Systems that Strangle

What my car-buying experience revealed about organizational adaptiveness

Last week, my wife and I invested many hours in the process of researching and purchasing a used car. The fun phase of test driving and haggling now over, we moved into the not-so-fun phase…paperwork. The sales agent, who had come in on his day off to sell us this car, was eager to get us out the door and hurried to assemble papers for our signature.

“Here is your purchase order…here is the total…this is the warranty brochure.” All the standard forms. Then he highlighted, “And here is a disclosure so we can call you in the future.” Wait a minute, we thought as we read through the form in detail. “It says that your dealership can contact us about special offers, too. We’d prefer not to get those.”

“Oh, no” he said. “This just lets me do a follow-up call in 6 months to make sure you’re happy with the purchase. We won’t bombard you with any offers.”

My response stymied him for a moment, “Yeah, that’s ok. Believe me, I’ll call you if there’s anything wrong. I’d rather not sign it.” Not only had he not needed a signed disclosure to call me during the buying process we’d just navigated for the last week, but this car wasn’t even his dealership’s make. It was a trade-in that didn’t matter to his company. There was no need to follow up.

“Well, it’s really no big deal. Everyone signs this form. It’s part of the packet.”

“Is it required to buy the car?” I asked. He responded in the negative.

“Good,” I affirmed, “Then I’m more comfortable not signing it.”

Interestingly, twenty minutes later we sat down with a very nice lady from the finance department who presented the same form for our signature. It was evident that not signing this disclosure statement was a throwing them a curve ball. What do you mean they don’t want to sign the form??? They have to…it’s part of the process.

In the end, we stuck to our guns and avoided a year’s worth of phone calls about special offers. But I also walked away with a lesson about processes, systems, and inflexibility.

Leaders in 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, check their terrain card and checklist while maintaining communications in the Andar province of Afghanistan, June 6, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman)

“Check..list, please”

Now, the dealership folks were quite nice, very capable, and highly efficient with the process they had established. I didn’t see it personally, but there was probably a checklist somewhere to guide the sales people. As long as all the pieces fell into place, they could tick off one sale after another according to a proven procedure. Test drive…done. Price haggle…done. Warranty pitch…done. Purchase Order…done. And maybe they had a few branch plans to account for routine anomalies like insufficient credit or the addition of a roof rack. But, step off of the prescribed path to buying their car and they have to check with the manager.

Think about the processes that guide your life, both the formal ones designed to shape your work and the informal ones you’ve created to guide your personal time. If you’re in the military, you don’t have to look far to find a checklist…and it might be one that has lethal consequences if not followed. (In the aviation world, knowing flight checklists is an absolute necessity. But pilots must also know just how far they can deviate from those parameters in unplanned situations.)

Exploring for a moment, here’s why we like the processes and checklists that fill our lives:

  • They give us confidence that the system we are using is the most efficient.
  • They imply that people before us have already ironed-out all the mistakes.
  • They make it easier to train new or inexperienced team members.
  • They allow us to operate within a safe construct, letting us avoid change and unnecessary risk.
  • They give credibility to our activity, even if that activity is misaligned or not relevant. (“I know we’re not getting the results we want, but we’re following the SOP.”)
  • They give us a known perspective through which to view complex problems, which prevents us from seeing alternate approaches or generating new insight.

While processes allow us to efficiently execute tasks within a predictable system, they can also stifle. There exists an intangible line where the procedures we rely on begin to dilute both individual cognitive agility and collective organizational adaptability. Teams and its members take fewer risks and stop fighting for new insight when they have processes to protect them. It’s not intentional, it’s a function of our innate propensity to seek homeostasis…a comfortable, predictable environment.

General Stanley McChrystal tackles this dilemma in his new book, Team of Teams:

The pursuit of “efficiency” — getting the most with the least investment of energy, time, or money — was once a laudable goal, but being effective in today’s world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment. Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency.

“Us” and “Me”

The takeaway from this post is twofold.

First, take a moment to evaluate your own organization for processes that make your people comfortable. Does your team espouse checklists over creativity? Could it adapt to a new, unplanned environment? When was the last time it was tested in a complex, ambiguous situation? If you think it has drifted into an area of complacency, shake things up. Present your people with dynamic scenarios that will reveal both their knowledge of the processes and their willingness to think beyond the checklist. (These 5 questions are a great way to get your team out of their mental comfort zone.)

Second, evaluate your own behavior as you pursue your goals. Are you the type of person who challenges the systems you interact with? Would you have signed the dealership’s disclosure form because “they set the rules and have expert knowledge about what is required?” General Colin Powell has an apt quote:

Don’t be buffaloed by experts and elites. Experts often possess more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.

History’s most well-respected visionaries showed a committed resistance to the status quo, an unwillingness to blindly accept the hierarchies of life, an inspirational vision for shaping their environment, and a penchant for observing the masses and doing the opposite.

Is that you?

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Originally published at on June 21, 2015.