Effectiveness Is Not Enough

Stephen Covey’s The 7-habits of highly effective people presented a discussion on Habit #1 about the relationship between one’s circle of concern and one’s circle of influence as a way of explaining the difference between being proactive versus reactive—the subtext being that effective people (such as leaders) are proactive.  In the presentation, which is based on the premise that “we each have a wide range of concerns—our health, our children, problems at work, national debt and nuclear war”, the circle of influence portrayed is within and smaller than the circle of concern.


Because the circle of concern was larger than the circle of influence it seems Covey, in referring to the circle of concern, was actually offering a way of discerning what is in one’s control.  However, if one’s circle of concern is larger than one’s circle of influence then there is an increased likelihood of experiencing a sense of helplessness and angst.  Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” offers great guidance in this situation.


Effective Relative to What

The implication for those aspiring to be a leader is to become proactive by expanding your circle of influence in order to ensure you are working on things you control and can do something about, thus improving your effectiveness.


But effectiveness is not an absolute term: Its’ meaning is always connected to the desired end of one’s efforts—often reflected in what one uses to measure effectiveness.  The measures most often used guide us to place focused attention on one thing rendering us blind to the unintended consequences of our actions.  Thus depending upon what one is seeking to do being effective can be either constructive or destructive.


Al (Chainsaw) Dunlop was effective in realizing the single-minded end he desired—maximizing shareholder value thus reaping gains for himself and major shareholders—but in his wake he left considerable destruction.  Though he severely diminished the viability of companies such as Scott Paper and Sunbeam, destroying the livelihood of many people, he made for himself a fortune and was proud of it!


If we look through the lens of systems thinking we see because of inherent interdependencies we influence far more than we realize.  Thinking systemically reveals to us that everything is connected to everything else; that we can’t do just one thing.  In other words our actions reverberate throughout the system.


The implication here is, if ones’ circle of concern is less than one’s circle of influence then there is a increased probability that acting solely in consideration of one’s concern will lead to the degradation of one’s environments—which includes social, industrial, economic and natural.  In light of the many social and environmental problems created through past decisions and policies set by those in authority, the circle of concern has been considerably less than the circle of influence for far too many in these positions.


Broad Concern

In regards to corporate executives primarily concerned, if not solely, with increasing shareholder value—coupled to the fact that they have a considerable influence upon the lives of others—pose a considerable threat to the wellbeing of people and society as a whole.  It appears most of these executives believe the corporation stands a part from and independent of everything else and its survival alone is paramount.  What seems to be not understood is the unit of survival cannot be the legally defined corporate entity but rather it must be the corporation plus its environments.  Polluting the environmental systems—nature, humankind, society—as a way of satisfying self-interest and getting what you want will not make for a livable world. The concern must be more than shareholder value if there is to be a viable future.


Therefore, those aspiring to be a good leader mustn’t limit their concerns to that which is in his/her (direct) control.  They need to expand their circle of care thus bringing the wellbeing of those they effect into their circle of concern.  Leadership requires increasing one’s circle of care, especially as one’s circle of influence expands with the attainment of higher positions of legitimate authority.  To do otherwise would no doubt increase the likelihood of harm and destruction.


Congruence Counts

When people are given the legitimate authority associated with a position in an organization or society’s government, he/she is necessarily required to demonstrate care and concern for those over whom he/she has been given formal authority.  Sadly far too many become intoxicated with their newfound circle of control—and correspondingly the prospect of getting it all for themselves—that they ignore their responsibility for the care and concern of those whose lives they touch. Upholding this latter responsibility—bringing into congruence the circle of influence and the circle of care—is in large measure what separates the heroic leaders from the toxic leaders.


Toxic leaders are effective in turning organizations and societies over which they exercise control into black holes wherein potential is trapped and people are unable to develop and flourish.  Until a sense of caring grows beyond concern for what’s in it for me those to whom we give positional authority will effectively do what’s good for them alone.  Such effectiveness can’t help but to be detrimental to all concerned.


What we need is an increasing number of people striving to expand their circle of care and to bring it into congruence with their circle of influence.  When people do this invariably they come to acknowledge their I-We nature.  With this acknowledgement comes a deep and wide sense of caring and so those upon whom we bestow legitimate authority within our organizations and government will most likely exhibit the leadership we so desperately we need.


Until more begin to care about more of us our best efforts will continue to fall horribly short.  To paraphrase Deming, best efforts absent of knowing what to do—without the guidance of principles—will result in a lot of damage. As Deming said, “think of the chaos that would come if everyone did his best, not knowing what to do.”  Well look around, chaos is quite evident, is it not!  We should remember that a narrow focus of attention is nothing if not a limited sense of caring.  Need we continue holding onto our self-interest maximizing ways?



America, We Have A Problem!

Faced with mass murders (e.g. Columbine, Aurora, VA Tech, Tuscon, Oak Creek)—62 over the past 30 years—coupled with the gun violence that happens every day we haven’t sought to understand these horrific events within the larger context from which they emerge.  Until very recently America has been unaware that it has a problem.


According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, firearms were used in fully 2 of 3 murders in 2011.  Not only is the U.S. a more violent society it also presents a strong demand for guns: By about 3 to 1 there are more licensed firearms dealers in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s restaurants.  Though we love burgers we just adore guns!


What have we been thinking?

Being individualistically oriented and tending to reductionism as a problem solving approach we’ve turned our focus on the individual who committed the murder—as if these are all independent and unrelated to our culture.  Thus we have turned a blind eye to the societal context only seeking information about the characteristics of the individual person committing the crime—asking why did he do it.  We frame each event as the specific individual’s problem and this keeps us from understanding the system of causes, and so the pattern continues.


In the case of recent mass killings, some have brought attention (and rightfully so) to the fact that mass murders in the U.S. are not just a gun control issue but rather they are reflective of a mental health issue. Because of our society’s proclivity for reductionism and its associated either/or thinking many have shown the light of attention on mental illness as the problem thus keeping the prevalence and loose regulation of guns in society in darkness.  Unfortunately this can be the seed of a growing miss-belief that guns have no causal effect here that it all resides with mental illness.


Guns don’t kill people; people kill people!  The argument continues: Yes mentally ill people with guns is a danger but (and here lies the kicker) we can never eliminate the possibility of mentally ill people from committing mass murder with guns so we mustn’t infringe upon the right of law-abiding citizens to own any kind of gun they desire.  What this is saying is that a gun is neither good or bad it is just an object that people use; so it isn’t the gun but the person that is the problem. The implication being that guns—buying, having, owning, and carrying guns of any sort—are not the problem.  It is the particular person that is the problem.  Is this argument reflective of good solid logic and problem solving or is it reflective of avoidance behavior and problem deflection?   Would we be reasonable if we made the same argument about drugs and drug use?


Further there are those who don’t wish to see any real change so they employ a line of thought—that is a defense—where the only real solution is a 100% solution.  The only solution they will support must completely eliminate the chance of murder by gun.  In other words if whatever is proposed will not stop with 100% certainty every person who might want to use a firearm to kill innocent people then what is proposed is grossly inadequate, it can’t be a solution.  Until such a solution is provided nothing should or can be done—status quo is sustained.


Yet another argument reflective of the relationship we as a society have with guns goes something like this: if more people carried a gun (to protect their self and others around them) then there would be fewer murders—it would be a deterrent to gun violence.  The answer to too many guns in the hands of some people is to have more people with guns.  Apart from the fact that accurately shooting a gun is not as simple and easy as what you see on television and in the movies, this argument rests on the false logic that having a gun deters others from bringing a gun to a gunfight.


An argument based on false logic is simply a strategy to turn the attention away from the system of causes and the creation of an effective solution to a well-defined problem.  Offering up a red herring keeps people from defining the problem, identifying the system of causes of the problem and taking appropriate and meaningful action.  It is no wonder we’ve been mired in this for so long.


Is it possible that material self-interest maximization is playing a role? How much does the profit motive relate to what an industry, businesses within the industry and policy makers who receive funding from the industry (i.e. elected officials) impact what they are willing to do? That is, could it be that the gun industry (and its lobbyist and those who profit from a strong demand for guns) just can’t let anything get in the way of the profit that can be derived from having widespread availability and unregulated sale and use of guns?


It’s the System

Clearly the usual arguments have done little toward developing an understanding as to why we have a pattern of gun violence in U. S. society—which by the way is the most violent among OCED countries. Yet we seem unable to understand the system of causes of the pattern because we are unwilling to honestly look at how the society we’ve created contributes to this phenomenon as well as others.  Our problem goes far deeper.  Why don’t we go there?  Could it be that at some level those with the authority to affect fundamental change realize that what they believe and advance is no longer valid—what they know ain’t so—and that they too will have to change?


If a system doesn’t encourage and support something from happening it won’t continue to happen!


Unfortunately policy makers don’t appear to use both systems and statistical thinking, so they don’t continue asking why are the trends we have in society, such as gun violence and mental illness manifesting? We must cease trying to do a better job of inspecting individual events and turn attention to the system that supports/promotes the events continuing.


Understand Relationship

In their book The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett discuss the strong positive correlation between income inequality by country and: the index of health & social problems; the index of child well being; children’s experience of conflict; imprisonment; the percent of people with any mental illness; and the number of homicides per million.  Negative correlation is shown between income inequality and social mobility and income inequality and level of trust.  Each pairing shows the U. S. to be at the high end of positively correlated pairings and at the low end in negatively correlated pairings—not a good report card for America.


Although a correlational relationship does not imply cause-and-effect it suggest that the variables are linearly related. That is, as income inequality varies so too do these other societal characteristics—they aren’t independent, they move together and so one may affect the other or both are influenced by the same cause or causes.  An understanding of the causes of the patterns begins with an understanding of the patterns caused, and so additional analysis leading to deeper understanding is needed.


We need to change

Unless people have the courage to let go of their attachments and the will to collaborate toward seeking a greater and deeper understanding of both the individual and collective (i.e. both cultural and policy/process) causes then the solution coming forth will be just re-action and compromise.  Systems thinking, collaboration and deeper understanding, not compromise, will lead to understanding that can inform changes in policy to positively affect life in society.


As discussed in Hey Einstein Solve This recurring problems such as gun violence, mental illness and poverty are not structured and well-defined problems.  If they were we’d quickly dissolve them and they wouldn’t recur!  These problems require soft systems methods whereby we identify and challenge the underlying assumptions, beliefs and the sought after objectives that have guided current policy and action.


We should be asking: what is it about our system of orientation—not the values we espouse but the beliefs and values-in-practice and the ends supported and sought—and correspondingly the way we structure life and define success that is giving rise to these symptoms?  What is the complex of causes—not the one cause or the one that various special interest coalitions are willing to compromise on—that is most likely at the root of what we are experiencing.  Until this is done, all we will get are re-actions that pacify the masses and keep things essentially as they are.


The cultural change that is required won’t be easy and because of that it won’t happen without heroic leadership.  However, the history of major change happening in America (e.g. women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmental protection, gay rights) shows that heroic leadership won’t emerge unless there is a critical mass of people that put their foot down making it very clear that we the people won’t accept anything less.  This could take awhile, especially if few of us become part of the critical mass.


Challenging The Chain of Command

If management can control things then management can be effective and efficient in realizing the desired results and sustaining the business. You will find very few who would disagree with this if-then thinking.  This thinking is so common that it is rarely, if ever challenged—until now. Continue reading

What We Know That Ain’t So

The paradigm that emerged in the 17th century set humankind as the conqueror and manipulator of all things for tangible ends. Moreover knowing something meant that it is expressible and explainable in the language of mathematics (i.e. numbers, measurements), as everything that was anything must be quantifiable and quantified if it is to be understood.  Accordingly everything in the universe became an object to be measured and modeled into exact laws of cause-and-effect.  Continue reading

A Real Crisis

The precepts of neoclassical economic theory (a.k.a. capitalism) have permeated almost every aspect of life in American society leading us to create both a materialistic and individualistic focused society.  This has a tremendous influence upon how people understand society and organizations, the problems in society and organizations, and correspondingly the solutions people offer. Continue reading

Cascading Goals

Spend some time in most business organizations—as I have done over the past 35-plus years—and you will likely observe the practice of cascading goals top-to-bottom.  Why?  Because executive teams believe:  a) it is the way to align organizational goals and people’s activity, to implement strategy; b) it is a way to exercise control over what happens in the organization; c) it is the means to holding people accountable and the basis for evaluating people’s performance; and d) it is what other executive teams do. Continue reading

Regulation, A Necessity

Each of us as a person is a constituent of society and its governance and economic systems, as well as of the larger system of humankind.  That is to say, we are living systems collectively constituting a deeply interconnected hierarchy of semi-autonomous whole-parts in mutual relation.  Thus our actions and interactions in these systems—as individuals, groups and organizations—are of utmost importance to the viability of these systems.  Continue reading

The Stewardship Imperative

“Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach and different ways to organize society” –Russell Ackoff

As living beings we each present with a physical body comprised of cells, tissue, organs and organ-systems structurally and functionally organized to support (our) life.  The natural order of things is a hierarchy of constituent entities that are themselves living systems.  So the issue is not whether everything is reducible to individual entities—the atomistic view—or everything is a whole—the holistic view—but rather that neither view is the absolute view.  As Arthur Koestler (The Ghost in The Machine) noted “parts and wholes in a absolute sense do not exist in the domain of life.”  What we have are semi-autonomous systems that are each a part of larger higher order systems.  Koestler called these ‘whole-parts’ holons—wholes that are parts of other wholes—and the hierarchy they constitute a holarchyContinue reading

Lost in the Leaves

Paul Krugman’s NY Times article, Easy Useless Economics, brings to light a very important principle for problem solving—make sure you have identified the problem so you’re not wasting energy solving symptoms.


Perhaps a simple example will help explain.  Consider that the computer screen remains black when you press the on-button.  What do you do?  Do you initiate an investigation of the internal switching mechanisms?  No, of course not!  Instead of examining the switching assembly and all other internal connections you should first look at the basic source that provides the energy for it to run; you look to see if it is plugged in and also whether the outlet to which it is plugged is ‘hot’.  The most basic, and often the simplest approach, usually offers the best solution, so begin by asking the basic questions.  Don’t get caught up in the all the branches and leaves, until it is necessary.


Simply seek first to understand the root dynamic of the system before placing both attention and effort on what are most likely problematic symptoms.  Attending to the leaves—and they are numerous—before gaining understanding whether the root dynamic is operating as intended will have you twisting and turning in all sorts of ways.  You will waste a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem you have never taken the time to identify.  The symptom will subside but the problem will remain alive and kicking only to bring forth another symptom in the near future.


Unfortunately many are blocked from following this principle simply because they allow themselves to be deceived by their very own thoughts (which are usually strongly held beliefs).  They tend to be good symptom reducers but not so good problem resolvers.  Believe it or not there are people who actually trust all the thoughts their thinking has produced—as if their way of thinking presents what is true, absent of error and bias.  And how do they know that what they believe is right?  Silly, their thoughts tell them so!


Back To Basics

Let’s return to the issue of Krugman’s article, the seemingly persistent high unemployment rate that is symptomatic of a depressed economy.  So the basic question is, is the root reinforcing cycle of the economy functioning as intended?  That is, is it plugged in to an active energy source and is there a sufficient flow of energy to turn the cycle?

The basic dynamic is the consumption-production cycle.  That is, consumption leads to the need for production, which in turn provides income for people to act on the demand (i.e. unmet or unsatisfied needs and wants) and consume.  As demand increases—which arises from unmet or unsatisfied needs and wants along with the marketing, advertising and sales efforts of business—then the need for more production emerges providing more jobs thus increasing the ability for more people with sufficient disposable income to consume. As money flows the cycle continues.


The question then becomes is consumption sufficient enough to cause adequate production affording enough people disposable income enabling them to meet their needs?  That is to say, is the cycle a positive reinforcing cycle or is extraction happening causing a decrease in money circulating throughout the system?


Causing an Uncertain Future

When the number of people employed is minimized the resultant level of consumption will also move toward a minimum, which will likely not be sufficient to support increased production and additional jobs.  So when business management strives to maximize its short-run gain by minimizing the employee’s gain, they are in effect diminishing the flow of money through the system, a system upon which they depend and thus have a need for it to be strong.  A strong economy means less uncertainty.


However, as more businesses follow suit in squeezing what they can out of people, that in time, the diminished flow of money through the economy will cause a weak and even possibly a depressed economy.  Not understanding having a laser-like focus on short-term self-serving gain often is the cause of future pain, business leaders might wonder why future prospects are not as favorable for them—and any everyone else for that matter—and perhaps place blame on outside factors for this uncertain future.


Currently although productivity has increased—more specifically efficiency, doing more with less—the squeeze on jobs has diminished consumption (demand).  Even though the need to consume is there, the means (income) to fulfill the demand is not.  Money is not circulating.  As metaphor consider the economy as a water balloon where at one end is the owner/capitalist and at the opposite end is labor/general public.  Squeezing the water balloon at the opposite end will cause the owner/capitalist end to expand, leaving no more water to flow from the labor/general public end.


Today we have a squeezed balloon: businesses have laid-off millions of people and have since re-hired very few.  The effect is that money isn’t flowing throughout the system. Corporate profits are up and so too is executive compensation.  Money is accumulating and expanding the upper end of the balloon. Accordingly the flow of money at the opposite end amounts to a few drops and a trickle and a trickle can’t possibly keep things going. Once you drain the well, water can’t flow.


The inequality in realized gains, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, has left a select few with hoards of money and the masses in debt with very little income for consumption.  Corporations have been sitting on a tremendous amount of cash that diminishes the amount of money circulating through the system.  Accumulating and hoarding money—keeping it all for one’s self—is counterproductive to maintaining a growing economy. Essentially the cycle is unplugged; trickle economics is a myth.


Role of Money

A critical role of money is for circulation through the economy, not merely profit accumulation, since it is through the exchange of money that the economy is sustained and accordingly the supply of money increases which is a requirement for economic growth.  Let us not forget that commercial banks add to the supply of money, not by holding and hoarding it as deposits, but by leveraging deposits in lending money to people and businesses for investment—it is this investment that circulates money and strengthens the economy.  The point being that the circulation of money is instrumental to the health of the economy.  If circulation is cut off to a segment of the economy then that segment will die leaving the economy less capable of survival—all segments are needed.


Until people are provided the means for which to fulfill their needs and wants, demand can’t be fulfilled.  The consuming public hasn’t the money to exchange for goods and services, to keep money circulating.  Since the public hasn’t the means, then someone else—that’s either government or corporations or both—must step up and invest to increase the flow of money in and through the economy.


Clearly things are not functioning right!  According to Krugman there are many economist advancing the thought that the problem with the economy is structural, not functional.  That there are plenty of jobs but there is a mis-match between the knowledge and skills workers offer and the knowledge and skills jobs require.  Really!


Shifting the Burden

When either experienced skilled people or recently graduated college educated people can’t get a job then we have to begin wondering exactly what kind of work corporations are now performing that they weren’t prior to 2008!  Just what are they doing that work/business-experienced and educated people can’t learn if provided the opportunity?


If the answer is that business now requires different knowledge and skills than it did prior to 2008, then what exactly has fundamentally changed in the work of the business? If the work has fundamentally changed since 2008, how can those who are leading it do so without themselves needing to learn the new business?  If the work of the business has changed so fundamentally why then aren’t the leaders providing the necessary training so that those with education and work experience can learn how to do what is now needed? Why don’t leaders want to invest in the future of their business?


If this is not possible, if the educated and experienced people available can’t learn what is required, then how is it possible that those who led these organizations prior to 2008 today have the knowledge and skill to do so in light such a fundamental change in the work of the business?  When and how did their metamorphosis occur?


Could it be that hiring people will increase costs and moreover hiring and training people will add even more costs?  Could it be that business leaders are simply viewing all costs as an impediment to securing maximum short-term profit for themselves and major shareholders?  Could short sightedness be the cause of the difficulty?  Could it be that the sole intent of the business minded is to make profit, not products and services, and so (to them) profit is profit no matter the means?  Could it be that business leaders seek only to feed off the economy?