Our Fires Consume Us

How often, in either your workplace or community or on corporate television news, have you heard questions asked such as who allowed this to happen or what caused that individual do this after the occurrence of an undesired outcome or terrible incident? I suspect quite often.


On the societal level, for example, each time there is a mass-shooting incident at a school or a movie theatre or a mall we spare no effort pursuing the answer to the question, what caused this particular person to carry out this horrible act? Keeping our focus on the individual actor, the answer is always he/she was mentally ill, and so the focus of our attention moves away from the pattern of destruction or violence as emergent phenomena in society and toward identifying those mentally ill individuals who are about to commit such a horrible act. If only we had just in time detection we’d be able to douse the spark. This is analogous to placing all effort toward catching the defective part/product before it is shipped to the customer.


In business, especially where McGregor’s Theory X, management-by-exception, or transactional leadership are prevalent, those in authority (using mechanistic worldview common sense) spare no effort in identifying the individual responsible for a failure (a.k.a. a fire)—a fire emanating from not meeting goal, or from not satisfying a customer, or from not catching the defect before the customer does. The list of the varied fires is seemingly endless but these few should be sufficient for you to get the picture. The principle informing management action in these situations is we can’t allow fires to burn they must be put out immediately.


A good manager is a good fire fighter—everyone knows this. It is less known, however, that they are also prolific fire starters, where the spark of future fires is provided by the very action taken to manage current fires.


Wrong Lens, Wrong Thinking

In the mechanistic worldview with machine as its root metaphor it is assumed the world is comprised of discrete inert elements—people aren’t self-initiators—where movement is a re-action to external forces consistent with deterministic physical laws and where everything is independent of everything else. These essential beliefs lead to acting upon people as the maxim of management practice and reductionism as the means of analysis whereby each effect is examined in isolation of everything else.


Accordingly, thinking in terms of simple linear cause-and-effect and asking reductive questions just seems to be common sense. After all, simply had the individual in question acted appropriately (in the first place) there would be no failure, no harm experienced, no fire to extinguish, so of course the individual is at the root of it all. That is to say, reductionist thinking rather simplifies the matter and identifies a single cause—the (abnormally behaving) individual. But such simple mindedness can’t possibly identify the complexity of it all! In a human living world, such a lens is the wrong lens through which to view and understand toward bringing about order.


However, viewing and relating to the world through the lens of the organicism worldview means one would grasp the world as a dynamically complex integrating process. Accordingly deeper levels of understanding are derived from uncovering the interdependencies, from seeing things in relation to other things and not from framing things in isolation of everything else. The living world is an interdependent world and we mustn’t relate to it or act in it as if we are independent of it all. Hence the pathway to greater knowledge, better understanding and greater harmony is through systems thinking, not reductionism—understanding interdependencies, systems within systems.


Simple Mindedness

What is the result of all our efforts to manage dynamically complex issues as we hold a mechanistic worldview?


With those in authority not understanding dynamic complexity and correspondingly having a compelling need to act upon and control all things the necessity for inspecting/surveilling, enforcement and of course fire fighting is ever present. Greater disorder, more fires and so the need for even more fire fighters! Total cost both material and human go up. Yet using reductionist logic people are at a loss to figure out why, despite all their (mechanistic) common sense efforts to manage the fires.


And so as it is with climate change, there are those who are just incapable of understanding the larger scheme of things. That is, understanding how their actions affect everything else and how everything else will (quite predictably) in turn affect them. Such a realization will cause them (along with the rest of us) to rue the day they held fast to the falsehood they believe in, refusing to open their mind to a different worldview and learn anew.


Because the dynamics of a living system—where everything is independent of everything else—are imperceptible to one holding a mechanistic worldview,

one can never truly perceive, let alone understand, the context and dynamic complexity of a situation. Such an understanding would bring to light the difference between a recurring (perhaps even epidemic) effect but external and an effect that emerges from the system. In the former the effect (i.e. malady or disorder) is a result of an act upon the system and in the latter the effect is inherent in and a manifestation of the system. Each requires entirely different approaches to problem dissolution. Not knowing the difference can be fatal.


Since the phenomena/effects are manifestations of the system—the interplay of things—and no systems thinking is to be found among those in authority, the system will continue in its self-reinforcing cycles and so there will always be a need—if not increasing need—to put out fires. We make things worse, with (self) destruction our future!


Make the Change

I recall W. Edwards Deming telling the story in his 5-day seminar about the effectiveness of dogs (over that of DEA agents) for sniffing out illegal drugs being smuggled into the country—approximately $3M worth of drugs uncovered per dog versus about $120K uncovered per agent—and therefore offering the wry conclusion, the solution is hire more dogs! The audience chuckled, but it wouldn’t have been funny if the story did not reflect the real absurdity of experience. Deming told the story to help them understand, not for their entertainment. Unfortunately the vast majority in the audience did not or could not make the connection to their very own way of being and managing.


Systems thinking in accordance with a living systems worldview will lead to a depth of understanding that makes a difference toward greater harmony. It would significantly transform the way we think about and relate to our self, each other and the living world within which we exist. The world will cease being a battleground, acting upon each other in self-interest will no longer be necessary, fighting and managing fires will no longer consume us and profit maximization will cease being the purpose in life.

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