Friday, January 22, 2010

Ignoring the big picture leads to bad weather and social media problems

Could you be a good marketing manager if you were told that you have to use outdated Instant Messaging applications (IM, remember?) instead of Twitter? Oh, and people don't really read them much anymore and there might be instructions but no one can find them.

How about if you were told that you have to manage a backwards division of several hundred people that all do the opposite of what you say and you have to learn to tell them exactly the wrong thing in order for them to do the right thing? That sounds like the world turned upside down.

People are using outdated processes that don’t work well. And we’re not talking just about social media. The way that people use social media today is outdated, ineffective, and sometimes completely backwards. The focus should be on a system approach rather than the piecemeal bulleted task approach of the “10 Things My Mother Told Me” style.

Ignoring systems causes problems

John Sterman, author of Business Dynamics, the jewel of system dynamics writing, thinks that leadership without a systems approach causes more problems than it solves. He notes that hard data backs up the idea that people don’t understand systems and people don’t naturally think about systems. People have to be taught how to think systems with models and how to ease in to doing it at first. And it also takes a person willing to be a disciplined thinker using data driven inquiries with a lot of human understanding and respect.
Perhaps, the most unnerving ideas Sterman pushes forth from the citadel of the MIT Sloan Business School are that
  • all decisions are based on models
  • all models are wrong and
  • we can’t ever figure things out completely
That forces us to be a humble participant in the marketplace rather than the gladiator of social media marketing. When we realize our inability to control everything, we become more effective in the business world.

Could it really be true that Cisco’s meltdown in 2001 which allowed them to write off $2.2 billion in inventory was caused by reduced capital spending and the global macroeconomic environment, as noted in their Annual Report? Or is it more likely that their policies were just a macro version of the Beer Distribution Game like the evidence shows?

Systems thinking doesn’t recognize side effects

Side effects are just things we didn’t think of that we should have and aren’t going to be responsible for. It’s easier to assign the blame to the drug, the employees, or the military action.
It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
as a Viet Nam era major allegedly said but never took responsibility for. His policy was directing behavior that had mismatched values with the general public

Systems thinking requires us to be accountable and responsible for our policies that we set and not continue in the child’s ploy of shifting the blame to escape parental wrath. The side effects that we caused are really just feedback from our decision inputs into the system. You have to honestly and humbly ask yourself if you have the ability to control the environment in which you work. You usually do.

Human influence on natural systems

Then you should ask yourself how you can control the parts you think you can’t manage. Are you thinking you can’t get more than 100 Twitter followers or that no one wants to retweet you? How can you influence people when they don’t want to be influenced? You think about the system that they are a part of and in many people’s corporate vernacular the solution becomes “think outside of the box” because the box are the hard walls of details that we continually focus on.

Maybe in Mark Twain’s day when he said
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
there weren’t meteorological scientists who could shape weather but today we are talking about global warming and our coal burning policies are a main talking point in the debate. We recognize systems at work that we control and their effects on our world.

Certainly Mark Twain’s cousins couldn’t set off a display of the Northern Lights like the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) can and upset every conspiracy theorist in the world at the same time. Even I’m concerned about the inadvertent feedback from an unknown device that can spew 3.6 megawatts of energy above my head into the environmental system that I’m living in. Hoover Dam produces about 5.6 megawatts per day which is almost what an average New Yorker uses in an entire year in case you need to talk apples and oranges.

More research into systems points to a seven day cycle of both pollutants on the East Coast and tropical cyclones. The supporting data comes from the number of cars on the road during the week which declines on the weekend and the higher chance of rain on the weekend with the least on Monday. You do the math and remember to work the weekend and take off Monday and Tuesday.

Getting others to change

Policy resistance to change is a major problem no matter where you encounter it. Maybe you're frustrated because your call to action fell flat. If it was a tweet that went unnoticed, then it’s because of the previous tweets that you look like. People say it’s just another marketing ploy, another quality program or another 10 ways that I can forget, and then ignore you.

People react to events and not to systems. The unscientific masses assign cause and effect to a volcano, a science experiment, or an alien intervention. My tweet was ignored because of the Haiti earthquake, people aren’t buying because the stock market went down, or the iPhone already has flooded the market. They react with a short-term conservative marketing program which doesn’t have real passion behind it and barely convinces anyone that they have something worth paying attention to. The market reacts with complacency which turns into no long-term effect. The short term goals produce low sales results (the feedback in the system) which causes cynicism about real change or better marketing programs. To get people out of the rut, the individual has to be taught to be a part of the larger social system.

Social networks can be seen in a good light (ignoring the electricity consumption for the computer hardware) for increasing the social interaction of individuals while decreasing the television viewing of the general public. Many studies have correlated television viewing with lower social interactions and all sorts of civic woes. If these are to be believed we can take solace that internet browsing is increasing at the expense of of television viewing and people are spending more time with their extended friends online instead of watching Friends reruns.

The more you spend time in social networks building up your extended friendships or trust agents, the more you come to value the ability to create change. People react to other people over the social networks. Television sets don’t react.

The Fifth Discipline

Peter Senge wrote The Fifth Discipline about 15 years ago on the need for a systems approach to business. Are you able to understand a watch by disassembling it into thousands of pieces and then, even harder, reassemble it to understand it as a whole? Are you able to assemble a broken mirror’s pieces and know what a real reflection looks like? Senge promoted the learning organization, a responsive business organization that can learn faster than its competitors. Instead of the top dog strategist learning for the rest of the blue collar workers, it’s got to be the entire organization learning at all levels.

Managing a better pizza

Nick’s Pizza and Pub (see “Lessons From a Blue Collar Millionaire”, Inc., February 2010), near Chicago, is a place where people are being educated by a different culture at all levels. They tell people what the situation (not the Jersey Shore type) is and let them choose how to handle it giving them control over their outputs. This increases the responsibility of the employees. I think Edward W. Deming would have found most of his 14 Points for Management in this business.

Managers at Nick’s are motivated to ask, learn, and dig down to the fifth why on their own to solve problems and not feel that sense of futility in a corporation that isn’t a learning organization. One young woman manager from the employee veteran ranks who started at 16 controlled costs better than three outside experienced professional general managers who talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk. If you like Zappos, this is another great place to learn success from.

System theory

The previous posts in this series on systems theory as seen by the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) explored the following topics:
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

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