Our Systems Produce Our Experiences. Both The Good And The Bad Ones.

Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, has a quote from leadership training company Vital Smarts that he’s posted around their headquarters. The quote says:


The systems you have in place are perfectly organized to produce the behaviors you are currently experiencing.


“Systems thinking” refers to the study of how a group of variables, usually including people, interact over time. Think of how a family talks about where to go for dinner. Somebody wants pizza, another wants a burger, the data is weighted (or passionately argued), and eventually, the family agrees to eat something. A systems approach to the family food problem says we should consider how these different individual perspectives work together to reach collective conclusions. 


The Vital Smarts quote reminds us that the system perfectly produces the output. Perfect doesn’t mean “really good,” it means “a detailed reflection.” If one kid only eats pizza and another only eats burgers, there’s a bespoke reality to acknowledge about the “where should we eat” conversation. As any parent can attest, we’re going to need a restaurant with a few key items on the menu perfectly together. 


Good systems thinking takes the whole collective into account and plans in advance to address obvious roadblocks. As Sheridan preaches in his books, taking responsibility for systems design can be liberating. When we respect the smartness of the collective, we can re-organize around not just the behaviors we are experiencing, but the behaviors that we want to experience – like having a happy, family meal. 


Professionally, this quote applies to our practices and our relationships too. We can’t ever just think from just one perspective, we need to think from multiple frames of reference, and think over time. While we still need a desired outcome to reach for, it pays to reflect on the whole system and how it can get us to where we want to go. Like having the right restaurant to take our family to, having the right systems in place can improve the experience for everyone involved.


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