When most people hear about systems they immediately get the misconception that this must involve rigid rules with no flexibility. They hear about processes, procedures, habits, and structure and automatically assume these are inflexible.
But the best systems can be described as flexible. And if we are using the systems and habits approach to improvement in our personal lives, we have to embrace the idea of a flexible system.
In The Tao of Systems Thinking by Michael McCurley, he says, “To maintain a balance that unifies your energies, you must be highly flexible. By adapting to the cycles within systems, you will discover their hidden virtues.”
There are two ways to maintain flexibility in a system. The first is to design for it. Just as project management of software projects has embraced the Agile project management methodology over traditional, rigid, project management approaches, we can design our systems with flexibility in mind.
There are many ways we can account for this. We can certainly think through as many situations as possible and plan ahead but we can also develop a system that addresses uncertainty. The Navy SEALs do this through extensive training that focuses on chaotic environments and things changing throughout the mission. They learn to be flexible in order to adjust and maintain the mission objectives while adapting to the changes.
Agile project management does this through short, iterative phases, which allows the project to change after each phase (or sprint) and reprioritize the goals for the project.
Some websites utilize a form of dynamic systems. These websites change content based on specific characteristics or interests of users. Amazon will show you products similar to ones you just looked at and Target will send you ads based on previous shopping habits. This allows the website to be a unique experience for each person (flexible), but still maintains the general website feel.
Modular systems are another type of system that allows for flexibility. Many people point to Legos as an example as you can build many different things from Legos without actually changing the building blocks being used. Many companies use this to display products that can be used in a multitude of stores that may all have different space requirements. They have different modular sections and fit them together based on the way the store is laid out.
I’ve also utilized systems that are rigid in certain areas but flexible in others so that there is enough consistency to effectively monitor the success of the system but not too much where it can’t adapt to different environments. Many businesses develop brand standards for their marketing materials. These outline what logos are available to use, the fonts and colors to use and even the themes for the particular brand. Then they can turn over specific marketing campaigns to others in the company, knowing that they can use their individual creativity but it still come out looking like an ad for their company.
As you can see there are many situations where you can (and should) design a flexible system. As long as you are the designer of the system, you can expand your knowledge of these types of systems and learn when to use each one.
The second way to maintain flexibility in a system is to adapt while the system is moving. Usually this is signaled by a failure of some sort. It could be a small failure of the system, a side effect, some type of compensating feedback loop, or something else that shows the system isn’t working as effectively as it should.
McCurley says about failure in systems, “Failure can be an agreeable surprise. The humility of getting up again helps you to grow. Far from being something shameful or embarrassing, we should value every mistake we make or discover, as an opportunity for fixing an issue or problem.”
In fact, many of the systems I have developed that are very successful now, started out this way. They started by trying new systems or new systematic elements and failing. The failure was something that signaled a need for change.
McCurley goes on to say, “Failure with the systems we have created might produce important advances if we could change and learn from them. We would probably not advance or improve if we didn’t fail at times or notice when we need to do things better.”
Getting up after being knocked down isn’t just a motivational ploy by coaches, it really is the best way to keep improving and fine-tuning the systems you have created. It allows you to make changes to compensate for design mistakes or new, changing environments that suddenly shift and push against your system.
Flexibility should be a key focus for systems thinkers. Despite the flawed misconception that systems have to be rigid and unchanging, systems should be flexible enough to withstand the changes we all face.
By planning for change by using specific system structures, and by embracing failures in the system as a prompt to improve the system, we can develop flexible structures that continue to make progress towards our goals and ideas of success. This allows for maximum improvement and a confidence that the next upcoming change won’t be devastating and will simply provide another chance to advance the system.