Where Do The Origins of Systems Dysfunction Come From?

August 2010

As long time subscribers of this newsletter know, one of my favorite soap box topics is systems dysfunction and the value of becoming a scholar of systems dynamics and systemic thinking (see newsletter Archives for some past editorials on this subject).

By systems dysfunction I mean when systems created by humans fail to function as intended, often showing signs of aberrant behavior. Examples within a social systems context might include fewer people dying when doctors go on vacation, legal systems that aren’t always just, educational systems that fail to educate, and so forth. Smaller scale examples might include the addiction recovery center where staff members demonstrate addictive behavior about their work, the spiritual community that resorts to arms and violence, the hospital system where more people catch infections that anywhere else. You get the idea.

The dysfunctionality demonstrated by these systems can be likened to what many call “bureaucracy” – a characteristic we often associate with government agencies, large corporations and other organizations that seem bogged down with their own procedures and policies.

Each of these systems, and all the ones I didn’t mention, may not be doing a very good job at what they were intended for, but they do have one skill in common – the uncanny ability to survive. It appears to be in the nature of human-made systems that their intended purposes become subordinate to surviving at all costs. Again, I’ve covered this in past editorials.

Perhaps this dysfunction of large and small social systems is an extension of the tolerance of dysfunction that resides in the people who create the system, perpetuated by people with similar propensities who work in the system. People bring the dysfunction into the system so it is magnified and coalesced. Anyone who doesn’t possess these pathologies can often recognize dysfunction in the first day on the job.

Why do they take the extra time, spend the extra money and travel the extra distance when everyone complains of being so busy and so debt-ridden? Why don’t they walk up stairs instead of taking elevators? Why do they drive to the gym instead of walking? Why do they pay dues and drive to the gym when there are so many ways to exercise in people’s immediate surroundings?

There are plenty of other examples of people acting “bureaucratically” -seemingly wasting time and money to achieve what they could do much more efficiently and easily. Stressing ourselves with Starbuck’s lattes then de-stressing with chilled Stoli martinis is another example of how we confuse our metabolic systems by voluntarily ingesting fast-acting substances of all sorts.

All of this suggests we are more dysfunctional as people than we care to admit. It also suggests that our social systems, with all their dysfunctionality, are mirrors or projections of their creators. Doesn’t this make sense? Does it not follow that well-functioning systems are usually created by designers, creators and managers who are themselves well-functioning individuals. Simply put, our systems are screwed up because our individual thinking is.

Before anyone gets too depressed over this let me add quickly that it doesn’t take great miracles, large-scale government programs or costly budgets to change our consciousness so we are less tolerant of this dysfunction, perhaps even allergic to it. It does take willingness. It takes courage. It takes intention. And it takes action! Large scale systems change cannot take place unless transformation occurs on the personal level for those leading and influencing the system.

So while I have preached long and hard about the need to learn how systems behave and misbehave so we can transform those we’ve come to depend on so much for society’s well-being I also encourage all of us to shift our own consciousness so we are more aware of what we design, how to intervene when they misbehave and act in sync with our new awareness.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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