Friday, March 16, 2018


Over the next few posts we're going to broach the subject of self-management. This is going to take us into the realm of beginning to make conscious, systematic decision about our life and work. Self-management is not so much about the decisions themselves, as it is about the parameters and priorities that we'll use to guide those.


Every well operating system is balanced. Look up balance in the dictionary and many definitions and uses can be found. One I particularly like is; The power or means to decide. If our system is balanced, we maintain the opportunity to decide. If any system, whether mechanical, electrical, celestial, etc. is unbalanced, it is also typically unstable. Unstable systems typically lead to failure. This failure can be gradual erosion in performance, a sudden breakdown or even a catastrophic event. Many systems that become unstable will not actually fail based on the instability, but they become more sensitive to other upsets, and when these occur, they fail as a result. Understanding the key parameters that keep a system balanced is an important factor in performance.


Simplistic systems are focused on a very limited set of functions. Typically these systems operate in a closed-loop fashion. Inputs come in, get processed in some limited fashion to create an output and then either complete or repeat. There is little or no feedback, and no adaptability. More complex systems incorporate open-loop control, feedback and a myriad of processes based on inputs and/or outputs, with the ability to change or modify processes. Complex systems will establish priorities based on various parameters, either inputs, output,or process related. These priorities will help a system function efficiently and effectively based on it's real-time environment. Our lives are very complex systems, that operate in a complex system of systems called life. Understanding priorities in light of the intended functionality of a system are essential to creating a stable, effective system.


Very few systems have the luxury of operating in a complete vacuum. Most systems must interact with their environment, other systems, or both. How a system performs and maintains these interactions is crucial to how well any system will operate and survive. Many breakdowns in complex systems of systems will likely begin with an improper interaction between two or more component systems, rather than the complete failure of one or the other. This concept of identifying, and managing, interactions is a crucial element in our individual, and organizational, life and work.

I'd like to hear your feedback on these three critical systems elements of self-management. Have you mastered any of these in your own life and work? Do you see these in your daily lives? Would mastery of any or all of these help your life and work?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy

One of the challenges most people face is the balancing act between inquiry and advocacy. Inquiry is the skill for investigating and understanding information or another's point of view. Advocacy comes into play when we begin to sell our own thoughts or ideas to another. We at this point are advocating our position and attempting to be right or win. While there is nothing wrong with being right and/or winning, if this is our focus it can significantly block learning for the individual that is locked into advocacy. If it is a primary behavior in a team or organizational culture, it can be very detrimental to learning, creativity and interpersonal relationships.

In many organizations, advocacy behavior is typically the type of behavior that gets rewarded. In fact many organizations see the very definition of competence as the ability to solve problems - to figure what needs to be done, and influence those required to get the outcome required. These individuals typically become successful based on their abilities to debate forcefully and produce results. Inquiry skills many times go unrewarded and unrecognized. However, as problems or systems become more complex and diverse, they can quickly outpace our personal experience and understanding. This drives the need for insights that go beyond our personal view and the need for learning. This is where a reliance on advocacy skills will become counterproductive. What is required is a blending, or balancing, of advocacy and inquiry.

Ultimately, the goal of applying a balance of inquiry and advocacy into a systems activity is maximize the learning and engagement of the stakeholders involved. By it's very nature, introducing inquiry into these situations will result in confirming and disconfirming data, assumptions and beliefs that are held by the stakeholders. This can be a very uncomfortable situation for those involved. Practicing inquiry and advocacy means being willing to open yourself to change and to test your own ideas openly. The result will almost always be a more creative outcome than could have been obtained through a typical, singularly advocated solution from a single source. So think about interactions you see within your own sphere of action. Do you see any of these in practice? What about in your actions, do you tend to one or the other, a balanced approach or do you just "clam up" in the face of extreme advocacy? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Monday, March 12, 2018


Inquiry skills are crucial to developing a systems thinking mindset. The ability to interrogate a complex issue or item, and remain mindful of what we see enables real systems learning.

Critical Inquiry involves several types of actions and skills to be effective. The first crucial Inquiry skill is to be able to ask purposeful and constructive questions. This skill involves both an element of content and delivery. It is important to pursue questioning in a constructive manner as it could be perceived in a bad light.

Secondly, it is critical to gather and analyze information that is germane to the system. Developing the ability to sort key information and view it objectively is invaluable in systems analysis. The primary importance of inquiry in a systems thinking context, is the ability to interrogate and understand our own individual (or group) mental models and how they affect how we guide our thoughts and actions. An imperfect understanding of our own mental models will enable us to continue to take actions within a narrow channel, even when those actions are inadequate, inappropriate or do not yield the results we wish to obtain. In a previous post, we explored the difficulties associated with a Rational Model, or reductionist approach.

Another ability is also crucial, it is important to master a skill to balance our tendency to advocate our own perceptions and ideas, instead of inquiring to understand other perspectives and new or different information. Balancing inquiry and advocacy is a critical step in learning and understanding systemic issues, and will be the subject of our next post. If we truly endeavor to obtain a systems perspective, it will very quickly become too complex and diverse than our own personal experience can adequately comprehend. Therefore, exercising our inquiry skills to comprehend new ideas and perspectives will be crucial in diagnosing what needs to be done, and in enlisting support to make it happen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Box

One of the crucial things every individual will need to overcome is the incipient trait of self-deception. Self-deception can come in many levels, but it will always lead us to act in an inconsistent way with our stated values. In a striking book called Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box, by the Arbinger Institute, the box is the frame that we place ourselves, and others, that leads us into this self-deception. This can take on many forms, but it always leads people, and organizations, into an area of dysfunctional interpersonal relations and a lack of focus on results.

Self-Deception, or The Box, will lead us to fall victim to four major flaws;
A lack of sincerity
A sense of entitlement
Seeing other people as objects (or worse impediments)
A complete sense of justification for all of our actions, good or bad

If you are attempting to practice self-mastery, you will have to gain perspective, and ultimately change these behaviors in yourself before you can completely unify your actions with your stated values. As long as this gap is large, your ultimate effectiveness will be stifled, or severely limited. We must learn to use, and balance, the tools of inquiry, reflection and advocacy to gain a more learned view of ourselves and how we relate to the others around us. (We will discuss these more in subsequent posts.)

Ultimately, being in the box will lead to a lack of proper focus on results. Most commonly, this will lead people, including leaders, to focus on, and confuse, activity rather than results. We will use our activity level to provide justification, rather than fulfillment. Through our seeing others as impediments, we fail to properly integrate, or collaborate, to achieve truly stellar, concrete results. We can allow our personal sense of entitlement to lead to a disinterest in the true purpose of what we're trying to achieve.

Any truly integrated system, whether it is a highly complex spacecraft, or whether it is the life's work of an individual, it is the results of the systems effort that truly matter. It is the objective integration of unified effort that make any system truly functional, and it is the achievement that produces that makes any system worthwhile and effective.

Let me hear from you. where have you encountered self-deception in your own life and work? When have you seen the dis-integration of a team where self-deception was part of the culture? What do you do to fight these things in your own life and work?

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Big Picture

We have all experienced some mental Olympics when we have dealt with a significant crisis or change in our life. How we see the crisis, or change, and it's consequences can significantly affect our response. These can lead us into actions, overreactions and in some cases paralysis. The importance of having a systematically grounded mental model can be crucial in dealing with our view of change and growth.

The concept of mental models has been around for years. They can be called many things, such as models, paradigms, and filters. The latter term can be limiting but it does describe one essential aspect of how most mental models can be applied. When we subconsciously apply mental models, we will filter input that doesn't fit our model and we can overestimate the importance of confirming information. In this day and age, our society is becoming fractured, dis-integrated, because rapid communication like cable news, social media, etc. tend to be avenues where people can feed on Confirmation Bias. Being able to understand a big picture that is grounded in our goals and tested open-mindedly is a critical step in self-mastery and establishing a working systems thinking model for yourself.

An important skill that one needs to apply to our lives to unlock The Power of One, is the skill of reflection. Peter Senge wrote in his seminal work The Fifth Discipline that, "skills of reflection concern the slowing down our own thinking processes so that we become more aware of how we form our mental models and the way they influence our actions." The bottom line is systems thinking, in absence of mastery of our mental models, is ineffective to get us to where we wish to go.

I would love to hear from my readers about instances where you've come face-to-face with the realization that your mental model(s) was disconnected from the big picture.