The Beauty of Systems (And the Chaos Without Them)
Last year I had an opportunity to travel to Nepal. I recall one particular intersection containing no traffic lights, as was typical of most of the intersections I saw there. However, this one especially stood out to me because it was exceedingly congested.
We were literally moving a few inches every couple of minutes. It took us close to twenty-five minutes to cross this single intersection. Buses, automobiles, pedestrians, and motorcycles were all chaotically plunging into the center of the intersection, each attempting to be the first to reach the other side where their journey would continue. The confined space was filled with yelling motorists, screeching whistles of helpless policemen, and intoxicating exhaust from old cars. It was quite a scene!
I juxtapose this experience with another intersection I passed through in Atlanta, GA a few years prior. I was attending a conference there, and as I walked from my hotel to the conference location, I crossed a huge intersection. Even though I had seen thousands of intersections in my life, I noticed this one was especially large where several multilane streets converged. There were hundreds of cars it seemed, but each driver was stopped calmly behind the white line waiting for a green light. Like a beautiful symphony, without the help of police or verbal communication between drivers, vehicles took their turn crossing the intersection that could have easily been in gridlock if there were not a system in place to organize the flow of traffic. I paused for a moment and stared at the beauty I saw in the well-choreographed process. Clearly, the drivers trusted the system. They knew their turn would come. No honking. No yelling. No drama. Within minutes, all cars received their time to pass through safely.
Efficiency Versus Confusion
In both scenes, there were exceeding numbers of cars. One intersection was utter confusion, the other efficient and beautiful. One was dangerous, the other safe. One was locked up tight, the other flowed seamlessly. As you are reading these illustrations you may think, well of course, it makes sense to have traffic lights. After all, it is a simple system of lights and painted white lines. But that’s not the case in many parts of the world. It is the same with the teams and organizations we lead.
As leaders, many times we witness chaos, drama, or even explosive situations with the people and organizations we lead. We get frustrated; we start blaming others for getting in the way of progress and efficiency. Everyone seems to be getting into the intersection and honking. We ask ourselves why. It’s because we have not created clear and simple systems for them to go where they need to be, express what they desire to communicate, or achieve what they wish to accomplish.
The Work to Create Systems Is Worth the Effort
I recently led a discussion together with our leadership staff for four new hires in our organization. We spent six hours talking about our culture. We had an outline. We talked and laughed. We even cried. We shared with the new recruits who we are and why we are so grateful and honored they have joined us. We talked about expectations we have of each other. Our onboarding process—a system we implement with all new hires—was painstakingly created. The traffic light system also seems simple, but it was tediously created, and when implemented is powerfully beneficial.
When we follow our simple system, we avoid so much confusion and heartache later on. People know what to expect and how to behave. They know who we are and where we are going. They are more likely to feel empowered and capable. But it is not easy to create systems. In our case, significant effort went into the design of our onboarding process. It requires discipline to make sure we don’t hire people and simply stick them wherever someone is needed.
Sometimes when I am waiting for a green light, I ask myself, “Is this really necessary?” But down deep I know the alternative. If there were no traffic rules, it would be chaotic and dangerous like that intersection in Nepal. The price I have to pay is to trust and wait, and to follow the system each time I am at an intersection. It is the same in leadership, when we create a system to improve function, we must be disciplined to follow it. But first, we must create the systems. As a small business leader, it is so hard to stop and do. But I have discovered that if we are to experience growth, clear simple systems must be created, followed, updated, improved, promoted, and enforced.
So today, I have two questions for you:
When was the last time you stopped and created a system? A system you have maintained over time that aimed to clear the congested intersections of the teams and organizations you lead.
How many systems are there in the organization you lead? Systems you put in place which effectively limit a reactionary culture.
I hope you make creating systems a core discipline in the life of your leadership.
For Further Reading: