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  • Writer's pictureMichael Soderling

Organisational development and toilet paper

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

Ever wondered why individuals, teams, and perhaps the entire organisation once in a while behave in a way that none of the people involved really believes is functional?

If so, then you have very likely seen systemic forces at play. Understanding them is a requisite for developing an organisation. Although on paper I suggest the general concept of systems theory is easy to understand, I want to use another type of paper – toilet paper – to illustrate my point. Let’s think back to the outbreak of Covid-19.

In my case, the notion of the virus eventually entered my mind after I read in the newspaper that people were panic-buying toilet paper. In the same article, I also read that there was no cause for alarm. Toilet roll suppliers’ ability to deliver was not affected by the virus. I remember chuckling and thinking that I am not like everyone else and that I indeed would not hoard. I am a rational man, you see. I did however (just for safety's sake) check my stock of toilet rolls and estimated I had a good month’s supply. A few days later I was in my local grocery store where I saw this.

Faced with the gruesome scarcity on the shelves, my feeling of self-satisfaction vanished. Instead, I started dwelling on whether I would be able to buy toilet paper in a month’s time. What to do now, Mr. Rationality? After hesitation, I grabbed a package, hence contributing to the shortage. It turns out I really am just like everyone else.

Going back to individuals, teams, and organisations behaving in odd ways: Hopefully, you can see that my toilet paper purchase says more about the systemic forces at play than about me. In that case, you have understood systems theory in a nutshell. Applying the theory, however, can be a challenge. Let me offer some reasons why:

One is that it can be difficult to spot how forces in overlying system levels trump underlying ones. For example, people can agree that business development, sales, and delivery all benefit from collaboration. But if incentive models solely reward individual performance, you have a perfect example of an overlying phenomenon trumping peoples’ intrinsic motivation to collaborate.

A second is that forces on different levels very well may reinforce each other. Take, for example, the meetings in a management team where there is a history of emotions running high. Deep inside, every person obviously wants the meetings to be constructive. But the old truth of meetings being agonising makes everyone wary, just waiting for the first sign of derailment in the on-going meeting. When they (think they) spot it, normally sensible and constructive people find themselves yet again sucked into a communication pattern they so do not want to be a part of. Still, they perpetuate the vicious circle between team dynamics and individual response.

A third is our tendency to focus on intentions in people when it in fact is more fruitful to focus on conditions (or lack thereof). I remember in particular a comprehensive change process in a large organisation, where newly formed management teams were expected to cooperate between themselves. People on each side of the fence tore their hair out, blaming the other teams for lack of cooperativeness. However, that was not the case, as it in my experience almost never is. Rather, the case was that no one felt responsible for a negotiation between the teams. Hence, clarity in responsibilities and mandates in the interfaces was lacking, and no formal processes of collaboration were agreed upon.

May I suggest then, that you put on these theoretical glasses and take a closer look at what is going on in individuals, teams, and your entire organisation. If you discard the notion of people not being willing to cooperate, but rather look for what is restraining cooperation, you are applying the theory. In doing so, you have a great platform for starting to develop the workings in your organisation.


The clients who reach out to me are managing directors, management teams, and executives who want to realise the potential in their organisations and accomplish extraordinary results. They reach out to me because of my ability to transform individuals, teams, and organisations.

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