The Power of System Purpose

In her book, Thinking in Systems, Meadows states: ‘’the least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose, is often the most crucial determinate of the systems behavior”. Meadows explains that for many of these systems, understanding the core purpose or function can only be understood by observing how the elements interact and behave. So, a beehive’s core function can only be understood be observing how the core elements interact with the rest of the eco system. Thus, a beehive is understood as more than a producer of honey but an integral part of the eco system producing fruits and vegetables. Likewise, the body’s circulatory system becomes more than a pump and piping moving plasma through the body, it is an integrated part of a larger system of life. In short, the purpose is greater than the sum of all the parts and has no capacity to change. The human body’s circulatory system does not have the capacity, in a fit of organizational jealousy, to challenge the nervous system for control of the muscles. A beehive cannot change its function and become part of another biological system.

However, social systems, involving human beings, do have the capacity to change their core purpose. A CEO can change the core purpose of her leadership system from patient safety to generate revenue. A COO can change the leadership model from one of service to managing by dictate. While it may not be easy, human social systems can change and the purpose is the most crucial determinate of the systems behavior.

In 2017, the Seattle Times published a 4 part investigative news piece that described the gradual shift in purpose for the Neurological Institute at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital. Over time, it gradually shifted from patient safety to generate revenue. Over a few years, the number of surgeries sky rocketed, revenues ballooned, and patient safety took a back seat. However, it came at a price. The Chair of the Institute lost his license, the CEO had to resign, and a prestigious and respected hospital icon lost it reputation built over decades.

Alternatively, by focusing the leadership system on service to the workforce, John Heer, CEO of North Mississippi Health Services, was able to put employee retention in the upper decile of its comparative group, and put physician satisfaction in the upper quartile while maintaining a AA+ S&P rating and increasing liquidity.