Fix The System Problem, Not The People Problem

The phrase ‘shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic’ is believed to have been first used in 1969. It featured in a Time Magazine article that quoted a priest decrying petty internal changes at a time when the Catholic church should have been concentrating on the erosion of its moral authority.

Since then the idiom is commonly used to describe a futile action in the face of impending catastrophe or one that contributes nothing to the solution of genuine problems.

We’ve seen a lot of deckchairs being moved about over the past few years in our major institutions, across sectors, our political systems – and the easiest deckchairs to shuffle are people.

The default response in most organisations when they desire change is to change the people. A new Executive, a few new Directors, a restructure. Organisational dysfunction can occur because of people – we all have human frailties – but is much more likely to arise because of systematic inadequacies.

This share on X from Mark Britz perfectly encapsulates the problem:

First of all I put my own hands up – I have in the past blamed middle and micro managers, when actually they are largely products of the system.

How much better off would we ALL be, if all the resources poured pointlessly into chasing talent were instead poured into understanding systems, and systems thinking?

The Quintessential Group

My thinking on this has been hugely influenced by Russell L. Ackoff, who always looked to blame systemic issues, not people, for problems.

People often resort to blaming individuals rather than acknowledging systemic issues due to a psychological inclination for self-preservation. Additionally, societal and organisational cultures may emphasise individual accountability, discouraging a systemic analysis. Almost ALL of the leadership BS our organisations are clothed in focuses on individual accountability, the way we measure performance, the way we conduct performance reviews. It’s all down to you.

In the public sector this blame culture can often spread to blaming end users, or customers. Jane Eyles writes about her decision to stop working within the housing sector after 33 years of trying and , in her view, failing to change the world. It’s a must read post especially in how she refers to ‘that culture’:

That Culture was in every landlord organisation that I have worked in; the one where there were always at least a handful of officers who outwardly criticised and blamed tenants, and a workforce that generally thought tenants were ‘different’.

You can see the same in aspects of the NHS, or the justice system – blaming people’s ‘lifestyle choices.’

I’d argue though that these are usually not inherently bad people, just people acting in ways that the system rewards.

W Edwards Deming, the man credited with almost single-handedly transforming the economy of post-war Japan, once said that a bad system will beat a good person every time. It wasn’t an attempt to get people to give up trying – it was a attempt to get people to understand the importance of the system and the futility of trying to focus on blaming people for failures.

Admitting and tackling systemic flaws requires a collective effort to address and implement changes, which is much harder. The tendency to attribute failure to individual actions is a coping mechanism ingrained in human behaviour, reflecting the reluctance to confront larger, more complex issues that demand collaborative solutions.

It’s easier just to fire and hire people.

In his book Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon states the change HR – or any people function – needs to make “ is to work on the 95% of the system that governs performance, not the 5% that doesn’t.”  People are downstream of the system.

When an organisation or department is struggling, many managers look first at the structure of the organisation.  They say we don’t have the right people, or we have some dead wood. We need to bring the new people in and make everyone’s job purpose much clearer.

It’s almost the first act of any new senior appointment to do a restructure. Because the system rewards people who perpetuate the system.

The next time you see a proposal for a restructure, ask if there’s been any attempt to tackle the underlying causes of the problem. Look for any changes to the actual system. If you can’t see any – it is doomed to fail.

Is it possible that in 2024 organisations will wise up to the importance of systems thinking and design, and whole system change? Realistically the answer is ‘probably not.’

It’s easier to shuffle those deckchairs, even with a looming iceberg.