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You can’t just push harder against a balancing feedback loop

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.  

You can’t just push harder against a balancing feedback loop

Scott Miker

The other day I was reading a story about a successful basketball coach.  The story explained a situation where the team started to lose games and were in the midst of a disappointing season. 

He was incredibly frustrated and felt the team didn’t care enough.  So he relied on punishment to try and motivate the team.  He worked them harder and harder and harder.  But nothing worked and he just kept getting more and more frustrated at the team’s performance. 

Since I had just finished reading Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, I couldn’t help but view this situation as a system and I immediately saw the balancing feedback loop at play. 

Whenever we experience a situation where there is a balancing feedback loop, the way to keep improving isn’t by working harder and harder at the same things that got us where we are.  That just adds to the compensating feedback, which is the force that seems to push back against us.  It feels like the harder we work the harder the system pushes back against us.    

Instead Senge recommends understanding the system at play and making adjustments to reduce the limiting factors, not increase the growing action.  So instead of just putting your head down and trying to outwork the problem, you address the system element that is pushing back against you.  You work to reduce that in order to keep growing. 

He calls this “Limits to Growth” because it tends to show up when we are making progress and improving, then suddenly it seems like we plateau and can’t break through.  So we work harder.  We do more of what got us to that point.

But because the limiting factors are powerful, they tend to keep holding us back and regardless of how hard we work, we won’t see the breakthrough we previously experienced.

If we have success pushing a team towards success but do it too much, the pressure starts to have a negative impact. 

It is similar to the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which shows that arousal and anxiety help improve performance initially but eventually start to erode performance. 

An example is a student taking a test.  She might not care much if the test doesn’t count towards her grade, so she probably won’t do very well.  If it counts she might have a little more anxiety and perform a little better.  But if she is so anxious that she can’t concentrate it will likely hurt her performance.  Adding more anxiety actually helps improve performance initially but once she crosses over the point at which the performance peaks, increasing anxiety will only hinder her performance.

So adding more anxiety (which worked originally to boost performance) will no longer work and will actually cause performance to suffer.  Instead, Senge says that we need to address the limiting factor and reduce it.  Maybe we can be better prepared so the anxiety doesn’t get too out-of-control.  Or maybe we learn to do breathing exercises when the anxiety starts to kick in.  Whatever we do, we can’t just assume staying the course will get us through. 

To me this is the true value of systems thinking versus linear thinking.  Systems thinking allows us to see a more complete picture and make adjustments to the systems that impact us.  We can quickly realize that more effort isn’t going to overcome a limiting feedback loop and shift our focus to reducing the limiting factor.  This is why you can’t just push harder against a balancing feedback loop.  The more you try the more resistance you will likely encounter. 

In the case of the coach, using punishment might have worked initially but will eventually erode the positive culture of the team and will end up hurting performance.  Instead he should address the limiting factors and get away from increasing punishment as a form of motivation.