Are successful systems always healthy?

November 30, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Systems Health, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

I had a discussion with a colleague after my recent blog on the subject of system health. One point that emerged was related to successful systems and a question whether they are same as healthy systems. It led to some interesting discussion and subsequent thought chain, which I would like to share with you.
We call a system successful when it meets or exceeds the goals or benchmarks set for it. So the success is always relative. Same level of performance may be considered successful or unsuccessful based on whether we set easy or tough goals. For example, an average student studying in ordinary school may think of himself as successful but when he moves to another school with a record of many toppers in the merit list, he may suddenly feel challenged. His performance has not changed but the standard has.

Another aspect of being considered successful is relevance of the standard to the current situation. Our education system is a good example. If the basis of judgment was relevant for the primary reason for education, which is development of each individual student, we would not have had so many cases of students committing suicide.

Even for the students who don’t commit suicide, there is a small percentage that considers itself or is regarded as successful. Most of them go through a grind and lead fairly distorted lives from the health perspective, especially in final years or a few days before the final exam. Studying late, not taking care of food, not having adequate time for exercise all take their toll on health, effects of which are apparent much later when generally it is too late.

What is true for an individual is also true for systems. A system is considered successful when it meets or exceeds its goals. An organization is also a system. We have seen many cases where an organization suddenly shot to fame, was everybody’s talking point, people rushed to buy the stocks and soon enough it plummeted to a catastrophic failure. Probably our yardstick for measuring success is at fault. Were the organizations concerned successful? Probably yes. Were they healthy? Obviously not. There was something more fundamental which we overlooked. When the whole industries become unhealthy but superficially successful, it leads to an economic downturn as we recently witnessed.

What is then the health of a system? While success is about achieving, health is about being in balance. It is the fine balance between the opposing diverse elements and the synergy that comes out of such balance giving the system the ability to respond to current & future challenges effectively. When the fine balance is disturbed, it may lead to an uncontrolled cancerous growth of some aspects of the system threatening other aspects and ultimately the whole system. The disturbed balance also constricts the free flow of synergy and creates toxic waste which is poisonous and leads to the deterioration of the system and its ability to face the challenges.

Is health just absence of illness? No. It is much more than that. The positive aspects of health make it so. On the other hand, presence of illness does not necessarily indicate lack of health. For example, a person is having fever. Does it mean he is unhealthy? Not necessarily. Fever is a mechanism to fight and kill the undesirable elements. So it is natural reaction of a healthy body to manage the risks. However, if there is frequent fever at slightest provocation then it may indicate a problem with health.

What are the practical implications of the above? Firstly, too much emphasis on success & failure may be undesirable. We need to pay attention to the real indicators of health. In case of software development, it would mean we should have a fresh look at our measurement systems to see which of them help us to measure health of a project & project team.

Healthy systems may appear unglamorous but in the long run they are successful in the true sense because they not only remain alive & well but also make other systems healthy in whom they participate or with whom they interact.

Any thoughts or experiences that support or challenge what is said above?


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