System Shifts: Why we must hug the system

Pandemic and war have unleashed system shifts that will reshape our lives and businesses. We need to embrace them to survive them.

Why hug the system? That seems… counter-intuitive. Many of us have grown up with the message that we should fight the system — or even smash it. Hugging it seems… boring. It reeks of brainless compliance. Where’s that disruption we’ve been celebrating for the past decade?

It’s time for a perspective shift. “Why hug the system?” is the wrong question. What we should be asking is, “why aren’t we hugging the system already?”. Hugging the system is a revolutionary act. Why? Because the systems we’re talking about are suddenly more dangerous and complex than we ever expected. It’s like jumping into a familiar river, and finding that the currents you’ve grown familiar with are gone, replaced by unexpected rapids, eddies, and swirls. 

This was inevitable. As a species, we over-simplify systems (for good reasons), and under-estimate their propensity to change. We have a normalcy bias, that stops us from seeing change until — often — it’s too late. In the third decade of the 21st century, making that mistake could cost you your job, your company — and even your country.

Why? The era of globalisation is passing. An era of global disruptions is upon us. And to survive it, we need to hug the system — and reject the seductive trap of simplicity. 

There’s no answer in simplicity

Oh, we’re all guilty of giving in to the simple. Simplicity is seductive. From the minimalist home to the appeal of religious retreat, we are lured by simplicity because it makes life easier. The discipline of systems thinking’s very existence implies, correctly, that most people find it hard to think about systems. Systems are complex

If you want one example that’s been on our minds recently, think of the human immune system. People want simple answers about immunity and vaccines and re-infection, but the human immune system is ferociously complicated, and even immunologists admit that they don’t really understand it.

And the immune system is just one system in the human body, most of which interact with each other. And each human body is part of a wide natural ecosystem, and both impacts it and is impacted by it. We like to pretend that we are beyond and above nature, but the climate crisis is one big reminder that we’re not. 

Once you start looking at connections, you realise that there is no end. Everything is connected.

Simplifying systems can break them

So, there lies our explanation for shying away from systems, for trying to reject their embrace. We build containers for aspects of systems to make them manageable within our limited human brains. Look, for example, at the example of a mid-sized company. We divide up the functions that a company needs: be it sales, marketing, product, finance or human resources. We chunk the system up into manageable silos, ones that attempt to make a multi-human system comprehensible at a human (and humane) scale.

That works — mostly. And then, suddenly, systems around a business start shifting, changing in ways that impact the systems throughout the business. All of a sudden, the simple silos stop working for the business. System shifts are true disruption.

That’s where we are now: the systems are changing, rapidly and unpredictably. We need to adapt.

The decade of system shifts

This decade alone we’ve seen:

The problem with clinging to a traditional silo-based working system in a business is that it’s great for doing existing processes better, but terrible at adapting to periods of profound change.

Marketing amidst system shifts

Now, let’s do what we always have to do, and focus down on one part of a business. Why? Well, dealing with the complex impacts of these disruptions on a whole business in a systemic fashion would require a book, or a conference, not a NEXT Insights article. So, let’s just focus on the marketing part of a business.

Again, there are multiple systemic changes impacting your role. We hurled supply and demand equations and assumptions out of the window in early 2020 as the pandemic hit. Years later, we have yet to return to anything that resembles a stable state. 

For many countries (but not all) pandemic-related restrictions are fading into history, but the habits and changes wrought by the last two years are not. Demand patterns are unlikely to ever return to the pre-pandemic norm, and the current pressure on cost-of-living, driven by the twin spectres of inflation and energy prices, will continue to impact it.

System shifts in supply and demand

Worse still, supply chain issues continue to reshape the supply side of the equation. A marketer who has survived the last two years without paying attention to supply chain issues is lucky — but that luck is running out. For anyone working in physical goods, the supply chain issues and accompanying inflationary pressure are going to change your customers’ relationship with your products. Messages appropriate for an age of abundance won’t land in the new era of scarcity. 

Equally, with life essentials consuming more of most people’s household budgets, the battle for discretionary income is about to get tougher — as Netflix is discovering. People are living and working in different ways, and travelling at different frequencies. The demand systems are all out of sync, and research is often outdated before it hits the market. 

Complexity is back, and it’s no fleeting houseguest. 

The post-globalisation decade

The era of stable, global systems seems to have passed. After a decade of flippantly discussing “disruption” as something that an app could deliver, we’re discovering what it truly means. Disruption tears through our systems: those that underpin our businesses and our lives. We can’t hide from this anymore. The artificial silos that allow us to handle systems complexity in chunks are failing; they are no longer fit for purpose. 

We need to disassemble them, and rebuild them for a new age. An age of systems change and disruption is upon us. And marketers, balanced as they are between complex systems driving demand, and equally complex systems determining supply, have to be at the forefront of this adaptation. 

They must hug the system because the system hugs their customers. And it hugs their suppliers. It even embraces their colleagues. 

There’s the answer we seek: we need to hug the system — because it always embraces you. Hugging the system is embracing the inevitable — and finding a way to work with it.