Systems Thinking – System Archetypes – Escalation

Today we are going to start talking about system archetypes and we’re going to deal with the easiest to understand — Escalation.

In escalation there are two players. Player one does something that is seen as a threat by player two and player two responds in kind by making a power move. Player one then perceives that power move as a threat, so they respond again in kind and do something that is perceived as a threat by player two. So it goes in a continuing pattern of “seen as threat…response > seen as threat…response” and the situation grows out of control. The situation escalates. It’s done through a series of power moves.

In an escalation system, both parties are operating from their mental models: a sense of righteousness. They believe they can’t give in. An example of escalation was seen in the 1980’s during the arms buildup between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union would increase their nuclear arsenal and the U.S. would respond in kind and increase theirs. The U.S.’s increase was then seen as a threat to the Soviet Union who would then spend more money and increase theirs. Likewise we would respond in kind. On and on it went consuming critical national resources. Both countries locked into this system, unable to back down. Both were prisoners of the system. Eventually it led to bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and hyperinflation in the United States.

This kind of escalating system exists inside of our organizations. It exists between functional groups when one functional group takes an important position, but that position is seen as a threat to another group in the organization and they start escalating back and forth.

A trigger for an escalation can be simple. An example could be if your marketing group says they’ve learned something new about the market and need to introduce a new spec in the middle of a product development process. The engineering group might say, “We can’t! That change in spec will drive us back to square one. We can’t accommodate it and still be on time to market.” With these two righteous positions the interface between the two groups becomes a battle line. They go back and forth escalating, threatening and counter threatening each other.

If you find yourself in a system of escalation, how do you get out of it? If you’ve recognized the system, that’s terrific, but how do you find your way out of it. In the archetype of escalation the way out is through dialogue. Between countries, on the international scale, the term dialogue is referred to as diplomacy. Inside of your organization dialogue is referred to as inquiry – learning and asking questions to understand the underpinnings of your partner’s position. Peter Senge calls this advocacy (within your position) with inquiry (looking to understand the position of your partner). If you’re wondering how to avoid escalating situations by asking meaningful questions to get to the heart of a matter, I recommend you read a terrific book by Michael J. Marquardt called Leading with Questions. If you learn to lead with questions you will always be able to find yourself out of organizational situations that are escalating out of control.

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