I get a number of different reactions from people when I discuss organisational ‘systems thinking’ ideas with them. These range:
- from “wow, that’s so right…but we are completely stuck in our current ‘command-and-control’ reality and surely can’t do anything about it!” ;
- to “we need change and I can’t wait around for your theory to come to fruition – I’m going to accept things as they are and tinker at the edges as best I can…otherwise I will go mad with frustration!”.
To quote Russell Ackoff: the later response above is basically trying to make a “wrong thing righter” or, in effect, limit the damage.
However, I am very mindful that people can’t feast on ideas alone and that the point is to improve. All the theory in the world won’t help if we can’t apply it.
I have pondered this dilemma a lot and often…and came across (what is to me) a profound answer to this dilemma, as written by Alfie Kohn:
“When something is wrong with the present system, you move on two tracks at once.
- You do what you can within the confines of the current structure, trying to minimise its harm.
- You also work with others to try to change that structure, conscious that nothing dramatic may happen for a very long time.
If we move exclusively on the latter track, such as by mobilising people to dismantle [the destructive instruments of the] system, we may not be doing enough to protect [our colleagues] from the destructive effects [of these instruments] with which they are going to be controlled in the meantime.
But – and this point can be more difficult to recognise – if we simply reconcile ourselves to the status quo and spend all our time getting our [colleagues] to accommodate themselves to it and play the game, then nothing will change and they will have to do the same with their [colleagues and on and on].
As someone once said, realism corrupts; absolute realism corrupts absolutely.”
So, we need to simultaneously travel along two tracks.
We need to accept that our progress along the (truly) transformational track of changing our management system will take time….but we MUST start and sustain this journey (i.e. not see it as an impossibility) whilst also doing what we can within our current daily realities. We can only do this if you and I continue to think, collaborate and learn….which, I suggest, may be intrinsically motivating for us and give us a clearer sense of purpose.