Sunday, May 18, 2008

Human elements and systems

We can theoretically create the most "perfect" and well-designed "system", having thought through every detail and with clearly laid plans for balancing efficiency and equity, for fair process, for measuring goals and targets, for ensuring accountability, and for clear and transparent budgeting.

Such a mechanical "system", however, misses two important points: (a) that it is impossible to predict what new opportunities and threats might "emerge" and that an ordered sytstem often lacks the nimbleness and flexibility to respond to such emergence; and (b) that no system, involving human beings, ever works without some powerful element of human nature - survival instinct, curiousity, greed, altruism, passion, vested interest, fear, hope, love, hate; system designers don't often take this into account as most of the science of system development originates from the study of machines.

"Systems" to deal with complex dynamic human situations need to: (a) embrace continuous, ongoing, adaptive planning and not predefined "plans"; (b) build in incentives and processes to tap the powerful human elements in a constructive manner; (c) be flexible to accomodate differing interests and to suit a variety of circumstances and situations, even if that means lack of uniformity; (d) promote productivity as the ultimate measure of accountability; and (e) promote emotional maturity within teams so that people can align self-interests to larger goals, and learn to give and take, very largely avoiding uncompromising "zero-sum" situations.

To believe that we can plan, predict, and control the future means that we are still in the realm of static mechanistic systems. To believe that there is nothing we can plan, predict, or control about the future is falling back to the fatalism of primordial civilization. To accept that some realities are unchangeable or undefathomable, but that it is possible to change much at the margins by paying attention to emergence and timing is what leadership in complex dynamics systems is all about.

Leadership in complex adaptive systems requires the resilience and emotional intelligence to accept the 'chaos' and elements inherent in human endeavours and to harness its enormous powers in a constructive way. Ultimately, it is all about non-zero-sum dynamics - where one person's win need not be another person's loss, at least in the long-run.

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