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Taking a Systems View

In this sample chapter from Talk to the Elephant, author Julie Dirksen focuses on the limitations of training programs that often target symptoms instead of systemic issues. It encourages a deeper analysis of the root causes of behaviors and advocates for system mapping to identify what drives or hinders change. The chapter emphasizes examining both individual behaviors and the broader system to ensure alignment with desired outcomes. Dirksen also highlights the importance of visible feedback at the individual or system level to effectively measure and adjust interventions.

This chapter is from the book


“We Need Training”

When a system fails, “training” is almost always promised as part of the solution. Here are some examples:

  • In 2018, Starbucks Coffee Company—in response to complaints about discriminatory actions from Starbucks employees—closed approximately 8,000 Starbucks locations for a day and had roughly 175,000 employees participate in “racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores.”

  • Police officers spend thousands of hours every year in “Use of Force” classes aimed at teaching them how to not use unnecessary or excessive force.

  • Billions of dollars are spent every year on things like “leadership” training.

It’s not difficult to see that for each of these, training is likely only a small fraction of what is needed to truly make significant change.

Learning as Part of a System

There’s a quote that I’m a bit obsessed with (attribution is a bit murky, but a likely originator is Paul Batalden based on ideas from W. Edwards Deming, a well-known engineer and management consultant):

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

Whenever we are dealing with a problem, challenge, or difficulty, it’s always worth asking these questions:

  • What is it about the system that is causing an outcome?

  • And how is the system influencing the behavior of the people in that system?

When we attribute outcomes to people’s attitudes or capability (for example, “They’re just lazy”), we miss the crucial point that there’s usually a reason for someone’s behavior, and if we don’t ask what that reason could be, we are missing vital data that could help change the situation. A behavior can be “wrong” according to standard operating procedures and still be right in the sense that there is some functional reason in the environment or system for that person’s behavior.

For example, a store clerk might guess the price of an item rather than holding up a large line of customers while they go through the official process of getting the price checked. Some stores recognize that a very strict adherence to a procedure like price checking can compromise bigger goals like good customer experience, so they deliberately give clerks latitude about using judgment for small-stakes items in service of that better customer experience.

Irrationality and Bias Exist in Systems

Much has been made of irrationality and bias when it comes to behavior change. There are impressive infographics that show all the cognitive biases. Several books have been written about the quirks of human irrationality. These are often interesting and entertaining, and there are important things we can learn from them, but they aren’t always useful. Looking at these biases as interesting phenomena ignores the fact that they’re related to the context and environment in which they occur.

Daniel Kahneman (the winner of the Nobel Prize for his contributions to behavioral economics), in his seminal text Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains a riddle that they used to test what he describes as people’s “Lazy System 2”:

A bat and ball cost $1.10.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

Many people answer 10 cents. The actual answer is 5 cents, with the bat costing $1.05 (one dollar more than the ball). In his book, Kahneman describes how System 2 “allocates attention to effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations,” but goes on to explain that “The distinctive mark of this easy puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong.” This is Kahneman’s “Lazy System 2.” By not paying appropriate attention, many people get this answer wrong.

So let’s look at how this question appears to the elephant:

  • It’s clearly historical. Baseballs and bats cost much more now, and this is presented as a puzzle. It’s not a real, immediate problem with any real stakes to it, and so the signal to the elephant is it kind of doesn’t matter.

  • It’s an odd format. If I wanted to know the price of an item, I would never ask it in this format, nor would I expect anyone to ever give me this piece of information for two unsimilar items (item one costs much more than item two). For example, if I was splitting a check with someone, I might compare the price of two similar items (for example, two glasses of wine), but I would never tell anybody, “My entrée cost $28 more than your dessert.” The deliberately confusing format tricks the elephant.

  • It’s close to a format we are used to. A much more common conversation might be “Q: How much was the ball?” “Answer: Well, it was a $1.10, and the bat was $1.00, so….” You’ve probably had versions of that conversation many times in your life. You may never have had a question in the format of the example from Kahneman’s book.

  • It’s trivial. The difference between the right answer (the ball is 5 cents) and the intuitive answer (10 cents) is trivial for most people, so this is something where the consequences of getting it wrong just don’t matter very much, so it makes sense that people would not allocate a lot of effort to figuring it out. This is also a cue to the elephant that the answer isn't particularly important.

So this example has several cues to the elephant that a quick guess will be sufficient here, and whether you consider that laziness or efficiency depends on your perspective.


There’s probably no shortage of people who would point out (with some ire) to me that it’s still wrong. And they would be correct about that, and I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t matter that people get it wrong. But if we ask ourselves the reasons that they got it wrong—it’s a weird format no normal person would ever use, and all the cues are telling our brains that this is a problem not worth a lot of attention, with low stakes if you get it wrong—we know a lot more about how to recognize situations where people need to heighten their attention or risk error, and how to help people avoid those errors.

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