21 July, 2010
The System's Not Broken: It's Serving The Interests Of Somebody Who Wants It That Way
Products are the result of systems that are perfectly designed to produce them. A system that produces tires will never produce soft, swirled ice cream unless that system is redesigned and reconfigured to produce swirled ice cream.
What’s true for manufactured goods like ice cream and tires is also true of our civic, social, governmental, advocacy and business organizations so if your organization isn’t producing the results it claims it wants to produce, the system must be redesigned. Read John Seddon’s Systems Thinking In The Public Sector or the books of Eliyahu Goldratt or Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry.
Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization doesn’t seem to be doing any of the things it would be logical for it to do if it were really serious about achieving its stated goals and objectives. Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization has a lot of meetings, puts on a lot of events and puts a lot of happy talk on its website but isn’t any closer to achieving its stated goals than it was 5, 20 or 20 years ago when the organization was formed.
Many organizations (read “systems”) really exist to serve interests other than the ones stated in its charter or website.
The Area Minister for a group of churches once sent me to meet with a dying church to see if I could show them how to increase attendance. The church’s stated goal was to reach its neighborhood with the gospel of Christ yet none of the church’s well-heeled middle-class and wealthy members lived in the neighborhood and the church was doing nothing whatsoever to reach its poor neighbors that lived within walking distance of the church. On Sunday mornings, the church’s tiny parking lot was overflowing with SUVs and luxury cars. The church was landlocked and there was nowhere to add parking so the only logical thing to do – especially since their stated goal was to “reach their neighborhood with the gospel of Christ” was to implement programs designed to evangelize the 500 or so poor people who lived within a 3-minute walk of the church. Long story short, the church chose to close rather than achieve their stated goal of reaching their poor neighbors with the gospel of Christ. The well-heeled members of this church joined churches where they could be with other well-heeled people. You see, they didn’t want to reach their poor neighbors with the gospel of Christ at all. Their real goal was to use church affiliation as a means of being with people they liked and could, perhaps, do business with.
Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization isn’t doing the things it would do if it were serious about achieving its stated goals. Don’t be afraid to speak up and say what you’ve noticed.
Don’t be afraid to notice that your organization – your system – is not producing the product its website says it’s trying to produce and that it will never produce that product until the system is redesigned. Don’t say “the system is broken”. No, the system is producing exactly what the system is designed to produce.
Don’t be afraid to ask yourself and your org’s leaders one simple question: “Why?” When your org plans an event that doesn’t seem to advance the org’s stated goal, ask why. When the org doesn’t do the things it would seem logical for it to do if it really wanted to reach its stated goal, ask why.
Many orgs exist not to actually achieve their stated goals but to provide a showcase for the org’s leaders or to provide what I call a “hunting and fishing license” to go out and advance their political or business interests under the guise of “effecting public policy” or “creating a better business climate” or even “reaching the neighborhood with the gospel of Christ”.
The system’s not broken. It’s functioning as designed. The system is serving the interests of its designer. If you don’t like the product you have to redesign the system that produces the product.