No system can be fully understood within the system. No, this is not an esoteric statement but a simple, common principle that (the old General) Systems Theory has stated for a long term. Take individual behaviour, for example. We have the whole body of Psychology to explain it. But, at some point, individual behaviours can’t be easily explained ‘within Psychology’ because they need the social context. Ok, this is why we have Social Psychology to explain this. And it does. But at some point, it runs out of gas and needs ‘the higher system’ of Sociology as macro-framework.
Sociology will do the same but, in turn, at some point, it will need Economics. Economics comes in but will run out of ‘explanations’ until it hits the Political arena. That is why we are using hybrid terms such as ‘socio-political’ or ‘socio-economic’ all the time, because we are not sure where the issue belongs. ‘The Political’ will soon need Geopolitics. Geopolitics will need… Mmm. We are now running out of frameworks at an even higher level.
If you add a teleological dimension to this, that is, ‘what is the final purpose of X’, you will hit at some point Top Level Explanations or “Theories of Everything’. Here you have Marxism, Capitalism, and the organised religions.
What does this have to do with us in organizations and business? Well, it tells us that any organizational work (leadership, change, management development, organizational effectiveness) of narrow focus, will hit a ceiling at some point, unless one invokes the higher-level system. Working on the effectiveness of one management team cannot be done successfully in isolation of the wider organization that this management team belongs to. That does not mean that it is not worth doing anything ‘within the system’. It just means that we need to be mindful of the ‘system above’, perhaps, dare I say, influencing it.
In fact, it would be foolish to become paralysed at one level, waiting for the higher level to decide, or to change. Yet, this has been, and still is, conventional wisdom in organizations: ‘we can’t do anything until the top leadership does, or until they change, or until we fix the problem at a company level’.
Influencing the system upwards is not only possible but desirable. Back to the example above, whilst individual Psychology will hit an explanation ceiling and will need to call Social Psychology to the rescue, Social Psychology will need the principles of Individual Psychology to make full sense of it itself.
In organizational terms, innovative transformations of management teams or groups, when part of a culture that is not terribly innovative, can lead (and frequently do lead) to ‘upward transformations’, influencing, for example, the views of top leadership, perhaps even, becoming a social role model. In my consulting work, I have examples of this kind all the time, which I sometimes wish I could show to the Doom and Gloom brigades running many companies.
Ultimately, ‘the top ceiling’ in organizational terms, is Culture. Again, becoming paralysed, waiting to ‘fix the corporate culture’ does not make sense. Fixing subcultures (‘within their own system’) is not only possible but, most of the time, a good place to start. Today, any successful cultural shaping or cultural transformation is bottom-up. Top down cultural dictation is a waste of time and money.
It is, what I term, a Russian Dolls system, where each level looks self-contained but is in fact part of a higher level. If the paint has gone in a small Russian Doll, you can’t fix it by re-painting the bigger one. But maybe, there is a general problem with the quality of the painting of those Russian Dolls that you have just bought, and what has happened to the Little Doll may also happen to the others. Being aware of this possibility would be wise.
I am stressing the need for awareness, both in terms of limitations and possibilities, because the history of management thinking and management practices has plenty of deceiving propositions. Some Quality and Continuous Improvement movements have focused too much on ‘fixing problems within the system’ and, at the same time, claiming that this will change the culture. But if honest, the culture is never changed by these fixes. People just become highly proficient at fixing problems. They never go beyond the Little Doll.