Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Do not abandon the system

You may have picked up that there are aspects of certain systems that I'm not too fond of.  My adventuring is motivated by dissatisfaction with systems of public sector administration.  And my experience adventuring is feeding dissatisfaction with aspects of employment systems - mostly because of the contrast I feel with how good it is to be able to manage my own life completely.

We're all aware that these things can't be avoided altogether.  The systems are here whether we like it or not, and we need to work with them.

But how?  What sort of a philosophy can guide us when we're thinking about how to 'work with the system'?

Warning! This is a long, dense post, even by my standards.  If you don't want to tumble down the rabbit hole you should probably reconsider it now!


What to do?

Do we go our own way until we have no choice - probably because it's bitten our backside? Getting fired, long term unemployment, imprisonment, 'institutionalisation' (take your pick which one). I assume most of you will agree that's not a good option.  There are a range of people that do 'step outside the (a) system' in one way or another, and they are mostly not enviable.  Do you aspire to be an outlaw, or chronically idle?  They are particularly unenviable when you realise they are not 'outside The System' altogether, but simply shifted to an isolation cell labeled 'ostracism'.

On the other hand, you can just go with the flow - until that too spits you out, used and abused.  Midlife crises, depression, anxiety, cancer, obesity.  These are all socially sanctioned conditions - indeed, there's almost a badge of pride will some modern illness - but that doesn't make them good for you.


Sage advice

I'd like to share a couple of points of view that may help guide you and I through the Third Way.

Gordon MacKenzie's model of the Giant Hairball is particularly useful for thinking about how to be our own agent.  He was writing quite specifically about being creative within a (large) organisation.  But the metaphor is much more useful than that.  Think of the hairball as 'the system' - whichever one it is you're a wary participant in.  MacKenzie writes about how it's important not to be enmeshed in the hairball - both for your own wellbeing, and to be a valuable contributor to the system.  And he describes from his own experience about the importance of first understanding the hairball, so that when you're trying to keep a safe distance you don't accidentally float off altogether.  So from this perspective, it's important to first participate and understand, then second to work out how to give yourself just enough freedom to thrive.

Senge (et al), writing about Presence and emergence, comes to a similar conclusion from a different angle.  Senge provides really solid material on how to understand systems (where MacKenzie glosses over this completely), and also how we interact with them.  He writes about how to use systems thinking to be an informed agent, able to use the mechanisms of the system to your advantage - for instance, understanding what details can be altered to transform the system to deliver disproportionally better outcomes.  Senge talks about the influence we can have in systems more broadly in a really empowering way - not just being able to escape and work around them.  In fact, he emphasises that we are agents of the system whether we like it or not, and that we either interact consciously, or unconsciously reinforce the system.

One of the corollaries of both sets of ideas is the importance of familiarity, deep understanding - and therefore time.  While Senge makes powerful points about the possibility of collective understanding (we do not need to understand everything ourselves), systems still need to be experienced and understood for conscious interaction to be fruitful.  This takes time.  If you want to have a positive impact on a complex system, you need to stick with it.  We can't flit about from one project to the next, attempting to do everything, or trying to maintain a sense of personal challenge.  This is important for organisations to heed as much as individuals.  On one hand, an organisation develops institutional experience.  But it also needs to keep its staff for long enough - this might not mean having them perform the same job for an extended period of time, but it should try to keep them working on the same systems.


Simple examples

Hopefully I can make these ideas more concrete by looking at my own life.

If you try to live outside employment and residential systems you get stuck, often in unpredictable ways.  I have been warned - and heard stories - about how too much time unemployed can make it harder to get the job you want when you find it.  I think, for what I want to do and where I hope to be employed, that being able to tell a story of dedication and personal growth is likely to outweigh concerns about my employability.  It might not, and for others this might not be the case.  But it's a reasonable assumption.  So for me, while I'm not employed, I am 'gainfully occupied', and I'm conscious of the need to tell a story to substantiate that - and have evidence too.  I'm not abandoning the employment system completely.

Not having 'a job', or a fixed address, can also make even trivial things difficult to arrange.  I got knocked back on a mobile phone - because I was foolishly honest and identified myself as 'unemployed'.  There are also a range of things I just didn't bother trying to do when I didn't have a fixed address.  I've resolved, on the latter, that I should probably just use my parent's Sydney address until I've really settled somewhere.  (Who gets post that they want to read anyway?)  As far as 'being unemployed' goes, I still need to work something out.  Having a stable, waged job is only one option for being financially sustainable.  I could be freelancing on projects, working on startups, or getting scholarships to work on ideas.  I don't know if these are likely, but they're possible.  But they won't really tick the right boxes, particularly for things like lease applications.  It might be worthwhile inventing a vehicle of stability (e.g. my own business) to make financial sustainability fit others' expectations.  We'll see.

Running with Senge's systems' thinking - to be an agent helping to create better systems - still seems well beyond my direct experience, at least on a meaningful scale.  But this philosophy underpins why I consider public administration so important. Lots of people in the world are passionate about improving the results of our public sectors, in one way or another.  But without having a deep understanding of how the system works, we will fight an uphill battle trying to transform it.  It also helps me to take a step back from things and appreciate the views and experience of others - for instance not being too caught up in my ideas about what should happen to foster an innovation community in Adelaide, but working with others to find something that fits their understanding of the local scene.

This was supposed to be a five minute post to share how those two thinkers came together for me...  but I guess it's more important than that.  Let me know if Senge's or MacKenzie's ideas were of value to you too.


Post script: I came across a great reference just before posting, to Deleuze and Guattari's 'lines of flight'. It is a stunningly sophisticated philosophical articulation of the phenomenon of understanding the system (striated space), and exploring alternatives (smooth space) through actions of 'flight' from the known.  Also refers to the way this pioneering activity is then 'reterritorialised' into systems of activity.   See this writeup. I never got this when I was reading them myself... put your hand up if you've just remembered how much you love D&G!


www.jsbaxter.com.au
@JohnSBaxter

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