Creating a System

Whenever I have worked with organizations that talk about being “stuck”, inevitably someone will come up with the unhelpful phrase, “We have to think outside the box”. This is like saying “we have to stop thinking along the lines of what is known and think along the lines of what is unknown”. How can we know what is beyond our experience? Answers don’t come from without, they come from within, as part of a search for purpose and fulfillment. When we are stuck, we don’t need to think outside the box, we need to re-define the box.

Trapped by our collective imaginations
Trapped by our collective imaginations

What applies to organizations also applies to individuals in them, so what is this box that we sometimes feel stuck in? In my book, The Frog in the Well, I talk about how perception (the frog) determines reality (the well) and what we believe is possible. This is not a new idea, the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi came up with it about 2,000 years ago. There are similar stories in other cultures, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave and the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, from the Jain tradition of ancient India. All of these stories, including the modern version The Matrix, talk about how our awareness is limited by the range of our experience.

The lines of our boxes are etched early in life by our families and friends, reinforced through society and its institutions (schools, churches, businesses, media) and refined by the cultures of race, gender and class. We are born into this construct and it is difficult for us to know anything beyond it, because “that’s how it is.” Each new experience within our box reaffirms the perceptual boundaries in which we operate.

Our experience is largely determined by the internal and external systems in which we operate. We are all part of larger systems that we act upon and that act upon us. These organizational, social and cultural systems form the boundaries of our perception; how we relate to ourselves and our world. Because I am known as a white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American man living in the early 21st Century, these become the boundaries of my box. A group of managers working at the same company for years, may have different backgrounds, but are similarly shaped by company culture and tend to think and behave along similar lines. Hence, they easily get trapped in the groupthink box.

There are two main systems that control us. Our ego, or sense of self, rules our inner system. This programming constantly gives us feedback to help us be successful as defined by our construct. It rewards us with good feelings for success which makes us seek more success, and creates disappointment when we fail, discouraging us from repeating failure. It keeps our perception in the realm of the known. It constantly proves us right.

The outer system is the construct of shared reality. If our reality is a mirror of our mind, shared reality is the collective reflection of everyone’s mirrors, proving us all right about how each of us sees things. This feedback loop ensures that that we don’t stray far from our “normal” operating range and continuously create consistent results. Our construct likes predictability and the right answer. It resists change and rewards consistency. But it is this “foolish consistency” that gets us stuck.

To create an experience that helps us move beyond the known, we need to redefine our operating parameters. These involve important questions such as, “How do I define success?, “Whose agenda am I following?”, “What does it cost me to persist?” and “What purpose is being served?” These questions help us think in systems and get to the heart of systemic change. Without them, we are unconsciously dominated by our ego (the machines in The Matrix) to the point where we don’t know why we do what we do, we just accept it as the way it is.

We live in complex, open systems where we do in one part affects the other parts and interacts with our environment. So it’s important when attempting to change something in your system that you consider its overall ecology – how it will impact the overall health of your life organization. This refers to the collection of subsystems that make up our lives, such as:

  • personal life
  • spiritual life
  • physical life
  • intellectual life
  • family life
  • professional life
  • social life
  • community life

To get unstuck, we must create purposeful designs for each area of our life organization, understand their place and define how each helps us to achieve the strategic goals of the system (our vision). What we may find is that these parts are not well integrated or are working at cross purposes. More likely, is that there is no overall goal and so no way to harmonize each part. If you’ve already downloaded my visioneering playsheet, you are already closer to answering the big important questions about what matters to you, why you do what you do and finding fulfillment in the process.

To create a system that serves you rather than you serving it, it’s critical to understand the systems in which you operate. From here begins the inward journey that will lead you to re-draw the boundaries of your box. In the words of T.S. Eliot:

We shall never cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

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