So You Think You Want To Change Something

Ok, so things are not the way you think they should be, and you've decided you're willing to act in an endeavor to make them different than what they are. The following is intended to provide some assistance in improving your chances of being successful with your undertaking.

The way the situation is initially perceived is as a balancing structure in which the difference between the desired state and the current state creates a gap. A gap which activity is intended to reduce over time. This structure is represented by a the diagram to the right. There are numerous difficulties with the assumptions made to this point. Probably the most critical difficulty lies with the lack of understanding as to why the current state is the way it is. The current state isn't the result of an accident. The current state is the result of past activity on the part of other actors, each with an intent of their own.

The real state of the situation is probably more akin to the structure provided on the left. And, if there were only 3 desired states you would be considered fortunate. There are multiple actors within the system, each with their own perceptions of what the desired state should be. And each actor probably has different perceptions of what the current state actually is! Each actor acts consistent with what they believe is the appropriate action to transform their perception of the current state into the desired state they consider appropriate. Is it any wonder there are so many wasted efforts within organizations.

Before continuing with the implications of the above diagram I'd like take a short aside. I can't really say I've "studied" systems intently, yet I have contemplated them for well over 25 years. After endless pondering I hit upon what I considered a point of wisdom, i.e, an enduring universal truth:

"Energy follows the path of least resistance."

I found this awareness simply marvelous in terms of the understandings it enabled. And then, I asked the apparently bizarre question, "How does it know?" How is it that energy knows what the path of least resistance is? I don't expect it has some sort of clairvoyance; so how does it know what is the path of least resistance. What I finally settled on was:

"Feedback defines the path of least resistance."

The thought picture from which this came is as follows. Consider a maze which is covered on top so it only has one entry point and one exit point. And envision that the cover is made of glass so you can see what's happening in the maze. Now consider what happens if one pumps tooth-paste, yes this was actually the thought, into the entry point. The tooth-paste will initially follow every path available, equally. Once one of the dead ends fills up it provides feedback to the flow essentially saying, "Don't go there anymore." Once the entire maze is full of tooth-paste all that is pumped into the entry comes out the one exit, and the tooth-paste essentially follows the one path of least resistance from entry to exit. (Yes, my mind does seem to work this way!)

The following is a set of apparent principles that always seemed to make sense, and are now realized to be direct implications of the two statements above. Some of these statements are essentially restatements of each other, and I have not yet found an ordering I'm completely comfortable with.

Now its time to return to the diagram on the right. Each individual or group who holds the desired states, i.e., (1), (2), (3), perceives that they are sensible desired future states which they should expend activity to bring about. If they didn't believe this they wouldn't undertake the activity. Their mental models, in conjunction with the structure in which they operate, and their perception of the current state prompt them to define the desired state. This desired state represents the path of least resistance for them.

Verily, the leverage point in the system is alignment. That is, developing a collective understanding among the actors of a single perception of the current state, the desired state, and the appropriate action to move the current state toward the desired state. Alignment is often assumed to the detriment of the end result. And, while it may be perceived that the effort necessary to develop alignment is an investment for which the necessary time and energy are not available, without that investment the attainment of the most appropriate end result is also sacrificed. In this situation there is no free lunch and the investment must be made.

theWay of Systems * Feedback * Musings
Copyright © 2004 Gene Bellinger