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Seeing System Problems: Expand Your Field of Vision

One of the biggest mistakes people make is attributing system problems to individuals (and individual problems to the system).  If you try to solve the problem on the wrong level, you are doomed to fail.

Here’s a simple yet classic example of trying to solve a systemic problem on the individual level.

Bob Sutton recently posted a piece on Team Guidelines. (I have some other reactions to the post, which I’ll cover some other time.)  The list starts with Show Respect, which includes “Show up to meetings on time.”  One can deduce from this that people aren’t showing up on time for meetings–hence an exhortation to individuals to be respectful and arrive on time.

People showing up late for meetings is a common problem; I see it in almost every organization I visit.

When you look at the problem on the individual level, and as disconnect events, it limits the range of solution options. Thus the ground rules, feedback directed at individuals and the non-solving of the problem.

"Show some respect!"

Showing up late for meetings is an individual matter of respect.

But if you want to understand the problem, look at the shape of the problem across the system:

A wider view of the "late to meetings" problem.

A wider view of the "late to meetings" problem.

A wider view shows interconnections, complexity, and effects beyond a single meeting. From this view, the “showing up late” problem has much more serious effects than annoying and inconveniencing other meeting participants.

Taking a wider view shows that “showing up late for meetings”  isn’t a trivial matter.  Maybe if more companies took the broader view, they’d actually try to fix the problem, rather than telling people to “show respect.”  For the most part, this behavior has little to do with intentional or unintentional disrespect (an exception described here, again, thanks to Bob Sutton).  We’ll look at that another time.

What are  you missing when you miss the wider view?

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