Systemic constraints, individual autonomy

bicycle bridgeI have spent the past few weeks reflecting on my life’s work – the highs and lows, the times when I have been most energized and engaged – toward identifying the purpose of my next life chapter.  What I am discovering is both surprising and very familiar.  I have spent most of my career at the intersection of human systems and individual action.   My doctoral dissertation and academic research was the study of organizational constraints on women’s work force and childbearing behavior.  I spent the past 17 years in leadership positions, practicing how to create effective change for organizations and learning how important it is to connect with individual people.  I believe that all individuals have the power to make a difference – to choose what they do and how they do it.  This is particularly true for people in leadership positions, who have been granted power by virtue of their positional authority.  I have seen individual leaders make a significant difference.

And yet, I have witnessed an organization turn over most people in leadership positions, with new leaders coming in with bold visions and mandates to create change, only to have the same behavior patterns repeated.  Culture beats strategy, or eats it for breakfast (a saying often attributed to Peter Drucker but without clear attribution).   The only thing I could conclude was that the organization as a system had enormous power to resist change.  Mental models passed on to new hires, incentive structures both internal and external, processes both implicit and explicit – all the ways things get done in the organization – induct individuals into the system and create inertia and resistance to change, both passive and active.

And yet, change does happen.  Usually slowly, sometimes at a dizzying pace.  You see it in social and political trends at the national level, within organizations and teams, and within individuals.  People themselves are systems – complex beings made up of different parts, beliefs, and habitual behaviors.  Change, whether within a person or for an organization, can be very difficult to create and even harder to sustain, but everything I have learned points to one common truth: lasting change can only occur with deep understanding and acceptance of what currently exists.  And an important related truth – leaders must be willing to go first, to embody the change they want to create, to live the values they speak.  Because people watch what leaders do, and dismiss what they say.

Most people working in transformation know this – it is not new insight.   Yet many seek to make change for others without seeming to fully embrace the change for themselves.  They seem to have already arrived at answers.  A positive holistic approach to change means seeking the right questions, rather than bringing answers.  It means coming with an open heart as well as an open mind.  It means being willing to look at your own role in maintaining the status quo, even while that is uncomfortable.

My life’s work has been to understand, practice and become highly skilled at intentional system change, which sits at the intersection of strategy and culture, of organizations and individuals.   The purpose of my next chapter is to share what I have learned and my skills with others, as I continue to learn and grow.  How or where I do that, I am still not sure.

“you are perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement.”  – Shunryu Suzuki

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One Response to Systemic constraints, individual autonomy

  1. I know that as an individual system there is great resistance to change even as I welcome it conceptually. What helps me is to acknowledge and honor the old system so that I can shift with less clinging.

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