Is It Unrealistic To Demand-Expect Integrity From Human Systems?

Does The Concept Of Integrity Apply Only To Non-Human Systems?

This post continues the conversation (blog and comments) that started with the following blog post: Revisiting Integrity: Why Do All Human Systems Lack Integrity?

To summarise, I say that integrity in the sense  of whole and complete (unity between word and action, between the ‘parts’ and the whole) is essential to workability and performance of all systems including human systems.  If you want to get a sufficient understanding of Integrity as I am speaking it then it is essential to read this post: Integrity, Leadership, Communication and Performance – The Most valuable Post You Will Read This Year?

Max J. Pucher disagrees. He says that ‘whole-complete’ is an idealistic interpretation and does not apply to human systems:

“Maz, I propose that it is not allowable to use a physical system concept of integrity (whole-complete) for human systems. Physical systems such as a car have a well-defined function/output and therefore integrity is defined to perform as designed. Human systems have no such function and the output is purely based in individual perception. Therefore ‘whole-complete’ is an idealistic interpretation from a single human perspective and will most likely not agree with many others….”

As I promised Max, I have been thinking about his assertion. And now I share with you what showed up for me.  I find that Max’s view is commonplace, I came across it just today.  And I find myself in disagreement.  Allow me to share with you that which shows up for me as I get to grips with the coal face of human existence.

What Does The World Of Aviation Disclose Regarding The Integrity of Human Systems?

Let’s consider NASA’s shuttle program.  Yes, this program involves amazing technology-equipment. Who produces this technology? Who configures it? Who works it?  Who addresses issues with it?  Human beings.  OK, the equipment is ready, in place.  Is that all it takes to take a number of human beings, put them in space, keep them there, and then bring them safely back home?  No!  It requires a large number of people, in different roles, of different temperaments, of different genders, of different ages to work together as one.  What do I mean by one?  I mean integrity as in being ‘whole-complete’ at the level of the system they constitute. Which is why there has only been one disaster to date.

Why did this disaster occur?  Because the integrity (wholeness-completeness) of the system was compromised.  Some ‘parts’  (people) did know of the issue and the associated risk.  Some ‘parts’  (people) escalated the known issue. Other powerful-dominating ‘parts’ of the system choose to ignore the voices-concerns of these ‘parts’. And, they also choose not to care for the needs of other ‘parts’ (astronauts) to return safely to Earth.

This is my point. Where there has been a focus and commitment to integrity (wholeness-completeness of the system) the shuttles have launched and returned safely.  When integrity was sacrificed, disaster struck, the astronauts died.

Now consider the world of air travel.  Don’t the passengers count on the integrity of the system?  Don’t they count on people to make sure that the airplanes are safe to fly?  Don’t they count on people to ensure that the airplanes have the right fuel – type and quantity? Don’t they count on the pilots to be competent and fit to fly the plane? Now look behind the scenes, what else has to be in place?  How about the air traffic controllers – on both sides of the trip? You get the idea: all of these ‘parts’ have to work together for air travel to exist as it does. And the system works. It is rare for the system not to work, for a crash to occur. And when it does, an investigation occurs, lessons are learned, sanctions applied where necessary, new operating policies and practices put in place.

Notice, that the pilot of an airliner that crashed and killed passengers would not get away with pleading “Your honour, I am only a human being. You can’t expect me to follow the rules, each and every flight, regarding how much I drink before boarding the plane and taking the helm.”  No, if he was found guilt of breaking the rules, he would go to jail.   Notice, no party that is essential to the game of ‘safe air travel’ would get away with shirking its role and responsibility. Why?  It is simply not acceptable to compromise the integrity of the system.  And if there are ‘flaws’ in human beings, in themselves, then the designers of the system are charged with coming up with the means to address the ‘flaws’ through checklists, equipment, technology….

Why Does The Lack Of Integrity In Human Systems Persist?

Werner Erhard et al assert that this lack of integrity exists because we do not get the impact of the loss of integrity on the workability and performance of a system.  And I find myself to be in agreement.

Werner Erhard et al assert that this lack of integrity exists because we misunderstand integrity. We make integrity to be ALL about morality: right and wrong according to the moral norms of the group/s we find ourselves living amongst.  And in so doing, we are not present to integrity as the fundamental basis of workability and performance: integrity as a state/condition of a system – state of being whole-complete, a unity. I find myself in agreement.

It occurs to me that there is an even bigger-deeper, more fundamental, cause for this lack of integrity in human systems.  What is this cause?  Max provides a clue when he says it is not allowable to use the concept of integrity (as the condition of wholeness-completeness) for human systems. It occurs to me that when it comes to integrity and human systems, we accept and are comfortable with defeat before we even start.  What do I mean?  Allow me to share an extract from another blog post ‘The Myth of Scarcity: That’s Just The Way It Is’:

“That’s just the way it is is just another myth, but it’s probably the one with the most grip, because you can always make a case for it. When something has always been a certain way,  and traditions, assumptions, or habits make it resistant to change then it seems logical …. that the way it is is the way it will stay. This is when the blindness, the numbness, the trance, and, underneath it all, the resignation of scarcity sets in. Resignation makes us feel hopeless, helpless, and cynical. Resignation also keeps us in line…….

That’s just the way it is justifies the greed, the prejudice and inaction that scarcity fosters in our relationship with money and the rest of the human race…”

– Lynne Twist

What Does It Take To Call Forth Integrity From Human Systems?

If we are the ones that defeat ourselves when it comes to calling forth integrity from human systems, then the answer to this question lies in us: specifically, in our collective way of being/showing-up in the world.  Let’s listen to the wise words of Lynne Twist once more:

We have to be willing to let go of that’s just the way it is, even if just for a moment, to consider the possibility that there isn’t away it is or a way it isn’t. There’s the way we choose to act and what we choose to make or our circumstance.”

– Lynne Twist

Consider air travel. Would there be any air travel if all of us had simply accepted that man is not meant to fly on the basis that if he was meant to fly then he would have been given wings.  Everything starts with one or more of us being called forth and stepping into a possibility.  The possibility of integrity in human systems is a real one.  Will you and I embrace and embody that possibility?  Will your team embrace-embody that possibility?  Will your organisation embrace-embody that possibility?

Why Pay Any Attention To The Integrity of Systems: Human, Mechanical and Hybrid?

I invite you to consider that your customers are painfully aware of where your organisation is not in a state of integrity. Why? Because customers experience the effects of this lack of integrity: promises made in marketing-sales but not kept by the product itself; being passed around from one person to another, one team to another, and having to go through the same dance all over again; promises made by one part of the organisation and not honoured by the others part/s…. I say that if you want to play the joined up game of Customer Experience then you have to work on the integrity of the ‘system’ – the whole organisation including all the key partners whose performance impacts the end customer and shapes her experience.

Finally, I invite you to not kid yourself. You cannot claim to be 90% pregnant and get away with it. Why not? Because you either are pregnant or you are not pregnant.  The same is the case for integrity: either the system in question (e.g. the organisation) is in a state of integrity or it is not.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant. Passionate about enabling customer-centricity by calling forth the best from those that work in the organisation and the intelligent application of digital technologies. Subject matter expert with regards to customer strategy, customer insight, customer experience (CX), customer relationship management (CRM), and relationship marketing. Working at the intersection of the Customer, the Enterprise (marketing, sales, service), and Technology.

9 thoughts on “Is It Unrealistic To Demand-Expect Integrity From Human Systems?”

  1. Maz, thanks for this extensive reply which I much appreciate. I will provide a similar extensive answer on my blog, but let me give a short reply here.

    I often find that when I suggest that people accept the inability to create perfect human system because they are complex adaptive (built from individual acting agents), people think that I am accepting failure or lower standards, or that I am suggesting to allow this as excuse. Exactly the opposite is the case. Your examples proof the point. Assuming the human systems can be integer and perfect leads to failure. The reason for speed cameras. If we would assume that speed cameras will do the trick we would not need seat belts. So the possibility of human failure has to be planned into the system. The possibility of integrity in human systems does not exist.

    Also the law clearly distinguishes between neglicence and gross negligence, the second meaning that the person accused of it was apparently fully aware of the risks and consequences that caused the problem.

    The shuttle accidents are a great example but I respectfully state that they proof my point of view and not yours. There were actually two shuttle disasters of a 123 missions flown. Clearly all were caused by some human error somewhere in the chain of design, build and operation of the shuttles. It does not make these humans bad people. Many had no means of understanding the whole complexity and its consequences. The shuttle accidents were caused by NASA management stating that the likelihood of disaster was 1 in a 100.000 while its engineers said it was rather 1 in a 100. Reality proved it was just above 1 in 60. Assuming perfection leads to disaster and not accepting human limitations. In that case it is alwayss better to err on the side of caution. Risk management today is not used to reduce risk but to make people feel good about taking higher risks, which is rather ridiculous.

    Let me add one more thought to explain my perspective. In natural systems the survival of an individual is irrelevant. Only the ones that can adapt to the surroundings quickly enough need to survive in sufficient numbers. Darwin never stated that the strongest survive but only the fittest, meaning fit for their ecosystem. That inludes the behavior of the species as a whole. Millions can die while ensuring the survival of the species. Such systems can be pretty perfect. That two shuttle crews died while doing their job is tragic but not necessarly a failure of the whole system. It is most likely an unavoidable conseuquence of doing something new.

    When you do something new then you need people willing to take risks for doing it. That curiosity, determination, and courage is part of being human too. I propose it is more important than human systems having some form of idealistic integrity. In supposedly ‘perfect’ systems people are punished for trying something new.

    In some way we are splitting hairs here, but let me point out that the idea of integrity leads to really strange forms of command and control management. No human system is controllable. I only manage a few hundred people and find it impossible to ensure that each one is integer, mostly because I have no perfect system concept. I can give people opportunities and use their potential and take the risk that they will do the right thing. Failing is not necessarily bad but an important step towards getting it right. Not failure is the outlier, but success is!


    1. Hello Max,

      I thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. And I welcome your perspective and your challenge. It occurs to me that you and I are adding to the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ through not being in agreement and seeing the situation differently. Great, that is the context for all that I share in this blog: to provide an alternative perspective, to question that which is taken for granted.

      Having slept on that which you share, it occurs to me that whilst both of us use the word ‘integrity’ we stand in a different place when we use it, and use it differently. Let us take the subject of creativity. Assume that you, I, and a few others start a organisation and our commitment is only to do challenging creative work – that which has not been done before, which cannot be reduced to routine. That is what we are about, that is what our mission statement says. Now let’s assume that our business is just about breaking even and someone turns up and offers a $10m piece of work, routine work, non-creative work, and this work is highly profitable. We stand our ground and turn that work away, accepting only creative work then we, as an organisation, are in integrity: our actions match our word. If, out of fear or greed, we accept the work then we are out of integrity: our actions are out of alignment with our words.

      Now I ask myself what is the big challenge in terms of integrity in this case? Isn’t it being true to our word. We set up the organisation to do creative work. And we only take on creative work.

      Where you and I are in agreement is that integrity is not the default state when it comes to systems especially human systems which are characterised by ‘free will’. So the challenge is to put in place ‘that which is necessary’ to call forth integrity. How does one do that? Make violations of integrity matter. How? By making violations of integrity transparent. And then deal with the causes of the violations. Not through punishment, as a first cause, but through exploration. And punishment when it becomes necessary.

      As for what natural systems are and are not about, I cannot say. What I do say, is that on any given day, I can find someone who will espouse theory that supports my favoured view. And almost any ‘fact’ can be twisted to fit into a particular theory-framework-ideology.

      All the best to you Max, you show up for me as true friend. It takes a friend to engage in such a dialogue.

      Finally, nothing that I say counts as the truth. All that I speak is only that, my speaking. If you get value from it then use it. If you do not get value from it then leave it here on this website. And get on with your life, your project, what you are about in the world. For my part, I wish you a fulfilling life – is that not the ultimate success!

      At your service / with my love


  2. Maz if I define integrity as being true to oneself and doing what you say you are going to do then it strikes me that the vast majority of organisations are not truthful at all. Your recent point about Amazon and a telecommunications company highlight exactly that point.

    Is it any wonder we get distressed at work when our managers speak with forked tongues?


    1. Hello James,

      It occurs to me that we value ourselves when we are in a state of integrity: our actions match our words; and our words-actions match our values and what we are about in the world.

      Further, it occurs to me that we look up to those who exhibit integrity. Why? Because we know that integrity does not come cheap. Showing up as person of integrity, in a world that lacks integrity, involves risk and sacrifice. So most of us do not do it. And so when we do come across someone that shows up as being in a state of integrity (purpose, values, words, action are aligned) we look up to that person.

      What we have as accepted practice, is to speak fine words, fake integrity, and then do whatever it takes to get ahead: me, me, me!

      All the best


  3. Maz,
    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    I wonder if any large system can ever be in a state of 100% integrity all of the time. Is this possible given the ever changing environment we live in? Or, is it something we should constantly strive for?



    1. Adrian,
      What kind of a game did Jobs play? To make a dent in the universe. To make insanely great products. Did we accept anything less? From what I have read, the answer is no! Did Apple end up making-shipping insanely great products? Yes.

      Why does Amazon consistently deliver? Does it just happen of its own accord through best practices in people, process, technology? I say no! Amazon delivers consistently because the folks at Amazon are committed to the 100%. It is out of that commitment to be ‘Earth’s Most Customer Centric Company’ that the kind of performance that Amazon delivers, flows.

      Why is it that other companies do not do that which Amazon does? Because for the folks in those businesses, it is ok to have less than 100%. So 100% is a stand that you take. And then you do all that needs to be done. And maybe you only reach 99%. Which is far cry for setting for 80%.

      If integrity, 100%, was the default then there would be no point me talking about it. Who talks about the fact that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the afternoon/evening?

      All the best


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