Systemic Strategies for Developing Countries - A case study
Global thinking calls for local action in Romania

The article below illustrates a country-specific systemic perspective of patterns that can be perceived on multiple levels of a same system.  The nature of the approach is more than an analysis.  If in a systems approach ones need to think globally, the imperative is also to act locally.  Consequently, with an individual, team an organizational coaching perspective, the presentation below offers a few avenues for solutions.

Recently discussing visible changes in Romania with a friend, he made the following comment concerning the country’s development in the course of the last twenty years.  His observation was that during these two decades, there has been in fact very little evolution in most of the country’s infrastructures.  Since 1990, a large number of very local improvements have been made but they are still disconnected from each other, as well as from the larger national, international or global environment.  And no matter their number, if local improvements are not connected to each other, they do not add up to the perception of real collective development.

The common example that most people have experienced directly or through acquaintances concerns the number of private homes and public developments that have sprouted right and left and that are patiently waiting to be connected to the electrical, sewage, water and road system.  These homes and developments are often beautiful and have been sold, but they can neither be accessed nor inhabited for lack of connection to decent infrastructure.

To offer another example from the infrastructure perspective, if one consulted a 1995 road map of Romania, it would still be sufficiently precise today to travel all over the country without much difficulty.  The roads have been enlarged in some areas, some are partially repaired on a regular basis and some new short segments of freeways have been built.  But for the most part, they are still the same old roads.  The enormous increase in the number of cars that use these roads, however, often make them impractical when not really dangerous.  Unfortunately, this observation on the state of Romania’s general road system holds for most other infrastructures in the rail, water, power, sewage, irrigation, schooling, administration, judiciary and other would-be national systems.

To be fair, there have been widespread localized changes in Romania. Buildings have been built and some renovated, some good schools exist, some irrigation systems work.  Many other dispersed and very local renovations and improvements can be inventoried.   But in spite of European funds made available to redesign and modernize the country’s infrastructures, all these disconnected changes are not linked together with effective interfacing.  They are not networked.  Again, partial segmented improvements in any given field do not add up to a general national sum, an integrated whole.

The biological metaphor

If one compares this state of affairs to a given living body, the equivalent would be to heal some individual cells, some of the organs and some of the limbs while the central nervous system, the arteries and veins, the lymphatic system and bone structure are all kept in a dismal shape.  What is the use of a good heart if the veins and arteries are all clotted?  What indeed, is the use of repairing a limb if it cannot be usefully connected to the rest of the body?

In terms of systems thinking, if we accept this general observation on a national level, we can then apply the pattern to a number of other dimensions of Romanian reality, and see how it fits.  This can allow for a systemic understanding of some structural issues in a large number of companies, government administrations, departments, teams, and people.  Indeed, a systemic perspective stipulates that patterns perceived in any larger system, for instance on the national level in Romania, can be observed as identical in the constituting parts of that whole, for instance in most Romanian sub-systems such as provinces, cities, organizations and people. Of course, in this undertaking, we are grossly generalizing.  There are numerous exceptions, but still, the global picture may give us food for thought.

Consequently, let us consider that disconnected localized improvements in Romania don’t add up to real national development for a lack of modernized infrastructure.  This article proposes to apply the pattern to other dimensions within the country to provide insights on the state of development in a host of other dimensions.

Organizational infrastructures

On an organizational level, for example, the pattern may be the following:  Some haphazard local changes have been achieved in most companies to deal with obvious urgencies. Limited and focused improvements have been made in some departments, in some teams, in some fields of expertise. 

  • In numerous companies, state of the art marketing and internal communication campaigns have struck peoples’ imaginations and impressed them with perceptions of exceptional products and services.  Often, however these campaigns were making promises that did not correspond to the harsh reality of the real client service that followed. 
  • In some companies, sales forces have radically improved their effectiveness, but the quality of service after sales has not changed, much to the customer’s disappointment.  Their disillusion runs rampant. 
  • In still other companies, financial systems are very performing, but the Human Resource department is still worthy of a feudal epoch and some personnel is almost obliged to sue their company to have their deserved rights respected. 
  • In still others, recruiting is very performing and proposes modern incentive packages to attract the best potential, but once a person is hired, the follow up is close to nil.

Surely, all these local improvements can be considered very useful.  But when they are not generalized and not transversally connected, they don’t add up to perceived progress.  In fact, in most companies, localized modernization is often made ineffective by archaic infrastructure. The underlying interfacing architecture of these organizations has not fundamentally changed.  Departments, teams and people are still very far from connected.  In effect, they are more closely kin to a collection of feudal states than to a coherent and connected modern community.

In some cases, the infrastructure is there, but not connected to the end user.  The last kilometer, sometimes the last meters are missing.  Some power lines are a stone’s throw away from houses that lack electricity.  Some housing developments are accessible only by muddy paths that lead to a neighboring highway. 

  • Likewise in some organizations, a career-management system has been bought from external experts, but it is not applied or it is bypassed to privilege nepotism and other remnants of another epoch.  
In numerous organizations, when company–wide procedures exist, they are bypassed, neither connected to the people who should make them work, nor benefiting the personnel they should serve.  In numerous other organizations, modern infrastructure is still completely inexistant.

Individualistic strategies

As a result, each individual in Romania develops personal strategies to adjust to their local infrastructural characteristics. In some cases, relatively limited collective improvements are made, but they satisfy the happy few members of a privileged and protected community.  Immediately next door, what applies to the majority has not changed.  

As a consequence, the infrastructure of organizational culture is still the way it was fifteen years ago.  Each individual maneuvers to acquire personal advantages to get an edge on neighbors who should normally be entitled to equal treatment.  Individualism continues to be the rule when infrastructures fail to connect them.  Feudal territoriality and protectionism continues to be the best survival strategy when one cannot count on being treated equally and fairly by the larger system. 

As a result in Romania, one can daily experience a feeling of anachronism.  Modern tools give the impression one is living in the 21st century, and individualistic survival strategies still seem to be the main personal and professional driving force.  Suburban developments sprout to offer idyllic images of developing wealth, but these still house distrustful villagers who get their highest personal satisfaction out of their neighbor’s difficulties.

One can conclude that when infrastructures are missing in any system, collective values, beliefs and behaviors don’t evolve.  Individualism will continue to develop so long as nothing is done to ensure general connectivity.  This is true in most organizations.

Individualism or teamwork?

On a smaller scale, the same country patterns may apply to many Romanian teams.  A big effort has been made in the past decades to provide individuals with training, to recruit and retain individual talents, to recognize individual achievements, and to reward individual results.  Although common belief is this attention to individuals will improve collective results, it has just reinforced individualist strategies.  The harsh reality is that in a very large number of companies, transversal communication is practically inexistent, teamwork is ineffective, the feeling of community has disappeared, collective intelligence has evaporated and vital information is often withheld to keep a personal edge on fellow team members.  Indeed, it can be hard to retain individuals when there is no collective cement.  Consequently turnover of talent is very high.

As a result, the same national pattern can be perceived on the team level of most local systems.  Very little attention has been paid to develop team interfacing infrastructure and link team members into a performing ensemble.  Presence to meetings is haphazard; negotiating personal exceptions to collective processes have become the rule, and commitments to system procedures are rarely respected.  To replace team dynamics, one-on-one confidential meetings are used to influence or bend decisions, behind the scenes gossip is spread to discredit perceived competitors, manipulative strategies are deployed to get undeserved credit for results and favorable attention from top management.  When each team member plays an individual score and beats to very personal drummer, there can be no team.

On a still smaller scale, it is interesting to observe what changes have occurred in individual frames of reference in Romania on the one hand, and how these are connected to other personal evolutions in behavior, knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, etc.

Personal behavioral discrepancies

A person’s frame of reference is a general comprehensive and coherent whole that congruently organizes that individual’s beliefs, values, behaviors and attitudes.  It is the equivalent of a personal infrastructure.  When a person’s frame of reference changes, everything about his or her life follows.  Priorities, ambitions, behaviors, emotions, values, and everything will follow.  A change in frame of reference is profound, total, and very often quite radical.

When a frame of reference does not change, any behavioral or belief modification will just remain a superficial adaptation to local situations.  A fearful person can learn to open up and take more relational risks if the immediate environment requires it, but will fundamentally remain very distrustful if his or her frame of reference does not evolve.  Another egotistical individual will learn to share and exchange with others in a limited context that calls for it, and then suddenly revert to taking advantage of a situation to get personal gain, if the opportunity arises.  A fundamentally unsure person may learn to open up and communicate in a positive environment until a difficult situation arises, and then suddenly disappear and hide when facing this personal challenge.

Perceptible social and professional behavioral change is observable everywhere, promoted by newly promoted values, information, fashions and trends.  These are rapidly copied and seemingly adopted.  But should a little pressure, a small crisis, an unforeseeable event occur, then suddenly underlying and older tried and true strategies and behaviors resurface.  The truth is that some older Romanian frames of reference are still very active.  Local and temporary changes are still too superficial to amount to real collective progress.

Sometimes, one can also observe that some personal behaviors are totally incongruent with other actions undertaken by the same person.  An open and friendly attitude for a few moments will suddenly be followed by a mute withdrawal when something unexpected pops up.  Collaborative behavior will suddenly turn into outright competition because of an unforeseen opportunity.  When new behaviors are acquired without deeper work to change the underlying frame of reference, they will not last in the face of difficulty or passing opportunity.  At minimum, behavioral congruency will be questioned and at worst, people will appear to be dishonest.

Working towards personal solutions

When we need to become practical and envision solutions, Systems thinking is often misunderstood.  Perceiving global patterns and problem doesn’t mean that the only solution is global, quite the contrary.  The global warming issue, for example, will not be solved by a global decision made by an internationally body that will drive a worldwide strategy. In keeping with the saying “think global and act local”, pollution must and will be treated locally. Consequently waiting for Romanian infrastructures to be renovated on the national level is probably the most passive attitude, and acting locally in one’s direct environment is the most responsible and effective.

Infrastructural changes in our organizations, in our immediate teams, and on a personal level need to happen wherever possible, without delay.  Depending on most people’s areas of responsibility, team and organizational changes are much easier to achieve than waiting for politicians to take pertinent action on local and national levels.  Of course, the most appropriate level for everyone to take immediate action is in the personal sphere.  In our immediate area of personal responsibility, there is little excuse for us to put off taking action.

On the personal level, congruency calls for first clarifying personal belief systems and the values that accompany these.  Beliefs systems are at the foundation of our frames of reference.  Understanding them may be difficult, but they can be accessed by personally asking oneself a number of direct and honest questions.

  • Examples: What are my active values and beliefs, and how can they contribute to creating community? What is my lie?  When am I posing for what I am not, as an impostor? Do my goals justify my unethical means?  What do I think/feel/do when I feel that my environment is unsafe? Am I impatiently ambitious for results, willing to take shortcuts to succeed?  What can I think/feel/do when I witness that my neighbor is not respecting the law?  How can I react when I am told I am not behaving ethically?  How much can I invest on my own long-term personal and professional development? How can I achieve my results through deserving work, rather than through good connections? How can I respect personal commitments and collective processes and voice my expectations that others do the same? How can I regularly and publicly support and recognize other people’s successes? How can I regularly model positive altruistic behavior?  Etc.

Most of these questions focus on actions that pertain to our capacity to build community.  When our frame of reference is geared towards collaboration and developing sustainable growth, all personal behavior naturally fits into that perspective.  When we have only learned segmented collaborative behavior without reconsidering basic values and belief systems, contradictory thoughts, reactions and emotions will contribute to blurring the outcome of our actions. 

Consequently, beliefs about oneself, about other people, and values about our place in the environment define behaviors much more often and much more deeply than newly acquired behaviors redefine beliefs and values.  To act congruently in a collaborative effort to build community, it is of the utmost importance for each to first evaluate, clearly define and sometimes modify very personal values and belief systems.  That is the fundamental and preliminary necessary work on each of our personal and internal infrastructures.  That is truly the most local option for progress.

Working towards collective solutions<br><br>

When one is ready to sustainably model community-developing behavior, the next level is to work on building infrastructure in the immediate environment represented by our teams, our families and our close social networks.  In this realm too, some questions need to be asked and new answers need to be found.

  • Examples: How can I humbly but actively participate in building new local systems by being neither in the center nor on the periphery?  How can I participate in making effective collective decisions and following them up all the way to their implementation, without taking over or dropping out?  How can I find my rightful place in local systems by ensuring that each other person in those environments also does their fair share of work and gets their fair share of results? How can I participate in making local networks collectively succeed by creating sustainable wealth with their larger environments?  On a daily basis, how can I support other community initiatives and successes in my environment ?  What collective methodologies can my local environment implement to become more just and effective.

Obviously, this team or local-system development rests on defining a number of collectively accepted behaviors and processes that have to be implemented on the long run to effectively create community.  These behaviors rest on a solid personal belief that longer-term community building is more important than immediate personal gain.  It needs to rest on the clear perception that all will gain more by gradually creating wealth together than by immediately cashing in on personal gains. 

Of course, this transformation on a collective level will not work if individuals have not made their personal shifts in perspective.  But it will not work either if collective systems such as teams and families do not start building the fundamental architecture or infrastructure that will permit individual shifts of perspective.  If teams and other local collective systems do not clearly decide to build community beliefs, values, processes and behaviors, individuals will very quickly and naturally revert to short-term individualism to survive.  Consequently in Romania today, collectively changing frames of reference in our immediate team environments is of the utmost importance to accompany and support personal shifts of perspective.

Working towards building organizational infrastructure

For people who have a responsibility running larger systems such as departments, companies, organizations, and administrations, there exists still another realm in which immediate community building can be undertaken.  First resting on personal conviction that this is the right way to go, after ensuring that the immediate team environment is well on the way to support action in that direction, the next step is to structure large systems so as to have them develop solid and effective community-supporting infrastructures.  Some questions in that directions are among the following:

  • Examples: How can we clearly define a strategic shift in cultural beliefs and values that can be measurably implemented into behaviors?  How can the top leaders and management model these desired values, behaviors and outcomes?  How can we almost exclusively select, promote, reward, recognize and retain team players rather than individualist achievers?  What behavioral training and individual, team and organizational coaching can accompany this change of perspective?  What fail-safe and regularly audited company-wide processes can be implemented to actively support and accompany this shift in organizational values over the long term?

Obviously, to successfully make the necessary shifts in corporate culture, numerous organizations will need to make some radically new decisions.  It will be very difficult achieving new results by implementing old recipes with cooks that have not made their personal shifts.  It will be close to impossible to remodel old implicit architectures and renovate cultural infrastructure if a number of key teams continue playing to archaic tunes for the benefit of few selected short-term, individualist winners.

  • To redesign large system implicit architectures and cultural infrastructures, it is necessary
  • To strategically attract and retain the right collaborative leaders and truly team-oriented employees,
  • To develop effective community-building teams, and
  • To select the fundamentally aligned external partners who can truly participate in building this long-awaited future for Romania.

Alain Cardon and Metasysteme Coaching SRL are ready to accompany people, teams and organizations in this systemic perspective.

To consult a program for management development in a systemic perspective
To consult a systemic team-development program
To consult an organizational-development program in a systemic perspective.