Vicious and Virtuous Cycles

Posted on Jul 28, 2023

Nothing exists in a vacuum. It is always part of a system, a cycle. Cycles are inherently self perpetuating. If they did not reinforce their behaviours they would not repeat. Vicious cycles perpetually create negative outcomes, virtuous cycles perpetually create positive outcomes (negative and positive as defined by you).

This is a valuable framework if you want to create change. To change a cycle you do not have to individually change all of its parts. Making one change will impact the entire system. This means that you do not have to tackle the biggest, most difficult part of a system directly. Making a change eslewhere in the cycle can end up having the impact you want.

Effort is still required, though. To change a system you have to consistently take an action that is not initially reinforced by the system. Regardless of how small, that requires upfront effort. If the chaotic injection has the results you want the system will shift, that behavior will be reinforced and it will become easy. If the change does not have the results you want try weaving another change into the system.

Lets get into some examples.

We had a business systems integration team having trouble hiring hiring and training new talent, limiting the impact of the team. To solve this problem we could have invested resources in addressing those problems directly. More people recruiting, more money and time on trainings. The path we ended up choosing was to change the software we built integrations with to the same technologies used by our core engineering teams. This meant we could leverage our core recruiting pipeline and training. The up front cost was taking time away from building integrations to build a new integration platform in our core technology. This took time and had no immediate benefit, or reinforcement. Once it was complete, though, we were able to hire developers and train new team members and created integrations that saved thousands of monotionous workdays.

Another example is mood. Some days I can be grumpy, which I don’t particularly enjoy. Trying not to be grumpy when you’re grumpy generally just results in more gumpiness, though. Tackling grumpiness head on is a bit of a losing battle, so what are the other parts of the system? I noticed that usually I’m more prone to being grumpy when I don’t sleep well. Lying in bed awake trying to force yourself to sleep is also a losing battle. Following the cycle back further, when I exercise I usually sleep well. That’s much easier to control than stopping being grumpy or sleeping when I’m not sleepy. The up front cost is getting myself to exercise when I’m grumpy and tired. Once I do it I get a good nights sleep, am not grumpy and tired the next day and exercising again is a whole lot easier.

From within a vicious cycle changing every undesired behavior feels unsustainable. For a few developers, unable to hire any more building and maintaining tons of integrations sounded impossible. Exercising every day when grumpy and tired is untenable. All that “good” behavior seems like it will take way too much effort to be sustainable. Fortunately we only have to invest effort in changing one one part of the cycle. That is enough to transform it into a virtuous cycle and all that “good” behavior becomes easier to sustain than the status quo.

Do you dislike a system in your life enough to invest in making one hard change and risking the unknown?