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How compensating feedback can derail your effort

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

How compensating feedback can derail your effort

Scott Miker

I’m a huge fan of Wayne Dyer.  He was a great author and had a way of explaining things that are difficult to explain.  Yet somehow he made it all make sense. 

When he evaluated the Tao Te Ching in his book Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, he took an incredibly wise book and made it understandable.

One of the themes from Dyer’s work and from the Tao is to learn how to let go and allow things to happen. 

The example I always think of is trying to walk through a river going the opposite direction.  Every step requires effort and the resistance from the current is obvious. 

Contrast that with floating in a raft down the river.  It requires little effort and it takes you significantly further.  You can’t completely dictate where you go, you have to let go and allow it to take you, but you can control some aspects of your travel. 

This represents life to a large degree.  We have to learn to get into the flow of life and understand where we can influence the direction we are going without trying to dominate the path. 

But this sounds very high level and superficial.  Is this a great metaphor for life or is this a new age attempt at looking enlightened?

One of my favorite authors, Peter Senge, is an expert on systems thinking.  He talks about a phenomenon in his book, The Fifth Discipline, which helps bring these ideas to reality. 

He says compensating feedback occurs “when well-intentioned interventions call forth responses from the system that offset the benefits of the intervention.”  He goes on to say, “we all know what it feels like to be facing compensating feedback – the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back; the more effort you expend trying to improve matters, the more effort seems to be required.”

The reason that I am so passionate about the systems and habits approach to improvement is because effort and motivation are deceiving.  They seem necessary but, in fact, create compensating feedback making you feel like you are going against the current.  Instead, system and habit improvements take you with the current and you go much further with much less effort.

Senge provides numerous examples.  “Compensating feedback processes have operated to thwart food and agricultural assistance to developing countries.  More food available has been ‘compensated for’ by reduced deaths due to malnutrition, higher net population growth, and eventually more malnutrition.”

Another example is the person trying to quit smoking.  “Take the person who quits smoking only to find himself gaining weight and suffering such a loss in self-image that he takes up smoking again to relieve the stress.”

But most of us know nothing about compensating feedback in systems so we “blind ourselves to how we are contributing to the obstacles ourselves.”  We refuse to believe that we are part of the cause. 

I find myself doing this all the time.  We want to do a good job on a project that we take on too large of a scope to be able to do it effectively.  We work out really hard only to find our hunger increases significantly and our drive to get in shape diminishes as we gain more and more weight. 

So the key question is, how do get around this?  How do we improve if effort to improve is likely to result in increased resistance? 

The answer is to rely on systems and habits thinking.  If we understand these systematic variables we can use them to our advantage.  We can appreciate a slow, gradual approach that results in lasting habits versus a quick and forceful approach.

This unlocks areas of our lives that previously were beyond our ability to improve.  It changes our mindset and our focus and we start to leverage the principles of system thinking instead of falling prey to those principles in a blind ignorance.  Life is systematic and the more we are able to understand systems the more we understand life.