Systems Thinking and Cultural Change
by Rick Sidorowicz

Many organizations are struggling with ‘cultural change’ and have made significant investments of time, dollars, sweat and grief in the processes of change. In many situations results often worsen with an even greater investment and energy. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline remains a classic roadmap for the understanding of the systemic limitations and pervasiveness of ‘culture’, and the tools to effectively move beyond.

The laws of the fifth discipline

Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

Behaviour usually gets a little better before it gets worse. Symptomatic solutions eventually fail.

The easy way out usually leads back in. Familiar solutions often fail to address fundamental difficulties.

The cure can be worse than the disease. The consequence of applying non systemic solutions is the increased need for more and more of that solution.

Cause and effect are not always closely related in time and space.

Small changes can produce big results - but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

You can have your cake and eat it too - but not at once. It may be true that we must choose one or the other, but the real leverage comes from seeing how both can be obtained over time.

Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. It produces a mess. The leverage lies in interactions that cannot be seen from looking only at the piece you are holding.

There is no blame. We tend to blame and externalize the problem. There is no ‘outside.’ You and the cause of your problems are part of a single system. The ‘cure’ is in the interaction. 

Principles to guide cultural interventions

Don’t push growth; remove the factors limiting growth. Remove or weaken the sources of limitation.

In a sluggish system aggressiveness produces instability. Either be patient or first make the system more responsive.

Hold the vision. Do not let performance standards or goals slide in a crisis or setback.

Focus on the fundamental solution, as opposed to symptomatic solutions for the short term. Maintain the focus on the long term. Use short term ‘fixes’ only to buy time to work on the fundamentals.

Teach people how to fish, rather than giving them fish. Develop the competencies and capabilities for the future.

Cultures program the subconscious. Reprogram systems and structures through small well focused actions. The principle is that of leverage - determining where actions and changes can lead to self sustaining as opposed to self limiting growth. And the effective leverage points are almost always never where it hurts the most. 

Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday, New York, 1990.

Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


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