System Transformation Happens Now – Yesterday’s Future

“When you separate the mind from the structure where it is immanent – as a human relationship, human society or the ecosystem – is committed, I believe, a fundamental error, which will surely suffer in the long run.” G. Bateson

This quote reminds me of the fundamental flaws inherent in the underlying myopia of system transformation efforts. I believe some authors (John Kotter comes to mind) who publish in the domain of organization change success and failure criteria etcetera, are examining proximate causes and not root cause or causes lying in waiting that are also part of the web of complexity associated with organizations. Unfortunately this approach feeds directly into near-term pragmatism and accountability-seeking that exerts tyranny over many stakeholders and governors of systems. It forces reductionism and near-term-thinking at the expense of longer-term opportunity quite possibility because safe-to-fail experimentaiton is risky. Apply a complicated fix to a complex phenomena (read: best/better practice when emergent practice is the order of the day) and don’t be surprised when you find yourself dealing with symptoms of underlying structures that were always there anyway. The diatribe in today’s Forbes article is more of the same old same old, so when will we learn?

Health care system transformation is a case in point and we all have a stake in that game. It’s really our own fault that we get what we get since our focus is so myopic. In Canada, Flaherty’s recent announcement regarding transfer payments is a sad example of a well-intended effort. He said on the CBC news yesterday that we need a viable health care system 10-15 years from now. Really? Seriously, Jimbo? I appreciate the courage demonstrated in light of global factors and events impacting dynamic global complexity, but to look at sustainable health care as a function of simple transaction and transition into a 10-15 year window is to minimize the epic complexity underlying the myriad interdependences leading to the provision of care. We need a better wellness effort, not care effort such that care becomes a post hoc concern primarily. But that means creating pain for us and for the perpetrators of proximate events (tobacco, alcohol, food but to name a few). Now who among us is really willing to stop the cause of the wound (problem in waiting) rather than the Band-Aid of funding (proximate cause). You? Me? Whom? Not likely – and that’s the issue. Need to connect values to leading through complexity? Try courage on for size.

Transforming organizations through problem solving produces a better past, in my mind, but not a better future. To produce a better future is to produce a better now, for the future, they say, never comes. There is only now and a memory of the past. What we dreamt of only becomes coherent with hindsight.

To create a better now, the lens of complexity offered by Snowden and Kurtz suggests we probe our systems with various catalysts, sense what patterns emerge and become meaningful in retrospect, then amplify or dampen the coherence that emerges. Are we up for that, Mr. Flaherty? Are you? I am and risk mitigation and not downloading is the only real thing I am concerned about.

Increasing our individual and collective tolerance for ambiguity does us great favor in preparing for unknown emergent patterns recognizable only in hindsight.  So try something new – don’t focus on making a better past. Increase your capacity to deal with emergence and you’ll be far more nimble and adaptable – NOW. The ability to overcome fear and anxiety related to uncertainty is one of the most highly desirable attributes we can possess when dealing with complexity.

As a coach once said to me: “What are you waiting for? Do you always need to know the outcome before you choose to act? Where is the creativity in that?”

We are a part of our complicated and complex systems, never separate from them, so conditions for transformation will seldom be better than they are now – which was yesterday’s future.


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