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Op-Ed:
Systems Thinking doesn't work for Human-Development

by Sai Sahitya

Several measures organizations take to have employees feel better only seem to make the latter more conscious of the gap between what they know they should be doing and what the organization allows them to do.

Proponents of a paradigm of management called 'Systems Thinking' would explain this as a classic case of 'systems failure,' where good intentions ramify into negative outcomes. The proposed solutions would perhaps include such things as a systematization of workflows, the revision of job descriptions, the redressal of salaries and bonuses, the development of teams, the institution of policies to make employees feel better, etc.

This paradigm of management seems particularly effective because it provides a framework for the layperson to see the bigger picture, to think in terms of collectives, and the relationships between individuals. After all, if "people come and go; organizations stay," it only seems prudent that such things as processes, functions, and jobs ought to be developed in lieu of the people.

I think, however, that what is seen as right from the system's perspective is wrong from the human perspective. It's a syzygy of sorts, and it's particularly what makes it effective on the one hand that renders it ineffectual on the other, viz., concerning individuals in relation not to others but themselves. My stance, if we're to address such things as low morale, high attrition, etc., is that we ought to develop the people.

How might we do that? Victor Frankl, in his work The Unheard Cry for Meaning observed astutely, "The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Even more people today have the means to live but no meaning to live for." Perhaps Systems Thinking would benefit from such things as the Gaia hypothesis or Tolstoy's 'Forces of history.' From the latter two, we can justify that society has gradually massified over the past few centuries, thereby devaluing the individual. Consummate that with the fact that Nature, of which the individual is but a part, always tends to equilibrium, and it's obvious why the new generation of millennials are lambasted for their egocentricity and disloyalty—one who is disloyal to others is also disloyal to themselves

If we're to improve the performance of people in an organization, therefore, the whole matter of people-development needs to be oriented primarily toward the person, and not primarily toward the organization… Develop people, not jobs. We've been approaching the development of people by trying to develop teams.

"To build a successful team, you don't start out with people—you start out the job. You ask: What are we trying to do? Then, what are the key activities needed to achieve our results? Finally, what does each of the dozen people at the top have by way of strength? How do the activities and skills match?"

The development of an organization's people might be said to work in reverse.

There are a few things not to do:

First, one doesn't try to build on peoples' weaknesses: one has to use peoples' personalities the way they are, not the way we would like them to be.

Second, don't is to take a narrow and short-sighted view of the development of people.

The worst thing an organization can do is limit the development of people by importing society's class system into its own operations like organizations today that decide very early which are the corners, or that you're not going to get anyplace if you don't have an MBA from Harvard Business School. Performance is what counts. Not in one job, but in a series of jobs, because people are not that predictable.

Instead of losing valuable people because there's only one rigidly structured way of progressing, organizations should focus on designing jobs around people and their particular strengths.

We'll also have to change the existing paradigm of progress in an organization, which by convention means promotion to managerial or supervisory positions, often with no training and based on the false assumption that technical expertise naturally translates to either a desire or an aptitude for people-management skills. "CIPD's (Chartered Institute for People and Development) research suggests that only about 40% of line-managers ever receive any formalized leadership training." In such positions, the stress that such an individual develops would only percolate down the pike, imparting the moral of a great many more

There are several things we can do. My practice would redound to such things as interviews that might involve questions on hobbies because what a person does in their free time is a window into their soul. The American Ivy-leagues apparently ask of these for this reason; we might prescreen candidates with a Wunderlich test of general cognitive ability to discern their IQ and recommend to them the roles their intellect might best perform for; and a Myers-Briggs personality type test to discern other factors (organizational cultural fit, job-role-aptitude, etc.).

My observation is that it is the psychology of the individuals that must be first addressed on such matters as people development. To paraphrase Jung, the great organizations in world history are, at the bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes an organization and here alone does organizational learning first take place, and the whole future, the whole culture of the organization, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals.


Sai SahityaSai Sahitya is a consultant with experience spanning the Middle-East and South-East Asia.

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