Law #3: Behaviour Grows Better Before It Grows Worse

“Many of the problems we now face arise as unanticipated side effects of our our past actions. All too often the policies we implement to solve important problems fail, make the problem worse or create new problems.”

— John Sterman, MIT Sloan School of Management

When we take an action to reverse the effects of a situation (or a problem), at first the corrections we take, creates a response (either positively or negatively) in the situation? In most instances, the situation would get better. When productivity is down, we introduce performance management systems and reward ceremonies to award good performance. These elements ensure the performance management process is positive, successful and spur employees to improve. … In performance management, employers provide continuous appraisal through feedback and re-alignment of goals based on performance. The organization responds to the intervention and productivity begins to improve. And that is why we like interventions. And it does not matter that they are of low-leverage. They work. At first.

The key word here is at first. And then it gets worse, eventually. That is another key word. And sometimes, progressively worse, each time.

And so, it does not become obvious to us that, when after some time, i.e. the time it would take for some things to happen eventually (which we refer to as delays in the discipline of systems thinking). That will include when the problem returns, and since it happens after some time, we often do not connect its return to the result of low-leverage actions we had taken and that these actions had been at work.

And so, when the problem returns, our immediate reaction will be, “What had we tried in the past when the last time the problem was here? Had it worked then?” If the answer is yes, “then let’s do more of the same again.” What’s next?

Try working the law out on “The Urgent File Case Study”. Notice if the law is playing out. What do you notice is happening in terms of the behaviour of pattern of the structure over time? Discuss your findings with your learning partner.

Share story of a country’s efforts to deal with declining levels of agricultural outputs. The more the country responded to declining rainfall levels to advising its farmers to plant drier crops and providing both financial and subject matter expertise to subsistence farmers, while at first things improved, the problem returned over time. Subsistence agriculture occurs when farmers grow food crops to feed themselves and their families. In subsistence agriculture, farm output is targeted to survival and is mostly for local requirements with little or no surplus trade.

How do we know that the problem has returned? Well, every time the politicians went to the polls, they were forced to deal with the issue and were only voted into the next term to the extent the politicians were able to making the promises that it would allocate increased levels of resources to the farmers the next time.

So, did the problem get worse?

Why did that happen?

To understand this, we now take a look at Law No. 4.