One of my favorite moments in any planning or strategy meeting is when someone looks suddenly resolute, and says something like: “You know what the problem is? The problem is that we don’t have a system to [do or decide or develop the thing we’re talking about].”
I love this moment because, almost always, in the very next moment they describe the current system that does that thing in rather sophisticated detail. Then everyone in the room nods and agrees that yes, that’s how it works now, and no, they don’t have a system, and yes, they need one.
There is (almost) always a system that does whatever the thing is. And everyone knows its parts and its processes. Granted, often that system sucks — it’s unproductive and sometimes destructive — but it’s there.
I remember discovering this form of public theater decades ago, at a meeting about cultural policy. Many academics, advocates, and funders were around the table, trying to improve access and impact for cultural policy research. And someone became suddenly resolute and said (something like): “You know what the problem is? The problem is that we don’t have a system to share and disseminate the most important and relevant research.” And then, in the next breath: “Right now, whenever anyone has a question about cultural policy research, they call me or a handful of other researchers, and ask for recommendations or referrals. I’m getting these calls all the time.” And the whole room nodded.
We then went on for hours discussing and designing a complex and expensive web-based database of cultural policy research, a system built from scratch to solve the “missing system” problem. And nobody used it. Instead, they kept making calls (and later emails) to a few connected people who could refer them to relevant resources.
Smart, earnest, and well-intentioned people often yearn for fresh-made systems – of information exchange, decision-making, organizational structures, reporting relationships, funding and financing, even cultural production and presentation – when they feel frustrated in their work. Or when they assume that professionals build fresh systems, and figure they should do that too.
But what if, when frustrated or longing to look professional, you explored the existing culture, processes, and practices – often deeply embedded in the enterprise or the community – and asked how to make them work better? What if the goal wasn’t a fresh, new, designed-to-specs system, but a more productive and less destructive version of the current way of doing things?
Human systems are more like water than wind-up clocks. They find their way between points not by logic but by paths of least resistance. They bend around obstacles and seep into soft spots. They erode tracks and canyons into those paths by retracing them over time. Sure, those paths can also become entrenchments that need redirection. But why not start with the ways the water flows?
The next time you’re in a meeting and someone says “we don’t have a system that…,” listen (and write down) the very next words they say. There’s a system in there that might not need reinvention, but rather a bit of attention, care, and cultivation.