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The Purpose of a System is what it does

The purpose of a system is what it does. There is, after all, no point in claiming that the purpose of a system is to do what it consistently fails to do. 

Stafford Beer

This quote is one of these statements that you can throw with a big resonating bang onto the table of a discussion, and people will be impressed, and probably silent. The author himself calls it a conversation stopper. But what does it leave you with?  


First, it is a claim to stop kidding yourself. In this sense, it works similar to Paul Batalden’s quote “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results you are getting.”


So, to be provocative, the purpose of the health system in many countries is to create increasing health costs. The purpose of the international education evaluation system PISA is to make governments increase the amount of money they spend in conducting further studies on education. The purpose of the American law enforcement is to feed the 70+ bn $ American prison economy with cheap subsidised labour. 


The purpose of some companies is to make customers buy something else, employees quit their jobs, and shareholders lose money. 


You cannot change the outcome without changing the system to a sufficient degree.


But if you want to change the system, you are faced with a specific situation, especially in organisations. You are not in a position to change the system alone. You need to involve people. You want these people, who are part of the system that needs to be managed, to become part of the system that manages the change. Work IN the system AND work ON the system with the same people. And in these conversations that you all need to have when working on the system, it is probably helpful to have a common idea of your aspirations, where you want the system to move. If there is no gap between reality and your aspirations, there will be no intentional action. And on the highest level of granularity, could we agree that such an aspirational statement could be called purpose? The desired purpose? To be clear, the work is not done with the formulation of an aspirational purpose, the infamous leaflet that you distribute to everyone in the hope that things change. But I still believe in the usefulness of such a concept, not as a description of what is, but of what should be, not directed at a passive audience of people as part of the managed system, but at these very same, but active people seen as those who manage the system, in order to have orientation in what you do. That’s the purpose of purpose.


How do you work with purpose? 

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