Why Systems Continue to Undermine our Purpose #31 #cong22


In complex systems, it is hard to act with purpose, and much harder to ensure that our actions will have their intended consequences. If society is to evolve into something better, ordinary people must feel empowered to contribute. Our hierarchical systems and our culture just need to get out of the way of good people. We need to create a fault tolerant culture that celebrates the effort, regardless of how any individual attempt turns out.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. The interconnectedness of systems makes it difficult for an individual to make a difference
  2. Those closest to the action struggle the most
  3. Quantity of experimentation leads to quality of outcomes
  4. Those who have found their purpose need to encourage and embolden others

About Damian Costello:

I’ve spent 30 years as a consultant in Product Design, Disruptive Innovation and Corporate Strategy. Serving mainly multi-nationals based in Ireland, my work has taken me all over the world. In the past I have contributed to the consumerism that fuels most of the environmental and social degradation we see all around us.
As part of my reparations to society, it is now my mission to help usher in a new healthcare paradigm. A new system of wellness management and illness prevention to replace the inefficiency and exploitation of the current illness management industry that dominates our lives and the world’s economy.

Contacting Damian Costello:

You can reach Damian by email.

By Damian Costello

There are two types of events, or objects, in this world; those that were created on purpose, and those that were created by accident. Those created by design, or those created thoughtlessly. In today’s world, people seem to be too easily seduced by mindless, ill-informed jerks in popular culture and in politics. However easy it is to blame people for their poor judgement, we must remember just how hard it is to act with purpose in a complex, interconnected environment, and how much harder it is to ensure that actions have their intended consequences.

To illustrate the challenges facing anyone trying to live their best purpose in a world that is resistant to idealism, I would like, to share a story from work colleagues did in the NHS. Work that highlights the fragility of artificial systems, and how ordinary people are precluded from making real improvements. Indeed, it is those closest to the action that struggle the most in systems that steal their enthusiasm and leave them exhausted and demoralised.

The research uncovered that from the time a doctor at a bedside told a patient that they could go home, to them walking out the door, there were over 140 official process steps. On review, the reason turned out to be simple but pernicious. With the original architects of the system long gone, and their original design intentions long forgotten, later generations of clinicians and administrators did not have the confidence or the authority to rewrite the underlying procedural sequence. Instead, if a step in that sequence proved inefficient or detrimental, the users would stick in a five or six step workaround to overcome the issue.

The Law of Unintended Consequences being what it is, meant that the new ‘solution’ triggered previously unseen issues which in turn triggered further workarounds. After years of well-intentioned hacking, the NHS discharge process had become unusably complex. Yet, no one dared take out a step because they knew they’d get all the blame for anything that went wrong and none of the credit for anything that went right. So, they just kept adding workarounds, because, even if an additional patch made the system more dangerous, the one who added it would not be blamed.
Health services the world over have evolved using this warped logic. This is how the NHS, and no doubt the HSE in Ireland have become both bloated and fragile at the same time. Eventually they all get to a point where they are no longer fit for purpose, but nobody really knows what to do with them, and in Ireland at least, there is no political will to start over. In other domains, such as free market economics, such bloated constructs collapse under their own weight and are quickly replaced by a swarm of new, more experimental offerings. In these commercial scenarios there is little or no sympathy for those who lose out, but in broader society we cannot afford to be so heartless. If we are to see society evolve into something better. If ordinary people are to feel empowered to contribute to that evolution, then we need to create environments where those who want to act with a true sense of purpose, feel the rewards are worth the risks.

The world is a very large and complex place in which to operate. The unfathomable interconnectedness of our political, economic, and social systems makes it very difficult for a purposeful individual to make a difference, and even where it is possible to institute change the outcome may not be what was hoped for. The only way complex systems evolve is through experimentation and the best way to accelerate that evolution is to do more experiments. Quantity leads to quality in times of complex systems change, so anyone who is moved to try to improve things should be encouraged. Our hierarchical systems and our culture just need to get out of the way of good people, their numbers and their humanity will do the rest.

The lesson then, is that those who have already found their purpose and who have summoned the will to act, need to share their stories with as many others as they possibly can, because the changes we need in the world today are too much for any one individual no matter how rich, arrogant, or interplanetary a jerk they are.

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