As in, a perfect system.
Is there such a thing? Could there ever be that? Surely not?
OK, I’ll qualify this a little.
At a certain point (or points) in time, the system you have will be perfect.
It will act in a way that is either
(a) Absolutely as intended when you designed it or
(b) It will be a better version than the one you designed.
YET my hero in Systems Thinking — the esteemed and quite brilliantly ahead-of-his-time Russell Ackoff — said this about perfect systems:
“Designing an optimal system involves understanding its purpose, interdependencies, and potential trade-offs. It’s not about seeking perfection, but rather about creating a system that can adapt, learn, and evolve over time.”
If you haven’t come across Russell’s work before; he was a renowned organisational theorist and (IMHO) the Godfather of Systems Thinking. He had that critical perspective on the concept of a “perfect system.” He argued that the pursuit of a perfect system is inherently flawed and can lead to unintended consequences.
Ackoff’s views can be summarised thus:
1. Perfection is Unattainable: Ackoff believed that achieving absolute perfection in a system is impossible due to the complex and dynamic nature of real-world systems. Even if a system appears perfect at a specific moment, it may quickly become obsolete or ineffective as conditions change.
There though, lies that sense of mine — at a specific moment.
2. Focus on Improvement: Instead of striving for perfection, Ackoff suggested focusing on continuous improvement. He advocated for a holistic approach to problem-solving and system design that acknowledges the interdependencies and interactions within a system. He believed that systems should be designed to adapt and evolve in response to changing circumstances.
And to me, that adaptability and evolving system is a near-perfect system. It feels like it’s all you could “ask” of a system.
3. Trade-offs and Constraints: Ackoff emphasised the presence of trade-offs and constraints in any system. Pursuing perfection often involves allocating resources, time, and effort in a way that sacrifices other important aspects. Ackoff encouraged decision-makers to consider these trade-offs and make informed choices that align with their objectives.
And also here, one that has that stimulation — to consider trade-offs as a way to make good choices, denotes a pretty robust system to me.
4. Learning from Mistakes: Ackoff saw mistakes and failures as valuable sources of learning and innovation. Striving for perfection can discourage experimentation and risk-taking, which are essential for discovering new solutions and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
Professor Amy Edmonson’s new work on the Right Kind of Wrong I hope adds to this, but I already know it covers basic, complex and intelligent ways to handle things going wrong and failure.
5. Redundancy and Flexibility: Ackoff proposed that systems should incorporate redundancy and flexibility. Redundancy can help mitigate the negative impacts of failures, while flexibility enables systems to adapt to changing circumstances. These features are more valuable than the pursuit of perfection, which can lead to rigid and brittle systems.
I’m all for a system that can help those who design it, deploy it and operate within it, and to be given the chance and ability to retire, flex and replace it giving it a perfect regenerative way of being; even if what the system is doing isn’t perfect for long.
6. Whole System Thinking: Ackoff emphasised the importance of considering the entire system and its context rather than optimising individual components in isolation. This approach encourages a deeper understanding of the interactions and interdependencies within the system.
So even if a perfect system is elusive, not an encouraged design perspective and even a dangerous or pointless strategy with systems design and operation, a near-perfect approach to systems is to “think about the whole”.
Russell Ackoff’s perspective on a perfect system then revolves around the idea that the pursuit of perfection can hinder progress and lead to suboptimal outcomes.
Instead, he advocated for embracing complexity, continuous improvement, adaptation, and a holistic understanding of systems. His thinking aligns with the principles of systems theory, which emphasises a comprehensive and dynamic approach to understanding and managing real-world systems.
That is a perfect way to “be” with systems and should allow you to recognise and capture those moments when the system really is operating in a perfect state. Even if fleetingly or for a slightly longer period.
So it’s a bit like catching yourself doing well in a game of tennis; or in a run of winning hands at cards; or in bidding for something you like at an auction.
When we enquire about a system, we do so from a point of heightened and deliberate analysis of it at that point in time.
Until we enquire, we may have had the assumption that it’s perfectly fine in doing what it was intended to do. And when we probe, we see, sense or realise that it’s not quite as it seemed.
Was that because it was always sub-optimal but we didn’t notice until we enquired? Was the act of enquiry a catalyst for some bifurcation that caused imperfections to appear? Or was it knowingly imperfect but now we can — even if briefly — attune it towards perfection?
Russell would tell you not to do that. But if we say perfection is 100%, we’re comfortable in knowing that it’s practical that there is a realisation that perhaps only 40% of a system’s intended operation and outcomes are likely achievable. And we’re actually achieving 100% of those 40% operational qualities and impact results, then we’re hitting perfection to that revised realisation. And are perhaps perfectly poised to adapt the 60% to something better, more impactful and more sustainable.
In other words, obtaining 100% of your ingredients to cook a dish, is not the ultimate end outcome for said dish, and whilst it may only account for 40% of it, we’ve made a perfect start. Our system of cooking is still imperfect but our system of ingredient acquisition and preparation is 100% perfect.
Which brings me to a truly imperfect system: Reviewing performance at work.
How long has any form of performance management been imperfect? The answer is obvious really: All the time.
Except, if you interact with that system, use the features, elements and components of that system and come up with a really satisfying and honest-with-yourself reflection on performance, that system will appear to be perfect for you. And you enter into a conversation with your leader and their feedback reflects that sense of achievement and there’s concordance and agreement, again, it’s perfect.
And then your line manager changes and the new manager is inexperienced in you, the standards you’ve set and the impact you have and they take a different view to it. And they let you know where there’s plenty of room for improvement. You will think the system is no longer perfect. That someone has intervened in a perfect system and now, it’s imperfect.
But it could be that it is perfect and it wasn’t before. It transpires that your previous line manager was simply agreeable, didn’t like conflict and agreed with you to keep things away from a tough conversation. That then, is an imperfection in the system and it’s been distorted by that individual’s personality traits and behavioural norms and preferences that have impurified the system.
It also transpires that you have a rather naive or even overly-inflated view of yourself as the new manager shows you evidence that backs up their assessment.
That — for a while — is a perfect system (complemented by a more capable and accurate manager).
It might not feel it to you though.
But the perfect outcome for that system is a fair and accurate representation of performance and not an overly biased or behavioural misfire.
So there’s another thing: A perfect system can be denied by those who believe they fall foul of “the system” when it’s acting perfectly as designed. Just not to their liking or advantage. It’s perfect for some — especially neutral and even distanced assessors — but it’s not for you.
Which I guess is at the heart of Ackoff’s assertion that trying to achieve perfection is folly and instead, creating an adaptable system is the perfect way to not fall into the trap of aspiring to that perfection.
I’ve lost you haven’t I?
Like an Escherian stairwell, I’m both taking you somewhere and nowhere. An optical illusion of infinity or something that seems to have a start and an end but is like some mythical loop you cannot comprehend or get out of. It defies logic and bends the reality of known physical constraints and predictability.
Let’s see if a few more examples help.
Another perfectly imperfect system is Agile. Agile as in iterative sprints and rituals that bring a collective, open application to a project or piece of work outside of the norms of managerial delegation or repetitive business-as-usual processing.
LOTS of people point to imperfections in Agile. It’s far from being seen as perfect and that’s how it should be. Because Agile’s perfect proposition is, that there is no “single way” to do it. Agile is, by its definition, agile and responsive, adaptable and so on. Dropping in stand-ups doesn’t make you Agile it just introduces a new format for intelligence sharing, prioritisation and so on. Agile without stand-ups can still work really well if there’s a really slick asynchronous exchange of critical information and decision-making.
So the concept of a perfect way to do Agile is a bit of a misnomer except at times when you catch it being perfect.
Agile’s retrospectives are another way to say you’re Agile and yet if they are applied in a tokenistic way, with no real depth, and no critical review, they’re a go-through-the-motions wrap-up.
Except in some cases, a retrospective will reveal something perfect:
- The standout individual who quietly adds the most value and this is now recognised.
- A terrific act of support at a crucial failure in the system or workflow from a couple of people who backed someone up and sorted things out without being asked to do so.
- A hugely powerful piece of collective intelligence that caused a big pivot (!) in the way things were presented to a critical group of Stakeholders
- A Product Manager who was absent in their duty to hold the space for others and thought they’d got away with it
Perfect as in critical learning points for the next time this group dive into Agile.
So at that moment, the system was working perfectly as it revealed things that were previously locked into individuals' experiences, frustrations or game plans and were then surfaced, socialised, worked on and absorbed into future practices.
And the system until then delivered but not perfectly. It delivered what it was designed to do but how it was delivered left room to improve. Ackoff’s trade-offs and interdependencies.
Change Management — another collection of hugely imperfect systems. And many would say, hugely imperfect outcomes.
Operating models, Leadership models I could go on.
Self-managed systems of work may seem even less likely to be perfect because they are designed in a way that encourages agents within that system to make it their own — no uniformity or conforming or replicable certainty. But in essence, that’s perfectly in line with what Ackoff says; adaptive, responsive, learning-based and evolving.
It’s perhaps why I’m so into self-managed systems. I see them as the ultimate way to know imperfection and have the agency to adapt it. Yet in that, the open nature of it may make it, or bring it, to new levels of unpredictable chaos.
My sense of a perfect self-managed system is one where the imperfections become obvious sooner, and with dialogic exchanges, those people in that system attune it and adjust. But the thing that is perfect (to me anyway) is that in a self-managed system, there is a heightened level of consciousness about the system, its impact and our ability to adapt it.
Many imposed systems are that and more. Restricted, contained, fixed, unable to be adapted unless by some big decree and push from whomever “owns” the system.
In self-management we all own the system, we all own the interplay with it, we all own the adaptations and we all share ownership of the outcomes OF the system.
If I perform well, if I’m congruent with values, and objectives the system will allow me to experience that and it be known to others. Similarly, if I’m not doing so well, if I’m even subverting outcomes, it too, will become known to others because we are more overtly interplaying in that system.
It also means the feelings of success, failure, misfire, dips, stimulators, distractions and so on are perhaps felt MORE in a self-managed system. It might feel like there’s an even stronger sense of dis-harmony but in reality, it’s not necessarily more it’s just more surfaceable. It’s the system saying “Feelings come from the system, and if they’re not explored the system will not function as it should.”
OK, I might have lost you again.
But this is important in seeking, experiencing and whilst fleetingly, being in part of a perfect system: Sensing.
Sensing is incredibly pronounced in a system if it is designed to facilitate, encourage, utilise and respond to sensing not just replicable processes, applied logic or specific targeted interventions.
If we sense we’re on a roll, we share it and that creates a positive and reflective moment of the system doing its thing really well. As are we all in that system, we are also likely to be doing that — being on a roll.
If we sense we’re in a rut, we share that and it creates a little negative ripple and then we question. We may notice it more now, have a name for it or even have a real spark about what we can do to arrest any decline. And reinvigorate our efforts to adapt our system — or us to it — so it is about adapting it, adapting us within it and even adapting us within ourselves.
Self+ Systems+Interplay= Impact
That’s the simplest way I can describe all of this.
But if you got this far, well done. If you scanned over it TLDR here’s the summary.
- Perfect systems exist, but fleetingly. It’s good to acknowledge it when it is, but more important is to be alive to systems’ imperfections
- Designing for perfection is folly except (perhaps) when you’re designing a system to respond and evolve. That’s as good as it is going to get maybe and I’ll call that perfect even if my hero would advise me against it.
- When we intervene in a system we are as likely to make it imperfect as we are to perfect it. Being responsive to your impact on a system is a pretty perfect way to be. And to be the instrument of change for it to be better and perhaps even, perfect for a while.
- Perfect and imperfect systems can be just our perspective on it. If that’s the case, the most emotionally intelligent thing to do is share that with others in that system to ratify, validate and understand adjustments to be made. To you and/or the system.
- We are always a part of the system and our agency to adapt it can mean lowering the chances of fleeting perfection or enhancing them.
- How we act creates a dynamic system effect. Think “Is what I’m doing in this system boosting our chances of fleeting perfection or otherwise?” Because what you do and don’t do has an impact on the system. Inquiry before action is often a really good thing to have in mind.
- I believe in Self-Managed systems as near-perfect as you can get to perfection in the world of work. Bold that, I know. But I recognise how it feels most perfectly poised to spot, socialise, and shape any imperfections.
- Russell Ackoff’s work is brilliant. Perfect for shaping how you go about appreciating, experiencing and adapting systems. He wouldn’t have ever said that though I bet.
I’d best leave you with another Russell Ackoff quote then — so how about this? Perfectly clear, poignant and useful.