Systems Thinking – System Archetypes – Accidental Adversaries

Today we continue our discussion about System Archetypes with an archetype known as “Accidental Adversaries.” This system starts with two partners working to cooperate, but it leads to a negative outcome. The cooperation comes from each partner filling a need of the other. But, once the cooperation or system is put in place, each of them looks to individually optimize their part of the operation — a local optimization. This local optimization has unintended negative consequences for the partner. As each partner feels the negative consequence of what the other is doing, feelings erode, the partnership dissolves, and both sides feel the other side is inconsiderate and taking advantage of them.

The classic example used to highlight Accidental Adversaries is that of Walmart and Proctor & Gamble. Walmart needed product for their shelves and P&G needed distribution for their products. So the two companies cooperated. Once the cooperation was in place P&G tried to improve their position by running a lot of specials and sales. This created extra work and costs for Walmart. Walmart tried to recover those costs by buying extra quantities of the discounted product, stockpiling, and then burning through their inventory after the prices went up — selling them at full price to make extra profit and recover the burden put on them by the sales themselves. Proctor & Gamble then started running more sales to move more product and make up for the loss, and this turned into a cycle. Both sides felt the other side was operating against their interest and this cooperative venture became an adversarial relationship.

We see something similar happening in our organizations. Let’s use the relationship between marketing and engineering as an example. Marketing needs some organization to realize their vision and design. Engineering needs someone to come up with a vision and awareness of what the market needs in order to execute and do their work. As marketing learns, deep into a development project, some new information, they will try feeding it into a project. This is often called scope creep. Engineering will try their best to fulfill the new requirement. However, it may cause a problem for engineering. It may cause a project to be late. So, engineering puts in place some rigid rule like a spec freeze. Marketing, losing the flexibility of the process, will amp up its early requirements and put in stretch goals instead real goals. The idea being that if engineering can meet the stretch goals, then the product will still be strongly competitive in the market place. This cycle repeats itself and marketing and engineering find them selves in an adversarial relationship.

The antidote for this archetype is dialogue — continuing dialogue about the cooperation throughout the entire life of the system. Dialogue can’t end once the initial system in place. There needs to be ongoing dialogue between marketing and engineering. This is part of the design of the interface between the two groups. To come full circle, design of the interface is one of the key elements of systems and systems thinking…the topic that we’re heavily focused on in this series.


Contact us to learn more about how Systems Thinking and the application of our Product Development Operating System can help your organization become more efficient, productive, innovative, and competitive. Follow Bill at http://www.twitter.com/systhinking