Why do large systems turn so slowly?
Posted September 17, 2014on:
Large systems trying to change are like the Titanic trying to avoid icebergs. It is hard to change direction especially when trouble is spotted at the last minute.
by Joshua Chang
As a servant-leader of a large system until recently, I am fully aware of what this means and how people react in their bid to control or to survive.
After leaving that system, I am still seeing mistakes of Titanic proportions in various places. Here are two quick stories.
I could have been at a conference overseas today to share my experiences with a thirsty audience. But I chose not to go on principle.
I was invited to present at this conference. To sweeten the deal, the organizers sent an information brief that stated how airfare, accommodation, and an honorarium would be provided.
I suggested how I might contribute and a representative expressed interest and said she would check with the higher ups. In the meantime, I sought clarification about how they would pay for the trip.
After some to-ing and fro-ing, the representative told me that what I offered to share was valuable, but I had to pay for the airfare. I declined because that was not the original deal.
The representative from the organization could have been empowered to rectify a mistake or to make decisions that would have benefitted the organization. Instead they chose to save some money.
This is like crew of the Titanic detecting trouble in the water and realizing that communications were garbled. But they stuck with policy or what they thought was policy.
On Saturday, I received a message informing me that I was needed as a consultant on an urgent report. What the organization needed were my network of contacts and information (data, readings, evidence) that I might have collected over the last few years.
I also found out that the report was due on Wednesday, so I made myself available on Tuesday to help. I asked that paperwork to bring me in as a consultant be done by Monday.
Better late than never, right? Wrong. Their answer was never. I did not get a call on Monday, and when Tuesday rolled around, I had to initiate a message only to be told that there was no time to bring me in.
In this case, a component of the system reacted to an event too slowly. This is like crew on the Titanic detecting icebergs very late.
One might ask if the crew had an active sensing system so they could see icebergs far ahead. This makes for good strategy given how ocean liners cannot turn on a dime.
Failing that and being confronted with the inevitable crashing into the iceberg, the situation then entered “panic stations” mode. People go on instincts, but such instincts are not always good especially if they have been culturally shaped by an organization bred on maintaining the status quo.
One person had the sense to ask someone with the time, calm, and clarity of vision to help. I have a feeling that an administrative process and/or person said not to take it.
Why do systems take so long to change?
Its people are not set up to actively sense changes nor empowered to implement decisions. To do this requires individuals to think systemically.
A conference PR person needs to evaluate the reputational cost to an organization of turning a valuable asset away. An administrative staff member needs to see why an academic staff needs to outsource help. The academic staff needs to see why administrative staff need time to wade through bureaucracy.
Most systems set up their workers in horizontal silos. They are also stratified vertically in terms of leaders and followers. In their bid to be less stratified, some organizations flatten structure and combine silos. But if this is an administrative exercise and not one to enable sensing, communication, and empowerment, that system will not change.