Good People Make Better Systems

Chris Bailey wrote a nice post a few days ago about systems versus people. He quotes two of my favorite authors, Pfeffer and Sutton, who argue that systems will trump individual effort, so before you fire that bad person, try redesigning systems or jobs.

Steve Roesler then chimes in with a question: if that’s true, then should we give up on hiring the best and the brightest and just hire adequate people to run our good systems?

My answer: you don’t make a good system out of adequate people. In my interpretation, the systems we’re talking about are human systems, so who you have as the humans is terribly important. I agree that you can’t overcome poor system design with your talent, at least not in the long term. But on the other side, your talent plays directly into the system’s functioning and, more importantly, its design and continuous redesign.

The one quote that Chris shared suggests we "try redesigning systems and jobs" before firing someone. I agree, but remember, that’s not the boss redesigning systems on high like the Architect in the Matrix. Systems are ultimately redesigned by the whole system itself. Certainly the top of the org chart has a specific role to play in redesign that is different from other players (and may have more authority on many decisions), but if you don’t see how the individual parts play a role in redesigning their own system, then I think you are missing a big piece of how systems work (or at least how they work well).

That is why you will need the best and the brightest—because they will be just as responsible for creating the best systems as you will be.


  1. 11.04.2008 at 8:15 am

    Jamie, let’s take this conversation into the volunteer realm, in which associations do not have all of the flexibility they would like in choosing “the talent.” What is your advice on how we design association systems that can withstand marked inconsistency in the quality of the talent working within them?
    And may I request in your response that we avoid bus metaphors? :>) Thanks!

  2. 11.04.2008 at 6:38 pm

    I think that is a major part of what allowing strategic thinking throughout an organization is all about, namely being able to move people around according to their strengths instead of being beholden to rigid silos where some individuals’ skills might not be nurtured properly.

  3. 12.04.2008 at 10:53 am

    Jeff, that’s a great question regarding volunteer networks and people-systems. I was half-way in writing a response when I started to think about the question more deeply and throwing it against my experiences when I was leading membership initiatives. My response just wasn’t adequate to the depth needed to fully answer. I need to whiteboard this…but its a vital question for associations who rely on member and volunteer networks for so much.
    Doubtless there are associations who could benefit from our insight on this.