Law #9: You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

A famous English idiomatic proverb or figure of speech, it reads “You cannot simultaneously retain your cake and eat it”. The proverb’s meaning is similar to the phrases “you can‘t have it both ways” and “you can‘t have the best of both worlds”. That we make our choices and live with the consequences. However, notice whose voice is that. Is that of the aspirant or of the judge?

In the context of the laws of dynamic complexity, this idiom reads differently. It says you can! How is that so?

The full text would read as “You can have your cake and eat it too, provided we respect the order in which causality happens. When we do so, you can! When we do not, then we go back to the original version as it appears in the idiomatic proverb. We have no other choice!

This law applies to a context when an organization is forced to make choices between different decisions. It may also find itself stuck with a solution it does not desire or simply that it is curious about what it takes to have it all!

Here’s a trick! No one told us this. That a system can tolerate any number of goals, and not just the ones that we had prioritized. This point is valid, for so long as we respect the order in which the causality between them would behave. That we are willing to wait for one while we focus on the other. This way of thinking now fundamentally shifts the way we make a shared vision real for all.

When we do not respect the order, we see that as we push harder to get the results that we want, the system is doing the same, pushing back harder at us, eroding any gains or strides that we have made.

The trick is to “pull views” out from all sides that would allow us to understand and determine the order in which causality would happen (e.g. when we improve quality, costs decline, or when we enhance the level of trust, efficiency, or productivity improves, and so on).

Here’s an example of what happened when we did not respect this law.

In the late 1990s, as Singapore tried to turn around a downturn in its economic growth, following a global recession, it was forced at one point to relook at the organizational structures of its government sector.

Before April 2009, the IMF argued that a global annual real GDP growth rate of 3.0 percent or less was “equivalent to a global recession”.[3][4] By this measure, there were six global recessions since 1970: 1974–75,[5] 1980–83,[5] 1990–93,[6] 1998,[6] 2001–02,[6] and 2008–09.[7]

This thinking led to the setup of a national economic drive to downsize its government organizations. It does so by removing duplicate or redundant jobs as much as possible. One such initiative included merging the work of two significant organizations that had dealt with Singapore’s land transport system.

The LTA and the Traffic Police. Both are in the business of managing the transport system of the tiny island city-state. Land Transport Authority (LTA) was first established on 1 September 1995, formed from the merger of various public sector entities, namely the Registry of Vehicles, Mass Rapid Transit Corporation, Roads & Transportation Division of the Public Works Department, and Land Transportation Division of the former Ministry of Communications. Wikipedia.

The transport system in Singapore is an integral part of its economic growth. The island state imports raw materials, process them into goods products, and exports the finished goods. The port is an intrinsic element of the country’s ability to create wealth. If the goods do not reach their destination on time, the state does not earn its income. Period.

Therefore it is difficult to understate the roles of LTA and the Traffic Department in the country. Both are important. One is to regulate the speed to allow goods to reach the ports on time to load on the ship and send the off to their destination. The other is to ensure the transfer happens reliably so that products arrive intact for their next stage.

So two things are important. Speed. And safety.

And so, here we were in a situation that was looking at merging two very different organizations responsible for what seemed very different objectives and seemingly even in conflict. LTA’s focus is on building transport links from Point A to B. To them to be efficient, it would mean finding ways to improve speeds. However, when, road safety looks at unsafe roads, to improve safety, their advice would typically look like, “Slow down”. Its motto is, “Speed kills”.

Given these, they worked at getting their act together that would involve the other. The two organizations were given six months to conclude the merger. However, at the end of six months, the merger was called off! Till today, the two organizations have stayed separately.

The next part of the discussion explores the following thinking. Had the two organizations wanted to merge, what would be the question to ask here? Did you say, “What would moving toward that direction include at a foundational level?”

This is where Law #9 comes to have a play. It says, in a systemic issue, we can have our cake and eat it too. The system can have any number of goals, provided we respect the order in which causality happens.

So, let’s see what were the two goals the organization had fundamentally?

In the case of LTA, the goal was efficiency. To them, speed = efficiency.

In the case of the Road Safety Department. It says speed kills. To it, speed = death.

If we merged, the too, well, that (tongue-in-cheek) means ‘efficient death’! Does it make sense why they would choose not to merge? Each side saw it as in their need to push their respective agenda, it had meant causing the ‘death’ of the other party’s agenda.

That is because we think of mergers to mean that it looks like something like this:

However, when we are respecting the law it looks more like the following is happening:

The question to ask is as follows. ‘How does working to meet your need, create your success, which will help in turn to satisfy my need and progress. Moreover, these, in turn, lead to your success, and so we generate achievement and growth of goals as a system?

So let’s go back. What were the needs of the two organizations?

In the case of LTA, their attention is on speed. However, its need is efficiency on the roads.

In the case of Road Safety, their attention slowed down. Yes. But, what they do not want is death. What do they want? Safety on the roads.

That is good.

Now we have identified what both parties want. Now begin to look at the order in which causality happens. Which one comes first. Safety or Efficiency?

Question for reflection: Which one, if it was growing, would naturally cause the other to grow as well? What would the order look like now?

Compromise is not going to make a thriving experience for either person or anyone involved. It does not feel empowering at all. Stop trying to compromise. There is another way.

Which one came first? Watch out for this discussion during the workshop.

You can have your cake and it too! All we would need to do is to respect the order in which causality (not action) happens.