The 3 Broken Systems that Are Driving You Nuts at Work


Let’s talk about the systems at play around you.


What the hell are systems?


Well, they’re the underlying patterns and structures that dictate personal and organizational belief, behavior and ultimately, results. In the knowledge era (as opposed to the industrial era of the past), more than ever, we have to be willing to look at organizations not as machines, taking input and transforming it to output, but as living systems of interconnected people, resources and conditions. In other words, as complex systems.


And boy-oh-boy can those systems go haywire, both at an organization-wide macro level as well as at the micro level of small teams or individuals.


They’re referred to as “the way we do things around here” or “just the way things are”. And often, they create results that no one wants.


Understanding the systems at play in our lives gives us the gift of anticipation. And that changes everything.


Here are the 3 that cause the most trouble.


Fixes that Fail – Are You Addicted to Firefighting?

Every organization has its fires. You know – emergencies that pop up from time to time requiring our immediate attention. Maybe a product launch has gone off the rails. Or something’s broken. Or someone walked out the door at the worst possible moment.

And every organization has its firefighters. Some organizations have a whole team of firefighters and some are made up of nothing but firefighters. For those organizations, firefighting is a part of who they are.


We don’t like fires (or at least we say we don’t). Fires are scary. They cause chaos, unpredictability and each and every one could very well mean the end of us.

That’s why the people who extinguish the fires are organizational superheroes. When the fight is done, and the fire is out, everyone is pumped. Firefighting is thrilling, it’s exciting, it’s… addictive.


And like most things that are addictive, it ain’t good.


Because despite the good intensions of our heroic firefighters, nine times out of ten, we’re actually making the problem worse. The fire is just a symptom. When we congratulate ourselves for having put out yet another fire, we ignore the underlying structural problem that caused the fire in the first place.


Patching together a dated back-end system with Band-Aids and bubblegum when in reality, the whole thing needs a rebuild, or increasing marketing budgets and sales targets rather than dealing with poor product quality or moving harassed employees to a new department rather than terminating a predatory manager are all fixes that ultimately fail.


Logic dictates that if your house catches fire on a regular basis, you don’t just buy more fire extinguishers. You bring in an electrician to fix the underlying problem – faulty wiring. But for some reason, in organizations and often in our private lives, we don’t do this. We keep fighting the fires. And we do it because on some level, it works for us, even though we know it’s bad for us.


What to do


First of all, admit that you have a problem. Then get to work on solving it. What is the common factor in all of these fires? Where are you lacking expertise? Where are you under resourcing? Where are you creating unrealistic expectations? Where are you focusing? What are you measuring? What are you avoiding? Where are the surprises, and what are they an indication of?


Success to the Successful – Are You Perpetuating Privilege?


Success to the Successful is by far, the system trap I hate the most. It’s insidious, systemic and to most people, conveniently invisible. But above all, it’s lazy.


In the Success to the Successful trap, people and methodologies that are successful are granted additional advantages that give them the ability to compete more effectively and therefore win more easily in the future. That means if you grew up in a certain kind of neighborhood, went to a certain kind of school, look a certain way, sound a certain way, have certain cultural references, you have structural advantages over someone who didn’t. Sound unfair? Well it is. And it’s everywhere.


Success to the Successful isn’t just about individuals. We see it in business when companies over invest in cash cows and assign limited time and funds to new innovation. We see it when companies lose interest in new products before they’re able to reach materiality to the bottom line. We see it when startups hire the same person over and over again and call it “cultural fit”. We saw it in the hiring algorithm developed by Amazon that taught itself that male candidates were better than female candidates.

These policies and practices are developed with the notion that it is smarter to double down on what’s already working. It’s easy to sell this notion to a board of directors. And it makes us feel comfortable. We don’t, after all, want to take our eyes off the ball. But, Success to the Successful can trap us into lackluster performance. We wind up with the same strategies, the same people, the same technology the same measurements and the same tools. We become unimaginative, closed minded and prisoners of the past. Those who think differently or approach things in unorthodox ways become disenchanted and demotivated. Opportunities for change and innovation are lost.


What makes me the craziest about Success to the Successful is the way most people are blind to it. Take a look at your organization. If everyone is the same color or went to the same school, or are of the same gender identity, or the same sexuality or have the same mother tongue, or the same physical abilities, you and your senior leaders (not to mention your HR department) have some thinking to do.


What to do.


Consciously diversify. A team of likeminded people, while very comfortable, is essentially useless. Differences lead to the kind of tension, conflict and debate that create innovation and excellence.


Encourage collaboration and cross-pollination. The more you and your team are exposed to new ideas and ways of doing things, the better your solutions and innovations will become. Creativity will thrive. Energy will increase.


Drifting Goals – Are You a Boiled Frog?

Drifting Goals is what happens when saving face becomes more important than truth.


It starts with what we believe is a temporary downturn. No one panics because we can fix the issue in the long-term. Meanwhile, in the short-term, we decrease our targets. Everyone earns their bonuses, all sense of urgency drops away and the decline persists. Rather than focusing on growth and renewal, we decrease our targets again.


Now we’re managing decline. Sometimes, we’ll even admit that we’re managing decline, and talk about it as a strategy. This makes us feel as if we’re doing something – we’re not sitting on our asses, we’re managing the decline. Somehow doing what leaders are supposed to do – creating growth – has fallen off the table, but never mind. By actively managing the decline, we’re earning our bonuses.


Resetting the target is awesome because it fixes the problem immediately, if that is, the problem is managers not getting their annual bonuses (and yes, Drifting Goals is a Fix that Fails – miserably).


So, we base targets on past performance, ensuring that we will be “successful”. The irony, right? Well, there’s more. One of the side effects of the Drifting Goals scam (and yes, if you’re a shareholder, this is one hell of a scam), is that all our good, ambitious, dynamic employees will run for the hills. They don’t want to manage decline, no matter how big their bonuses are. They want to build and grow things.


We wind up with a nasty self-reinforcing loop – once the good people are gone, it’s twice as hard to get out of managing decline mode. So, we lower the targets some more, and the decline persists, little by little.


What to do.


Stop linking goals to past performance. Instead, anchor goals to what’s going on outside the company. Redefine the competitive set. Create new benchmarks.


Plan for transition. The same old, same old won’t do. New ideas, new people, new ways of doing things, new products and services will be required.


Be realistic about how long it will take. Set benchmarks for bonuses accordingly. Unrealistic timelines and targets will kill innovation.


Your Role in Creating Broken Systems


Here’s the deal. If these systems are at play in your organization (and they are), then you helped create them and/or you’re helping to propagate them. Are you a firefighter? Do you double down on what’s working, ensuring success to the successful? Do you let goals, timelines, or strategies drift? These tendencies become baked into the organization, its culture, its approach to innovation and its response to crisis.


We don’t always see our individual impacts on the entire system. We make the best decisions we can, given the information available to us. Economist Herbert Simon calls this “bounded rationality”. And it’s a bitch. We’re wearing blinders. We inoculate ourselves from the surprise of unexpected negative results with rationalization, intellectually dishonest reframing and denial.


Our job as Expansive Leaders is to consciously take the blinders off, even if that means we’ll see something we don’t want to see.


And this is humbling, to say the least.


But it’s the only path forward.


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