Systems that fail

I was reminded several times this week about systems that have failed.

That line of conversation would begin a lively discussion at the local coffee shop. We all have stories about our bad experiences at the hands of someone who blindly obeyed a process even though it was obviously flawed.

The truth is that a good number of those systems weren’t designed to fail and those processes were not flawed when they were implemented.  But things change and when systems don’t adapt, they fail to deliver.

Much has been written about the different types of leaders.  We want capable women and men to run our industries, schools, hospitals, and other organizations. We look for certain characteristics and we set certain expectations. One of the dominant themes we trumpet is that our leaders must be individuals who can solve problems.  And, thus, most of our leaders believe that they are where they are to “fix” what’s broken.

Systems are a part of the “fix.” We design plans that allow us to group similar activities and challenges together. We make policies and rules to permit a batch-handling of those things.  And then we demand that all problems be treated exactly the same way.  For the most part, if the system was well thought-out, it works with only a few exceptions.

In fact, many systems work so well that we come to worship the system. If someone or something doesn’t fit the system, we justify that particular failure as a glitch or anomaly or, in more graphic terms, collateral damage. We hesitate adjusting the system because it has served us well in the past. Since we know that systems can’t be totally effective, we establish an acceptable failure rate.

Most organizations, however, have one or more systems where the failure rate has far exceeded acceptability. Healthy organizations respond with adjustments and, when necessary, total replacement systems — which, of course, come with their own new problems.  Yet, a majority of organizations don’t respond until total failure is imminent.  Some, rather than investing in effective solutions, simply change their expectations.  Rather than redesign a system, they simply accept failure as their outcome.

We live in a complex world.  We must have systems. But we must have leaders who are more concerned with those they serve than they are in preserving a system that fails. If your system isn’t working, adjust the system. Don’t break the people.

On human achievement

I was fascinated by Bill Bryson’s book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”  Bridging topics from alchemistry to volcanoes, Bryson spun an entertaining story of scientific discovery, natural oddities, and the often humorous ways that men and women have stumbled through the ages.

What I was most taken by was the ever-more-apparent thought that the complexity of our physical world cannot simply be the product of happenstance.  When we look at the vastness of our universe — a vastness we don’t even know how to express — and we begin to wonder at the chance circumstance that life in the way we know it could just “be,” I can’t fathom that the intricate balance of temperature, elements, distance, and time simply fell together in this moment of time to bring us here.

I’m not smart enough to argue about how everything got to be the way it is — I have no pet theories and I certainly harbor no certainties.  I’m just confident that God had to have a hand in it.  And because Scripture tells us that he intentionally brought humans into existence, I have to think that he intentionally brought us into a physical world of change and wonder.

So, when I hear the stories of how we have, through the ages, poked at and wondered about this world, I have to be in awe of how God has blessed us not only with an intricate and wonderful place, but how he has also given us an immense laboratory for discovery.  And I believe that God is delighted when we take an interest in what he has provided.

And I think he giggles when we boast about what we’ve done.

Value in Faith, Part 3

Having recently posted something that drew the criticism of some of my readers — all of whom responded with great civility by reply and by private email, I might add — I recalled that some time late last year, I promised to share my thoughts on my faith.

I had this recollection because I remembered the value statement occupying the third spot on my list:

In order to realize the value I place on faith, I will listen to others and act with discernment with their thoughts in regard to God.

Now, I don’t like having people disagree with me any more than the next guy.  Yet, I am learning that God hasn’t given me the talent of always being right.

So I listen to other people.  Even when their ideas don’t match mine.  And especially when those ideas are about what God is calling them to do.  I appreciate them for voicing their concerns and challenging what I say.  I have discovered that I have much to learn.

Discernment is such a difficult exercise.  In my view (and I’m sure there will be those who disagree), discernment is a process that combines listening, thinking, sorting, inquiring, and ultimately feeling.  Discernment is making the best decision you can in a given moment and feeling good about the effort and the outcome.  Discernment, like all human endeavors, is an imperfect activity.

The beauty of my faith is that my God is too big to be dethroned by my mistake in judgment.  The beauty of my faith is the depth added to my relationship when I know that what I’ve discerned is enough for the moment.  If I was wrong, God will bring me back on target.  And I will always be trying to get it right.

I truly believe that God will deliver me from myself.  And my faith says that he will deliver you, too.  That’s the real message, isn’t it?

Out of Order

I have watched closely over the past week as the final moments of legislative process led to the passing of a new health care bill.  If you have hope that what I’m about to say will enlighten you whether or not this bill is a good one, I’m going to disappoint you.

Instead, I want to turn your attention to our growing adoption of misbehavior as a path of choice in public conversations.  I am disappointed in the behavior of our congressman from the great State of Texas who shouted his thoughts about the health care bill (“It’s a baby killer!”) during the address of his colleague from Michigan.

Does he have a right to make such statements?  Yes, he has the constitutional right of free speech.  My concern is that he chose to level those remarks at a time that violated the rules of conduct of the House of Representatives.  It simply wasn’t his time to speak.  The news media reports that he has made a public apology — seemingly because his shout was initially heard as a personal attack on the other representative.  At this time, however, he refuses to apologize on the House floor for his actions.

Having watched C-SPAN, I know that his behavior was not different from many on both sides of the aisle.  Nothing in me tells me that others breaking the rules makes bad behavior permissible.  I believe that he should apologize for breaking with decorum.

Then, yesterday at the festivities surrounding the signing of the bill, our Vice President introduces the President and as he moves aside, leans forward and, in a stage whisper loud enough for the microphones to pick up, tells the President that “This is a big deal!”  At least that was the meaty part of his comment.  He also chose to use an adjective that rarely meets the boundaries of free speech — an expletive that divides movies suitable for our children from those that are not.  A word that does often fit inside the definition of “fighting words.”  And fighting words do not always carry constitutional protection.

Now, you and I both know that language is used all of the time that some of us would consider inappropriate and, yes, even sinful.  You could also argue that “colorful” speech has edged its way into our everyday lives and we should simply acquiesce.  After all, words are just words, right?

I saw further evidence of this on a major television network this morning.  In reporting on the incident with the Vice President and looking at other “open mic” gaffs, a prominent news anchor opined that some are worse than others and “we all know that the Vice President’s language” was a result of his exuberance in the moment.  Later in that same program, a guest expert on health care was asked to comment on a certain health recommendation.  She, to the laughter of that same news anchor and everyone on the set, said, “I want to join the Vice President’s club.  Give me a break!”  She paused, of course, to indicate where in the sentence she would insert that same expletive.

I’m in the minority on this issue, I suppose.  However, from my experience at my mediation table, people make real progress toward resolution and reconciliation when they make the choice to follow a code of civil behavior.  In fact, I can never remember a single time when misbehavior did anything but escalate the conflict.

So, Congressman, Vice President, news anchor person and today’s expert on health care, let me just say that your choice of words and behavior have just guaranteed that those who have even a slight disagreement with you are not likely to listen to anything else you have to say.

Simply put, you are out of order.  If you seriously want collaboration, resolution, and reconciliation, make the first move back to civility.

Value in Faith, Part 2

I’ve been accused of not listening. Actually, I’ve been convicted of the charge.

And my “not listening” is not confined to what the weatherman just said about the forecast or the announcement blared out over the plane intercom. Nor is it limited to those vital moments in a television show or football game when I really need (in theory) not to be disturbed with outside information. No, it’s been pointed out to me that my most grievous period of inattention comes in the midst of those times when I appear to be willingly engaged in conversation.

I, for one, find it ironic that this is a problem for me. After all, I teach people how to have difficult conversations. And, on most occasions, I am very successful in listening to others and conveying my interest in what they have to say.

After further thought, it dawned on me that I am most guilty of this behavior in my “everyday” conversations. I’m not arrogant about it nor selective. No, I see these times of exchange as a necessary moment to dispense MY information.

An additional irony emerges as I consider that my inattention transmits my disregard for the other even though these “everyday” people are family and friends who I dearly love.

This is a problem, I thought. And being a problem-solver by nature, I came to the notion that I should list my special “everyday” people and give my best effort to listening to every word they say. I was about 5 people down on the list, when I recognized that I “talk” to God everyday. And thus, my second clarifying statement on faith emerged:

To realize the value I place on faith, I will spend more time in prayer in order to listen to God.

More time praying with the intended result of hearing more from Him.

For a doer and a talker, this is a big step for me. Yet, I tried it just this morning. Sat down. Pulled my chair close. Breathed deeply. And heard God.

No booming voice came out of a thundercloud. No stone tablets were pushed across the table. No . . . only silence and calm. And thoughts and ideas that seem clear now — and some that will become clear some day. My God whispers. He has nothing to prove.

And when I can stop and listen for that whisper, I come to know Him. My faith can’t help but grow.

[This is one in a number of notes about my personal journey to identify and enhance my values. It’s personal. It may not address where you are and may not align with your value system. You may not agree with me at all. That’s all right. If I’m missing something or you’ve got some thoughts that would be helpful, please do. Thanks for reading.]