Open Systems Antithesis Theory


George Sibbald is a consulting friend and he is the one who coined this term.

Organization Development (OD) people have evolved a special language to describe what happens when companies change. So I have adopted their language to describe what we do. We solve problems but as a side bar, we change companies, we think for the better.

In the language of the OD folks, an open system is a system that affects and is affected by its environment.  A closed system is therefore a system completely isolated from its environment.  And as we all know, all living systems, including collections of people, like businesses, are living systems and therefore open systems,

Our approach to problem solving has proven to be a very successful way to change these open systems that we call companies. Craig Humphreys and I wrote a  book “5/67 Problem Solving: How to solve Wicked Problems…correctly” describes how our incremental approach to problem solving with a focus on High ROI solutions alters the way companies work. It focuses employees to step away from the business (figuratively) to learn a new way to think about problems. By doing so, something magical happens, our client companies change.

I am not trashing the OD folks, but I am challenging them to rethink their process of how you drive change in a company. Their approach to change has traditionally been to change the company by changing individuals using the techniques of individual or group intervention. Their thesis is that in order to change an open system that you should change the individuals. They advocate that when a problem occurs with personnel, it is expected that the way to deal with the problem is to deal with the employees and their problem directly. That would be the “expected thesis” to use if you tried to deliver change operating under that premise.

On the other hand, we have a different approach. It is the “antithesis” of the intervention approach. My long term business friend, George Sibbald, pointed this concept out to me years ago.  He had talked with a psychiatrist who said that he never changed individuals with his interventions on the individual but he worked the people who comprised his surroundings or personal network of friends.  He got this person’s support network to treat the “sick” person using a revised set of norms.  When he did that he made progress. He removed the person from the environment, changed it to the new way of dealing with the patient and then introducing the sick person back into this new paradigm.  And it worked most of the time.

This is where the Anti-thesis occurs.  We have recognized that if we want to change an organization, we need to change the environment like George’s psychiatrist friend.  You create the right environment to get the result that you want in the employees.  In this theory, the antithesis is “you don’t change the people, you change the environment.”  Create the right environment and the right work will follow.  And the right attitude.

This is how the Culture of Innovation or Problem Solving Culture is developed.  You don’t worry about the attitudes of workers because when they are solving problems and improving the business they usually get the right attitude.  If not, their peers will point out that the “problem solving” environment is a lot more fun than that other environment that they had to live with.  And further, their peers might tell these people if they don’t get on board then maybe there is better place for them to work.  We have seen this quite a few times because the people who like the new environment are passionate about it.

This environment allows employees to earn respect from both managers and executives.  And when employees get respect from their managers they give it back.  This is the best of all situations because the environment creates what we call “Earned Respect.”  It creeps into the organization with a 2 way version of respect: respect from managers down to employees and the corresponding respect back up the chain of command.  We learned this from a Union Executive who claimed that unions would not exist if there was a “Mutual Respect” from managers to employees.  This is what we call “Earned Respect” because both sides have earned it: the employees for delivering high ROI Solutions to the company and managers and executives for recognizing employee contributions.  It is actually that simple but is crucial to changing the corporate environment.

That is why we teach employees and managers to Solve Problems with a focus on what we call “5/67 Thinking.”  You focus on the 5% of the solution that gives 67% of the benefit.  And because you teach employees to generate high ROI solutions when they make these improvements this is looked upon favorably by management.  Managers learn to give their employees an opportunity to fix problems that have been bothering them or maybe the employees can address a problem that is bothering a member of the management team.

Tom Peters had a number of good ideas.  But he once said, “if an employee is pissed off about something at work, it is a problem.”  And is probably a great inefficiency or waste in the business.  In fact, when I have a group of employees that have been directed to find a problem and solve it and they are stuck with no ideas to work on.  I would ask them, “does anything piss you off about your work when you get here every day?”  It takes about 2 seconds for all the hands to rise.  And they are then ready to go.  This is an amazing process to watch.  I have a number of stories to tell about this and they are almost funny if not for the seriousness of the people involved.  I almost wait for that moment because it gets me going and the teams really get engaged.  You might look at this video on YouTube: Earned Respect and Tribal Knowledge.

The key here is giving employees the tools that help them solve these bothersome problems. But solving problems alone is not enough, they need to learn to think in terms of High ROI solutions. The reason that you do this is that it immediately gets the support of the Champion of the Idea or the Executive Team. A high ROI project will lead to more profits and that is going to make everyone happy.

We have some tools to address this but that is not important.   That is my sales pitch.  This post is about creating change in an organization.  What is important in doing that is that you, as an executive, must train and support your organization to be “High ROI Problem Solvers.” If you do so, your have changed the organization using the principles of the Open Systems Antithesis theory. You didn’t change the individuals, you changed the environment by giving employees opportunities to solve problems which leads to the earned respect that is the foundation of this new culture.  Call it what you want but we like “Problem Solving Culture.”


About Tribal Knowledge Series

In a career spanning over 30 years, Len Bertain has coached over 150 CEO’s to help them understand and correct inefficiencies and lost profits in their business. He created the well-known “War on Waste” program, a preeminent Lean Business tool, to guide leadership teams through the process. He is an author of four books on the War on Waste and a frequent speaker to CEO groups. Since its inception, the War on Waste program has generated over $1 Billion in first-year profits from over 10,000 ideas, all generated by client company employees. The companies involved in the War on Waste have been as small as 10 people with Fortune 100 companies at the other extreme. His books include: How to Win the War on Waste in 90 Days, The War on Waste Paradox, War on Waste Innovation, and The Tribal Knowledge Paradigm. Len's Bookstore In 1994, he founded the Institute for Productivity and, in 1999, CEO University, both based in San Francisco, CA. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Nevada and a B.S. in Physics and Math from St. Mary’s College of California. He lives in California with his wife and has 3 grown sons and 9 grandchildren.
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