Beat the System
“A bad system will beat a good person every time” – W. Edwards Deming
Have you ever observed an organization that recruits sharp, highly energetic and motivated talent and grinds them into submission to produce mediocre results without improving the bottom line of the organization? Have you seen high potential talent join an organization with the expectation of turning the business around only to go from a reputation of success to failure? I know I have.
When we join an organization, we become a part of the overall system that produces results. The system has a structure and a culture that defines how things gets done. The culture either enables or constrains the organization’s ability to evolve and meet the needs of the business. The success of the individual is measured by the individual’s ability to operate within the culture and adapt to the norms and expectations of the organization. The organization sets the rules and evaluates the outcomes. Anyone who does not conform to the norms is considered sub-par and is expected to either improve (conform) or leave the organization. The organization sets the standard. What happens if that standard is mediocrity?
An organization is driven by the many systems or components that all interact with each other. In this systems model, components such as strategy, structure, processes, rewards and people all interact with each other to produce an organizational result. In total an organization is a big system that is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.
Dr. Deming is often cited as being the father of the quality revolution and systems-thinking in organizational design. At a time when the U.S. auto industry was suffering huge losses due to a changing economy and consumer demands, it became clear there was a need to increase quality and profitability to survive. As a result, there was a movement to adopt the principles that Dr. Deming applied in Japan, where quality and systems-thinking became the focal point of management philosophy and practices.
Dr. Deming observed that most of the troubles and possibilities for improvement add up to something like this: 94% belongs to the system and 6% to other causes. In other words, change the system to change the results; the individual has little impact.
Organizations have sophisticated defense mechanisms and the bigger the organization, the greater the ability to resist change. Overall the organization will work very hard to constrain, minimize or discredit the results of the change. Whether through lack of management support or indirectly through minimization of the impact or results, the organization will try to move back to the comfort of the status quo. Most anyone involved with driving organization change will tell us that it is rare that a new idea achieves its full potential.
So, as leaders trapped in a system, what are we to do? First and foremost, understand our situation and then focus our efforts on changing the system. Understanding our situation is critical to being able to achieve the type of success we desire. As part of the system we will be expected to operate within the norms and guidelines of the current culture. So while we have a greater vision of the possible, we will have to operate within the current system to affect change.
The good news is that changing the system has a lot of levers, not the least being the culture. Culture can be defined at a very high level as being the unwritten rules of how we do things here. Since culture is part of the system, a change to the culture will yield changes to the outcomes. Of course, change to any of the other aspects of the system including strategy, structure, processes, rewards and people will yield a net change as well. However, culture is the center of the people system that makes the organization function. Change to any portion of the system without consideration of culture will yield limited results.
To affect change in our portion of the organization our strongest play is to change the culture in our environment and then protect that culture change. The culture as we have defined it consists of the unwritten norms on how we do things here. When we start by changing the norm of expected behavior we open the door to doing things differently. For example, if we decide that building stronger teamwork will improve performance, then we would want to start by articulating and reinforcing behaviors that elevate the team above the individual.
Once the door is open for change, we can adjust the other elements of the system to support the change we are pursuing. A well-executed change supported by an enabling culture can produce significant results. A big change without the supporting culture change will inevitably invoke a reflex reaction with the system working hard to return to the status quo.
The next step is to protect the culture and elevate the results. Once we have established a new culture in our portion of the organization the challenge will be to protect it against the instinctive tendency of the larger organization to return it to its prior state. Again, being a smart leader we know that we are most effective and gain the greatest latitude when our results exceed expectations. The key is to elevate the results of our organization and continue to deliver exceptional performance as defined and recognized by the larger organization.
In the end, the performance of our organization and our performance as a leader are within our control, even in a less than optimal environment. Recognizing that we operate inside an organization that is defined by systems and cultures will help us better plan and adjust to the frustrations of organizational change.
As a final thought, consider this from Dr. Deming:
“…anytime the majority of the people behave a particular way the majority of the time, the people are not the problem. The problem is inherent in the system.”
Here are 4 tips for beating the system: