Loops of Leadership

Engineers describe two types of system: ‘open’ and ‘closed’ loops. In an open loop system, there are inputs, and outputs, but no feedback. The systems presses on regardless. In a closed loop system, part of the output is fed back, and moderates the input, to reduce errors, and increase stability. The central heating system in your house is a closed loop: the boiler kicks out heat, and the thermostat measures the ambient temperature. When it hits a certain level, the thermostat sends a signal to the boiler to ‘stop’, but if the temperature drops again, it restarts. An open loop version of this would lack the thermostat, and would just keep pushing out heat. Your washing machine is an open loop: you put clothes in, and it washes them. It does not stop to check if they are still dirty at the end. There is no feedback.

Loops of Leadership

We can use the terminology to consider decision making systems, and leadership systems, in Organisations too: in a closed loop system of decision making, we take an output from the system to moderate the activity, whilst in an open loop, we follow the process regardless.

Something akin to closed loops has informed much leadership and management thinking for decades: any system that reviews output, and uses that review to moderate the system itself is ‘closed’. But unlike the thermostat, leadership closed loops will typically use a mix of subjective, and quantitative, feedback. Thermostats provide an absolute measure of temperature, whilst i describe that ‘i feel a bit too hot’. Much of the feedback we garner in Organisations is either subjective (self reported, qualitative), or quantitative, but measuring subjective scales that are easy to quantify (e.g. unit output measures boxes that you make, but not wellbeing of the people making them. We have chosen to measure number of boxes, because it’s easy, not necessarily because it’s meaningful).

There maybe value in mapping how your own leadership practice, and that of your Organisation, utilises both types of loop. How often do we act in unmoderated ways, neither seeking, nor heeding, feedback (open loop leadership), and how often do we use closed loop approaches (and where we do so, are we using valid inputs?)?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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