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SYSTEMS – More than we think?

Systems is an unfortunately ambiguous word that can mean many things. It can mean, for example, a software system such as excel, Oracle, SAP, or salesforce.com. It can also mean a group of interrelated processes such as in sales; lead generation, prospecting, opportunity and lead management, contracting and closing, as well as incentivisation. Of course, systems can be groups of systems such as the sales processes just mentioned being managed via salesforce.com. Together, they may form one organisation’s sales system. And of course, there are HR systems, production systems, logistics systems and many others.

While these are very important in an organisational change context, they are not the subject of this blog. Instead, let me ask, would you consider a belief a system? It doesn’t matter what the belief, it could be a belief about anything. Perhaps a belief about the best school, about how to cook scrambled eggs, or the best time or place to go on a holiday. It will be helpful though, before you read on, to choose a belief. So, here’s a deliberate pause while you do so.

Having selected your belief the remainder of this article will explore its nature. Don’t worry, your belief is safe. It won’t be challenged as right or wrong, but we will be exploring its makings in more detail.

Can you recall how you arrived at your belief? Was it via your own experiences? Or did you read or hear something someone else said? Most people form beliefs by taking in some information from outside ourselves, through one or more of our senses. We then process that information and make sense of it. From that tenuous first snippet of information, a belief is formed through use, refinement, validation and reinforcement over time. In this way, a belief can be considered as something we hold to be true. The language is important here; we hold a belief to be true. What you hold to be true about the best spot for a holiday, best way to cook eggs, is your belief.

Beliefs could be considered ‘alive’ as they are subject to the external environment. If someone has a counter view we may refine, replace or reject the counter. For example, sometimes, we argue, ignorance is the culprit; ‘they haven’t been to this spot’ or ‘they haven’t tried my eggs’ or ‘their evaluation process is muddle headed’. Sometimes there is a refinement of our belief ‘Their holiday spot may be ok in winter but mine …’. And sometimes a replacement; ‘Actually, they are very good eggs. I wonder if I can learn that technique too’. In all these examples a decision is being made, sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly, about how right or correct our belief is. And often, what we have invested in a particular belief, amplifies how tightly we hold that belief as true. Think of some of the most protracted world problems and follow the belief trails of the parties involved to get a sense of what I mean here.

As may be obvious at this point, there is some similarity between the sales process and belief process. Both have a sequence of steps, with inputs and outputs, and feedback loops guiding the process along the way. But does the process nature of belief formation make it a system? Surely some beliefs are factual, aren’t they? I mean, doesn’t one plus one equal two? Isn’t a triangle a triangle in fact? Well…

Do you see the white triangle in this picture? Well, it’s not really there. The diagram is called the Kanzsia triangle and it’s a bit of a trick. The more objective objects – three circles with an eighth of the circle removed, and the gaps in the lines of the blue triangle – suggest just enough information to the brain for it to “fill in the gaps” and create the fact of a white triangle, even though one does not really exist.

Yet, it would not be hard to imagine a conversation between a few people ardently supporting each side of the argument that a triangle was, indeed, there. We often confuse objective and subjective data as we rush to form a conclusion – a belief – and move onto the next topic or focus of our busy day.

I argue that our concept of objective reality is just that, a concept. Some have used a map as a metaphor for our concept of reality. That’s the origin of the expression “the map is not the territory”. No matter how we think of reality, our concept of it is created by our thinking systems interpreting, storing, retrieving, reinterpreting and making use of information. Each belief we hold is formed and refined in this way. Often, one belief relates to another. Challenge a belief and you may very well be challenging a number of them. Make use of a belief and you will likely be making use of a number, often unconsciously.

As Marcus Aurelius suggested, “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”

Making decisions makes use of beliefs. Should I jump in and buy a residential property now? That depends on your beliefs. One real estate agent I spoke with recently very strongly suggested his vendor’s property was worth $x because the market had risen significantly over the last two years. On the other side of that same coin, ASIC is keen to ensure investors are aware that past performance is not an indication of future performance. Both stakeholders are invested in their beliefs. And while the contrast in this example may be obvious, the actual beliefs underpinning each stakeholder’s behaviour is not.

It’s the same in organisations. A multitude of beliefs underpin critical decisions. Often, the course of action that worked in the past is chosen over an ‘untested’ one. While many see this as a problem, I see this as a point of leverage. If underlying beliefs can be accessed, then there is great opportunity for change. And while many of the systems in use within organisations are others’ systems, changing them will most often succeed only as a result of me changing my beliefs. Approach the new change as I did the last one and I am far less likely to be successful.

Fortunately, the beliefs most accessible to me are my beliefs. The more I gain access to my beliefs about how change works, the more lightly I hold on to them, the greater my ability to use change as a lever. This is especially true as I dip into the system with interventions designed to get a particular outcome. By holding my beliefs about those outcomes lightly, and by being less invested in designing changes that are ‘right’, the more effectively I can respond to the data the system produces as an output. This is the power of ‘self’ as an instrument of change.

Of course, gaining access to other’s beliefs also helps, but that’s a topic for another blog.

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