Whose Your Villain?

When people encounter issues in their day to day business, there seems to be a human need to find a villain.

This is borne out of the mindset (or mental model) that says we are all independent entities, operating on our own. Decisions are linear, so we need to decompose our world into component parts and perfect each piece. Within this world view, of course there is a villain. Someone did do this to you, and it’s likely the person directly upstream from you. “Someone’s to blame here. This didn’t happen by itself!”, is a common refrain of the linear thinker. Sadly, formal education seems to exacerbate this model given the way we are taught to solve problems.

Let’s reflect on this a bit. One message I’ve heard loud and clear from the likes of Deming, Ackoff, and Senge:

The key to understanding what needs to change isn’t to react to dysfunctions and failures, but to stand back and attempt to get a broader view of the entire system.

When we do this, we learn that a core truth is that we are all inter-dependent, not independent beings. All parts are connected. The processes are connected. The variables are connected, and each of these things affects outcomes. It’s core to systems thinking.

The Fifth Discipline
Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline”, teaches that, as intelligent human beings, we tend to make reasonable (and reasoned) choices. He goes on to say that we rarely fail because we lack the ability to make reasoned choices, but sometimes we fail because of those reasoned choices. The failure is not in decision making, but our inability to “see the whole”.

How could this be?! If I’m making rational choices, how can I fail?

By way of example, Senge describes (via analogy) controlling the temperature in a shower. When you turn on a shower and the temperature is cold, a well reasoned decision might be to turn the hot tap up a little. If nothing happens, you might turn it up a bit more. If still nothing happens, you might crank it way up, only to find seconds later that the water is scalding hot.

Nothing. Nothing. HOT!!!

This cycle then starts over again in the opposite direction.

Nothing. Nothing. FREEZING!

This is a trivial example to understand because the affect of your actions are relatively close in time and space. At some point we realize we need to turn the temperature dials… and wait. But think about this same concept in the context of your business, relationships, and personal life. Simple decisions that are well reasoned at the time of the decision often affect the system in catastrophic ways way out in the distance. It might take weeks or months to see the affect of decisions. As humans, if an outcome isn’t tied closely to the event, then we think they aren’t linked. When we focus on local, linear outcomes and don’t take into consideration the whole system over time, we make “good choices” that force the overall system to lurch wildly. (Nothing. Nothing. HOT!!!! )

That Sounds Familiar
In corporate IT shops, what tends to happen when business partners feel they aren’t getting their products or features fast enough? In my experience, customers tend to ASK FOR MORE.

They reason, “If I only get half of the things I request, I’ll just ask for more stuff. If I ask for more, I’m bound to get more.”

The fallacy here is that those same business partners don’t see the effect on the entire system. They don’t step back and look at the system. If they did, they might find that their peers are doing the very same thing. They might find that critical projects are being abandoned for more trivial projects from “squeaky wheels”. They might find that ongoing care and feeding of core systems and platforms are being neglected in the hope to “catch up” with project demand.

The net effect? You guessed it…the death spiral. Not only does IT deliver fewer projects “under duress”, the ones we DO deliver are hobbled by poor design and riddled with technical debt. This poor quality creates even more system pressure as developers begin to hide the fact that they are “keeping all the plates spinning” by working to cover up deficiencies in their systems “offline”, effectively hiding their ambient work. Core platform health deteriorates causing rework, errors, and yet more work.

This cycle is vicious, costly, and devastating.

The Dichotomy: This horror is riddled with * good decisons *. There are NO VILLAINS here.

The next time a system breaks down, stop and think about how you might begin to see the entire system for what it is, and begin to reflect on the part you play in it. Don’t look for villains. They rarely exist.

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