Serving in Systems: Creativity or Conformity?

Systems will always be with us. We humans band together in social units as small as two-party relationship and as large as corporations. Systems serve many purposes. One of which is to create structure for people to visualize, tackle, and implement a vision.

I have served in systems my entire life from families, marriages, churches, and international leadership teams, to businesses, educational committees, and community projects.

In a positive and productive system, people work together towards social change. Innovators—idea generators—and workers—idea implementers—enjoy the same respect as administrators—project overseers. Every member has a unique voice and exercises his or her finely tuned talents.

In contrast, controlling system produce sameness, conformity. They fuel from hard-working devotees and often silence personal preferences and critical concerns. The craftier the allegiance, the higher the climb up the leadership ladder. Persuasion flows from flint-set faces at meetings that funnel human resources into bottlenecked agendas. Opposing those in control does not bode well for thy soul. When you insist there’s a problem, you become the problem.

So what happens when you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your chair during one of those kinds of meetings? What if this happens week after week, year after year until you think you’re going to burst?

When, if ever, is it ok to exit a system?

These questions produce consternation to the extent that your livelihood, personal identity, or relational support is wrapped up in a system. My sister calls it “equity rescuing,” when you stay longer than you should to protect your personal interests.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have experienced the death of soul that occurs when I’ve stayed too long in a dysfunctional system.

I’ve also had others mistake my silence within systems for weakness of character. Yet, I’ve learned through personal experience that challenging a closed system can set you up as a moving target. So before I churn the waters of conformity, I assess whether an openness to change exists in the system.

One of my current reads is The Blue Sweater: Bridging the gap between the rich and poor in an interconnected world. The riveting story of Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund will keep you spellbound. In her twenties, Novogratz takes a job in Africa with ambitions to find creative solutions. However, her idealism clashes with current organizational leaders and the ensuing conflicts produce a page turning read. At one point, she even wonders whether someone poisoned her.

This woman’s story challenges the very fiber of my being. When she cannot find a way to work within the system, she creates her own. Here is an excerpt from her About the Author page:

“Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurs bringing affordable and sustainable healthcare, water, energy and housing to low-income communities in the developing world.”

My son’s insistence that I read this book provided the incentive I needed to explore the fascinating life of a woman he admires. Jacqueline’s story reminds me that I never have to get stuck in a controlling system. In fact, several significant turning points in my life have occurred when I finally decided to exit an unhealthy system.

I hope this post will stir your thinking and inspire you to share comments, insights, and constructive solutions for serving in systems, a very real and necessary part of our lives.

9 Replies to “Serving in Systems: Creativity or Conformity?”

  1. Now this first picture illustrates a “system” that so many aspire to implement but that these attempts have always failed. The system of one humanity, hands clasped around one world.


  2. I guess it’s in my nature to instinctively avoid being part of a system, although it’s impossible to avoid altogether. Obviously collaboration at work on various projects is part of a system, and I’m in it. But other social institutions, I avoid them. Maybe it’s too much sensitivity to rejection. I always feel constrained in a system. When I’m working on something that’s fully my own, I don’t need to verbalize my thoughts or explain myself, I can just create. Collaboration requires effort. That effort too often alters my vision for what it is I’m trying to accomplish. The end result is frequently something I didn’t want, or it’s substandard compared to how I visualized it working. If I do it myself, it’s done my way and comes out right. It’s like trying to play chess with multiple players on each side. You end up arguing each move with the people on your side. It’s frustrating.


    1. Writerdood, I couldn’t have said it better myself. You expressed my feelings about collaboration. At times I crave it but then get frustrated when what I envision is not what others envision. Lately I’ve been thinking about collaboration more in terms of encouraging one another rather than too many hands in the mixing bowl…so to speak. Thanks for adding your insights to the discussion.


  3. Great post. I appreciate the beauty of system, which you support in your opening with photos that illustrate the worth of a healthy, functioning system. Next you show the intrinsic danger when a system stagnates in its own mire. What a brilliant post and introduction to an individual (and author) with the courage and know-how to withdraw from a dysfunctional system and create a new one. Blessings to you, JoDee…


  4. “. . . I have experienced the death of soul that occurs when I’ve stay too long in a dysfunctional system. . . .
    Yet, I’ve learned through personal experience that challenging a closed system can set you up as a moving target. ”
    Oh yes! stripes to prove both! Fine post.


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