The road to hell is paved with side effects

October 14, 2010

Are you familiar with any unwanted side effects in your organization? Are your people working too much overtime because work is being pushed to them? Are incentive systems being played by the employees to maximize their personal gains? Are your customers usually unhappy because they aren’t allowed to change their minds about what they want? Are people notoriously late for meetings in your department? Are you always finding out that tasks won’t be completed on time at the last minute?

Did you ever wonder why any of this is happening?

The people working for you are acting within a system that you are supposed to nurse. That system, if it is a stable one, is what will affect your results more than anything else. The system (that you should assume responsibility for), is delivering outputs, good as well as bad. And guess what, you can consider all of the above problems to be the main goals of your work system. This is what you’ve designed your system to do.

I think that John Sterman put it quite eloquently:
“There are no side effects — only effects. Those we thought of in advance, the ones we like, we call the main, or intended, effects, and take credit for them. The ones we didn’t anticipate, the ones that came around and bit us in the rear — those are the “side effects”. When we point to outside shocks and side effects to excuse the failure of our policies, we think we are describing a capricious and unpredictable reality. In fact, we are highlighting the limitations of our mental models.”

It really doesn’t matter what your intentions were when designing the work system. Your good intentions are history and there is a road to hell that is paved with them. You need to consider the unwanted effects of your system as primary goals of it if you’re going to address them properly.

This is also known as the POSIWID principle, a term coined by Stafford Beer – The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. It might sound fatalistic but is quite the opposite. Yes, the output of a stable system is approaching deterministic and can’t be changed, but – the system itself can be redesigned to deliver very different results. As a manager, it is your job to do this design and redesign when needed.

The most important part of a manager’s job is to design purposeful work systems.

Do you have a part about designing work systems in your job description? Is that a part of your formal training? Did you even know that’s what you are doing, or are supposed to be doing?

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