Human Systems Need Better Thinking


Current systems don't take into account the energy in human systems. Systems need better thinking.

Twenty years ago, I coined a term to talk about the effects of this situation: “energy vampires.” Time and time again, I've observed (and proven in business) that when things go bad, it's no so much because of “bad” energy. But it's often because energy doesn't circulate at all.

What and therefore who sucks energy?

Systems and what they prevent. Because of how they're designed.

Here's how:

  • The efficient forced self-administered customer service (and therefore an additional fee or energy tax on customers)
  • Technology with poor user experience (to save money, there is no service)
  • Media demand for attention without adding value
  • Politics disembodied from knowledge, conscience, and ethics
  • Business operating systems which (except in rare cases) cannot function sustainably

Notice what all of these have in common?

They are “systems” programmed by business schools and management consultancies honed on best practices. There's little exploring of context and developing effective action in current applications. Best practices are like maps: they don't reflect the whole territory. These maps don't take into account human energy. This is the problem.

What's the point of seeing the broader picture

if you exclude humanity from it?

Ceding control to these systems is how we lost beauty, love, trust, care, and connection. The only way to sanity seems to be to subtract yourself as much as possible from current systems as best you can. But not everyone has the luxury of doing that.

Andrea Illy says beauty is also virtuous. The Greek used the epxression, kalos kagathos, which includes the concept of goodness. “The best and most beautiful and precious things in life are the ones which stay over the centuries. No matter if it is arts, architecture, or even clothing. Whatever it is, if it is beautiful, if it is precious, it’s conserved.

You can take control back.

Few things give you more joy than doing a good deed. Often that goodness comes from introducing someone to something or someone else, and that someone else doing the same… and so on. We can start from doing this: selflessly connecting people to each other and (re)building community.

Connection is how we transform

businesses and institutions.

Individuals, groups and communities need that transformation to thrive.  How we work together is a renewable form of energy: the customer service person who goes off script to help, the tech team that listens and implements feedback, emerging media that talks about what matters, politics that bridge the gap between talk and walk.

Business can be a force for positive impact. Connection is what. All of us is who.

Here are some hows:

1./ You can make a difference, trust in your power

In case you were wondering if this is only touchy-feely, look at how Dana White built a UFC empire out of his desire to connect with fans. You can also reclaim your personal power by learning to parse through information. Sometimes less is more… powerful, too.

2./ Think knowledge as a service

It's an overused expression, it really does apply. We live in a remix culture, where individuals, industries, and media that thrive enable the exchange of ideas. That's where you make new connections: synthesizing ideas in a different context. Or perhaps simulating potential alternative futures.

3./ Learn to take small risks

This is what passion is all about. Creating new habits involves exploring new territory. Habits condition most of our days. These are the maps we follow: recipes, best practices, and formulas. We also go with the flow out of social conditioning. But you cannot expect new discoveries when looking at things same as it ever was.

You have to step outside your comfort zone to explore with new eyes. This is where your agency lives.

4./ Make a point with your view 

Put substance behind the approach. Do the work to be prepared to defend and discuss a topic intelligently and willingly. Here, it's important to remember how disagreement is central to progress.

The philosophical aspect of point of view is perspective. In their work, Heraclitus and Parmenides discussed the relation between “appearance” and reality —as in what is appearance, what is reality, and the relationships between the two.

5./ Keep your promises

Keeping your promises is what allows you to keep making promises. This is valid at individual and organizational level. Coming through, following up helps you maintain integrity of purpose and build credibility. Here's a tech company's example of breaking promises. Some thoughts on positioning and promises.

If I were to give you just one piece of advice, this would be it.

6./ Find new words

If what you're saying doesn't work, assume it's because your question, request, or inquiry was not clear to the recipient. Look for an example, a story, some other way to make it easier to understand. But also look for words that are more appropriate to the context.

And finally, sometimes you need new words, because the old ones have not kept up with your imagining. We can’t explain the organizations of the future with the language of the past.

7./ Demonstrate you're serious

Whether it's support, empathy, or active listening, actually demonstrating something can be a faster route to meaning than well-practiced words. Non verbal language works wonderfully to show who you really are. In digital body language, action speaks louder than words.

You demonstrate you're serious (mostly) by keeping your promises.

8./ Connect actively

“Don't expect, connect.” Do it when you feel the energy of a potential connection. This is the ultimate selfless act. Forward the message, make the introduction, help people see what they have in common, draw them together. If you need ideas, here's how to write a good invitation to connect.

Businesses forget how to think like a human all too often, and we go along out of habit.

9./ Write it down

Inevitably, you will get ideas in the course of connecting. Make sure you have a way to capture them. I still do it the traditional way—on notepads. My preference is for Fabriano EcoQua Spiral-Bound Notebooks because they're super smooth to write and draw on with a mechanical pencil.

Writing by hand stimulates the brain's synapses—touch is part of it, too.

10./ Let them know you thought of them

Depending on the stage in your relationship and preferred communication channels, you can find ways to show you noticed or thought of someone. This is the nice touch that takes very little to do. I send paper thank you cards with short notes.

The argument for going traditional here is even better than that we make to sell direct mail. Nobody writes cards anymore. They do stand out.

11./ Be present to opportunities

Rome wasn't built in a day, as the expression goes. This means the opportunity is often not immediate. When you're alert and in the moment, you can see an opportunity when it knocks. Connection can take time to form, and so (often) opportunity takes time to mature.

12./ Think beyond your immediate circle

Weak ties, strong ties, we're all in some ways connected to each other by our shared humanity. Some people are more open than others to making introductions. There's a cultural dimension to this one. Part of it goes back to your roots, and part to your environment. I find people in tech are less prone to making introductions, for example.

But part of it is also personal culture. Is this you?

Human systems need better thinking. Systems don't take into account energy. But energy is valuable in understanding human systems. Connection is a good way to start.


An abbreviated version of this note introduced this letter on Emergent Novelty.

[image of the two loops strategic design via Margaret Wheatley]

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