisions that she managed. The gap becomes apparent when it leads to service failures, which in turn causes several major key accounts to switch their business to a competitor. The lost business causes a significant drop in quarterly earnings… and the cascade continues.
By looking beyond the initial decision (promote Joe) and thinking through potential ramifications, the organisation may have been able to take steps to stop the ripple effects. The wrong decision can set off a reaction that upends the system’s balance.
Dietrich Dorner, author of Logic of Failure, describes common decision-making processes as being “the small eminently sensible steps that people take to certain disaster.” A perspective I would have to agree with!
So next time you have a decision to make (big or small), take a few minutes to think a bit further downstream. What could it affect that you haven’t thought about? In doing so, you might end up seeing your organisation in a completely different way.
If you would like to explore the interconnected nature of things, here are a few places to get you started.
- Wikipedia page on Systems Thinking.
- Systems Thinking resource site.
- Excerpt from upcoming book by Fritjof Capra – The Tao of Da Vinci.
- An interview with Margaret Wheatley author of Leadership and the New Science
(I previously referenced this book in my 25 September blog on leaderhip).
See you next week.
To read more Michel Hogan blogs, click here.
Alignment is Michel’s passion. Through her work with Brand Alignment Group she helps organisations align who they are with what they do and say to build more authentic and sustainable brands.