When You Observe You’re In A Whole Over Your Head Maybe You Should Stop Just Digging

Yogi Berra was a great baseball team catcher and manager who recognized an essential feature of good management: “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Unfortunately, it seems that few leaders and managers of just about anything watch or observe anything worthwhile beyond their own cash flow and balance sheet; that’s not nearly good enough for life in today’s globalized economy! In short, we’re hollowing-out the whole world and feeling threatened, fearful and fightful. It should be time to stop shoveling against each other and digging dangerously deeper!

Watching the news today suggests that some leaders are in a hole that’s way over their heads—deeper than any individual’s ability to lead and manage a good quality life for everybody. That whole is our “spaceship earth” with its globalized economy. A hole we’re in is the lack of will and know-how to lead people and manage the economy in ways that enable sustainable quality-of-life for the whole of people and planet.

One reason for this was suggested by the respected systems thinker, Professor Russell Ackoff, who noted that: “The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things.”[Little Book of F-Laws, p.2, Triarchy Press Limited.]

This is quite understandable. Albert Einstein has often been quoted as saying: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This is true in every science and human occupation. The solution to this necessary and unavoidable reality is truthful communication, collaboration, and a caring sense of community. Simple to say; hard to do!

In my professional work as an organization manager I recognized the wisdom of Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff, and the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, that advocated a systems approach to organization management. But I, and my associates, found it very difficult to get senior managers to be interested. I also encountered university professors in business schools who had no interest in things like the Baldrige Program and its systemic management teaching because they and their management schools were in “stovepipes,” specialized in single aspects of management, i.e., accounting, finance, marketing, etc.; they basically ignored the larger world of whole organizations where — as in the way the world actually works — entire communities of organizations have to create and maintain relationships within and between them and the planet.

It is hard to envision and manage what you don’t or can’t see and understand, and few are taught to see and appreciate wholes and systems when they’re taught to see individuals and individual parts, and then focus on life as a parts manager. Doctors will work on eyes, heads, hearts. Business executives will pick marketing, manufacturing, retail, finance. Some may choose military, police, intelligence, politics. Others may select plumber, English teacher,  chef, cook, cleaner. The choices are nearly endless and there is seldom time for people and their leadership to see, understand, appreciate, finance and manage the whole of contemporary communities, nations and a civilized world. Political leaders have to pick a “party” and then pledge loyalty to the party rather than the people or nation, or world. Tribalism makes globalism impossible.

So how can leaders and students of management learn to think in terms of wholes when they’re trained to be a parts manager? How does one learn the necessity of and the how-to of integrating competition and cooperation, or to want to and design and a triple bottom-line economy for people, planet and profit? Whose job is that? In today’s world it’s kind of everybody’s and nobody’s job.

Coming back to the wisdom of Yogi Berra’s comment that you can observe a lot by just watching, there is a recent movie – The Biggest Little Farm – that enables one, in just an hour-and-a-half, to get a real sense of the reality of living systems in nature, its complexity and uncertainty, and how humans can live and manage in it. It’s a seeing is believing kind of thing. A young couple want to build a farm and they quickly find out that it is complex, difficult and hard work. They soon seek help and find Alan York, who knows that a farm is a complex multiplex of systems where the vision and mission includes managing the parts with an eye on the whole and a mind on integration and cooperation.

When York starts working with them I recalled Russ Ackoff teaching us the difference between what he called a problem to be solved and a mess that just gets worse if problem-solving approaches are used. The beginning state of the “farm” is that it is a mess (not a problem) that needs a cooperative whole-system design that will have to be done in stages and will take years of careful observation and work to become fully alive, productive and profitable. The film is well worth watching, paying attention to the simultaneous dynamics of dependence, independence and interdependence that has to be allowed and nurtured for successful relationships, outcomes and lives. We see how a mature adult is groomed in community in practice of love. One can observe—and sometimes even learn—a lot by just watching.

About Larry Smith

Larry Smith is Principal of The LeaderShip. He is a presidential-award winning chamber of commerce CEO (for finding innovative solutions to public problems), a teacher/facilitator in organization management, and Editor of a quality- and systems-thinking management journal.
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