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  • Regan Consulting

Understanding Organisations as Systems Part 1: What's a System?

Updated: Nov 13, 2018



Increasingly we're being asked by clients to talk to them about systems and related thinking as it relates to organisations. It's a big topic and much of it is counter-intuitive but we'll try and demystify its key messages in this series of posts.


In part 1 we introduce three types of system, all of which share the same key characteristics, but each of which demands a different approach if we’re to understand and manage it. We believe it's critical that leaders recognise these fundamental differences. If they don’t, wasted resources and frustration will inevitably ensue.


The defining characteristic of all systems, including organisations, is that they are wholes comprising interdependent parts. Interdependence means that each part relies on one or more other parts in order to do its job, and other parts rely on it in order to do their jobs. But what most people overlook is that how the parts are connected determines the system’s performance just as much, and sometimes more, than do the parts themselves.


It follows that removing or changing parts or changing the ways they relate to each other will change the system in some way. If we do this with simple or complicated systems like those described below, we can usually be confident that changes we make will work as intended. With complex systems this is rarely the case.


1. The Bike. A Simple System

Imagine that you’re gently pedaling along a level road when suddenly your legs start whirring round like a velodrome star's, but your bike begins to slow to a halt. It soon becomes obvious to most of us that our chain’s fallen off and that the problem should be easy to fix.


If the chain repeatedly falls off, then it’s a signal that we may have bigger problems so we might, for example, check the chain’s tension or that the cogs it runs on are OK and in line.


In doing this we are using linear, reductionist and convergent thinking. We are funnelling down to a possible cause by testing a range of plausible cause / effect scenarios until we find a workable solution.


We’re able to do this with most simple systems because the links between cause and effect are usually short and easy to see, and cause / effect chains tend to follow each other in logical sequences.


2. The Aircraft. A Complicated System

You’re now at the controls of an Jumbo jet at 35000 feet when it loses all power. If you’re in luck you will be saved when a number of fail-safe systems kick in to restore power but you will probably be clueless about the cause of your problem.


When you land, however, ground crew will plug your plane into diagnostic software which will tell them swiftly what and where the fault is. They’re able to do this because their software follows the same analytical processes as you did to get your bike going, ie: linear, reductionist, convergent thinking.


It’s tempting to think of complicated systems as complex but they’re not. They are just a collection of simple systems each doing a specific job. Some operate independently and some work together, but all have relatively easily identifiable, short cause and effect chains.


A key feature of both simple and complicated systems is that they are predictable when they’re in working order. When you pedal your bike you will move forward. When you lower the flaps of your Jumbo you will slow down and lose height. Complex systems rarely work like that.


3. The Work Group. A Complex System

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could press a pedal under your desk to increase your productivity, or turn a wheel to change your organisation’s direction?


You can’t because as soon as you add people to a system you automatically add complexity. When humans are the interdependent parts of a system, relationships form and reform continuously at many different levels. This generates emergent behaviour which wasn't planned and which, even with hindsight, may be difficult to understand.


We've seen many promising and meticulously planned organisational improvement attempts bite the dust for no apparent reason. Of course there will be multiple reasons, but there are two common ones in our experience that underpin most failures. This quote by systems thinker Peter Senge encapsulates the first:

"People don't resist change; they resist being changed"

The consensus amongst organisation pollsters is that 3 out of 4 significant organisational change initiatives fail to meet their objectives. It's perhaps no coincidence that staff involved in many of these failures described their leaders as bureaucratic, reactive and/or authoritarian.


The lesson here is that complex systems cannot be changed or managed by command and control. The leader's job is to build consensus around a compelling story about the need for change, set a broad direction then encourage staff to design and implement it.


'Appreciative Inquiry' is a great process for involving staff in major change. Please contact us if you'd like to know more.


The second most common reason for failure occurs where attempts are made to change parts of a system without thinking through the impact on the system as a whole. A good example of this is shown in our blog XXXXXXX