Seeing System Problems: Expand Your Field of Vision

January 25th, 2011
One of the biggest mistakes people make is attributing system problems to individuals (and individual problems to the system).  If you try to solve the problem on the wrong level, you are doomed to fail.

Here’s a simple yet classic example of trying to solve a systemic problem on the individual level.

Bob Sutton recently posted a piece on Team Guidelines. (I have some other reactions to the post, which I’ll cover some other time.)  The list starts with Show Respect, which includes “Show up to meetings on time.”  One can deduce from this that people aren’t showing up on time for meetings–hence an exhortation to individuals to be respectful and arrive on time.

People showing up late for meetings is a common problem; I see it in almost every organization I visit.

When you look at the problem on the individual level, and as disconnect events, it limits the range of solution options. Thus the ground rules, feedback directed at individuals and the non-solving of the problem.

"Show some respect!"

Showing up late for meetings is an individual matter of respect.

But if you want to understand the problem, look at the shape of the problem across the system:

A wider view of the "late to meetings" problem.

A wider view of the "late to meetings" problem.

A wider view shows interconnections, complexity, and effects beyond a single meeting. From this view, the “showing up late” problem has much more serious effects than annoying and inconveniencing other meeting participants.

Taking a wider view shows that “showing up late for meetings”  isn’t a trivial matter.  Maybe if more companies took the broader view, they’d actually try to fix the problem, rather than telling people to “show respect.”  For the most part, this behavior has little to do with intentional or unintentional disrespect (an exception described here, again, thanks to Bob Sutton).  We’ll look at that another time.

What are  you missing when you miss the wider view?


  1. Great post Esther! Helped me really think about the wider view of things and how much they effect. I’m going to pass this around to some folks to hopefully make them see it.

    P.S. How’s Pudge doing

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by estherderby, Markus Gärtner and testingfeeds, Yasunobu Kawaguchi. Yasunobu Kawaguchi said: RT @estherderby: Posted: Seeing System Problems: Expand Your Field of Vision #systemsthinking […]

  3. Top post! something I have been experiencing recently, and you capture the issue brilliantly.

    I see that people also try to fix what’s in front of them, which if very often the Symptom-Problem, not the Problem-Problem. So their intentions are good, but the solution is not effective to a longer term “fix”.

    I have been thinking, if we had more space and encouragement to think before we react, that a lot of these issues may not even arise.

  4. Marty Nelson says:

    Hmm, the technique of focusing on “how will value be demonstrated?” versus “what do we do to create value?” seems to apply to organizational systems as well.

    In this case, “people showed up on time” is a demonstrable outcome of having realizing the value of “a meeting”. (We might also add “people collaborated with full attention and focus” – which would had a meaningful dimension to the conversation about how to improve meetings!)

    Looks like there is an issue though in that this only represents the desired outcome of the organizer! For invitees, demonstrable outcome of having valuable meetings would be that they are “scheduled in such a way as to not compromise my other work commitments” and that “the topic of the meeting was relevant to me or I had some expertise that was necessary for the meeting”. This naturally leads to a conversation about how to creating meeting time blocks, scheduling guidelines, etc.

  5. Tim Ottinger says:

    I would like to see a similar mind map of causes instead of consequences. For instance, is there another meeting that runs just before this one, leaving no time for biological necessities? Is the meeting scheduled for the time the early train pulls up to the station (leaving no time for travel)? Is the meeting too late, so people are busy on other things and forget? Are people involved in work, in transit, in another meeting, or what?

    Sometimes resistance is an indicator of poor planning, not of poor follow-through, but you have to break out a few “why”s to be sure.

    • Esther says:

      Hi, Tim –

      Those are all potential contributors to the “late for meetings” problem. And that may very well be the subject of my next post :-) It’s actually how this one started.

      As I was writing about causes, it occurred to me that in many organizations, people don’t see the full extent of the problem. People are aware that not everyone shows up for meetings. They feel annoyed, and disrespected. But it’s still seen as a relatively isolated issues, springing from disrespectful behavior.

      I decided to show widening the view of the problem to illustrate that it’s not isolated, but part of a system wide pattern.


      (still can’t find the (#$*! font color code for text in this template.)

  6. Tim Ottinger says:

    Sorry, one more quick one: Has the meeting provided no or little value? It’s hard to get people to show up at something that does not help to make them successful.

  7. […] post is from Insights You Can Use by Esther Derby. Click here to see the original post in full.One of the biggest mistakes people make is attributing system problems to individuals (and […]

  8. […] Seeing System Problems: Expand Your Field of Vision […]

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