Systems Check!

The sudden splutter of the left engine halted the conversation that Sam was having with his copilot.  Had he misheard?  Imagined the slight misstep in tempo?  He looked out the window towards the engine, and then back at his gauges, searching for irregularities – a rise in oil temperature, a drop in oil pressure, a fluctuation in power delivery.  Nothing.  

He looked back at the copilot who seemed not to have heard the same and was now raising an eyebrow.  Sam laughed it off and they picked up their conversation again.

A few minutes later, there was a more definitive splutter – there was no mistaking it.  The engine did not return to smooth running as Sam and his copilot snapped their attention to the engine gauges which fluctuated momentarily and then died with the engine.  The loud hum of the left piston engine no longer contributed to the flight’s harmony and the required input on the rudder pedal to keep the nose straight was marked.  The sound of the remaining right engine rose as Sam called his Engine Failure Memory Items firmly over the actions he was taking: “Two mixtures, two pitches, two throttles!  Identify… Verify…. Feather!”  As he made the calls, he advanced the required engine levers for both engines, identified and verified that the left engine had failed, and feathered the propellor ensuring its windmilling didn’t add further to the problem that their thrust/drag ratio had just become.

The copilot leapt into action to follow up Sam’s calls with the written checklist and to action the radio communication necessary to advise of their emergency.  They weren’t going to be able to maintain their altitude and their distance to their destination was too far to make on the remaining right engine with the load they were carrying.  Sam started to look for a place to land, assessing the fields around them for surface viability, wind direction and obstacles such as power lines.  Today was not going according to plan.


How often do we detect a slight, almost imperceptible splutter in normality?  Whether that’s with our health, our attitude, our decision making, or our communications with those around us?  If things return quickly to normal, we often write off this splutter and wonder whether we imagined it.  It can’t have been that serious if it didn’t continue or develop.

How do we tell the difference between an imagined blip and something that could be a precursor to a more serious problem?  How do we know to pay attention to the proverbial sound of dirty fuel, or a clogged filter before our engine stops?  Normally, it would be as simple as giving ourselves credit for noting it and evaluating it against our normal baselines – whether those are physical or cultural – whether they have to do with the normal state of our health, our value systems, beliefs or prior life experience.  If the blip is simple and explainable, we can move on without concern.  But if the blip, surge, splutter or otherwise connects directly to something fundamental or is not easily explained, then we need to pay it the attention it deserves before a larger problem presents itself.

Our personal culture – the way we view, process and address the world using our values, beliefs, experiences and perceptions – can become clogged over time like the fuel filter in an engine.  Considering that each member of a team brings their own personal culture to contribute to that team, the same is true on a far greater scale when we partner with others at home, at work and in society.  Over time, the filter through which we see the world strains out varying viewpoints, ways of communicating, stressors and coping mechanisms.  Like a fuel filter, it attempts to allow through what is pure and aligned with our intentions and hold back what doesn’t fit and isn’t healthy.

Like the fuel filter in an engine, our culture – personal and team – requires checking at regular intervals.  Left to gather debris and become clogged, it can result in some untidy behaviour, misguided beliefs, misunderstandings and misinterpretations, miscommunications and worse.  What may start as a cautionary splutter may develop into a cough, and then a full-scale disintegration of our personal and team culture, if we don’t guard and occasionally clean out our filter.

So what does it look like to check our filters?  How do we go about making sure that what we’ve picked up over time is helping and not hindering and how do we tell what adds to the development of a culture and what is starting to degrade it?

We can assume that there are going to be periods of time when we’re under pressure.  This is normal life.  When pressure is extended, unusual or unchecked, it can cause us to forget to check ourselves or to go for long periods in between those checks.  During that time, we pick up ways of coping that help us get through those high-pressure periods of time, but which aren’t necessarily methods that will sustain us in healthy ways moving forward.  In some circles, these would be referred to as “coping mechanisms which are no longer serving us”.  Perhaps you’ve developed a way of speaking to your team members that is more curt than usual.  Perhaps you took shortcuts with your work that you wouldn’t have previously needed to if you’d had more time and energy.  Perhaps you withdrew a little to guard your diminished energy and have cut off some communication without realising it.

All of these methods might allow us to meet our short-term needs, but they will all produce longer-term problems if continued.  What may have started as a spluttering might turn into a culture that starts to suffocate due to lack of energy or oxygen – or communication.
 

Performing a Systems Check

Performing a systems check on our culture applies to each of us individually as well as the whole team.  It also extends to the way we go about our work – the physical systems we’ve put in place.  It should cover our attitudes, perceptions, communication tone and content, our patience levels, our methods, our habits and our broader methods and systems.

All these can be assessed both personally and in group discussion using the following checks:

  1. What is working for us and therefore, what do we want to keep?
  2. What is not working for us and should be let go?
  3. What do we want more of?
  4. What do we want less of?
  5. What are coping mechanisms that we’ve picked up that are no longer serving us?

I can more or less guarantee you that if something (a personal perception, a way of communicating, a system put in place over time) continues to create dis-ease when used – it is probably a coping mechanism that is no longer serving you and could do with reassessment.  Reassessment isn’t supposed to be a guessing game.  It’s supposed to be done in discussions with others that allow you to unpack what’s not working and evaluate better alternatives.  Culture is something we share – and therefore it is something that affects any systems we work in and anyone we work with.

If you’ve experienced a personal splutter lately – be that in your health or your personal culture – take a moment to pause and do a systems check.  If you’ve noticed a splutter in your team – a running low of energy or anything else you feel may be symptomatic of a deviation from the baseline you’d previously established – a systems check can only do you good.

by Christen Killick

September 12th, 2022

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