People Are Systems, Too

Doing business in a capitalist economy has a way of turning people into users, clicks, page views, and targets.

As business owners with more data at our fingertips than we know what to do with, we reduce relational questions to math problems and automations.

What’s the conversion rate? Instead of: Are we addressing people’s real needs in a way that resonates with them?

How much does a lead cost? Instead of: How are we connecting with the people we want to serve?

What’s the organic reach? How many downloads? How many views? Instead of: Does what we share answer people’s real questions, tell true stories, acknowledge real frustration or desire?

How many emails go in this sequence? Instead of: How do we equip people with the information they want to make a decision about whether to buy or not?

We construct systems that accommodate all of these metrics—but forget that metrics are people and their behavior. People and their behaviors are diverse, unpredictable, and influenced by all sorts of things we can’t anticipate.

People are systems, too, of course.

We’re the products of our previous experiences and relationships—as well as reactions to the ever-changing world around us. We don’t interact with companies the way their annual plans & projections are designed. We bring the day’s joys, anxieties, and questions with us every time we view an ad or walk in a store. And most importantly, we bring a lifetime of hard-won wisdom with us wherever we go.

Except, when we end up off track.

Getting us off track is one of capitalism’s other tricks. While it’s turning us into users and clicks, it’s also asking us to question what we know about our needs, our desires, and ourselves. It tells us to ignore the hard-won wisdom and buy the latest solution to a problem we didn’t even know we had. We know we’re off track when we end up spending money on things that sound good but don’t actually satisfy our needs.

Who are we when we’re not consuming?

Capitalism as a system is designed to flatten us to marketing messages and the means to profit. It’s designed to convince us (and so often does) that “people like me buy things like this.” Or, as Anna Weiner put it in her memoir about working in the tech industry, “The algorithm told me what my aesthetic was: the same as everyone else I knew.”

Ultimately, capitalism is designed to flatten beautiful, complicated people into consumers. Being a consumer starts to feel natural and all-encompassing. We internalize what our consumption says about who we are and what we’re about. We often find motivation for production with the fantasy of consumption (i.e. “I’m going to work extra hard this week so I can afford to really treat myself on vacation”).

“…we shouldn’t assume that our consumer needs are natural or fixed any more than capitalism itself is.”

— Amelia Horgan, Lost In Work

Lest you start to believe that I’m only talking about big businesses and multinational conglomerates, I’m talking about how we—you and I—do business, too. That’s not a criticism. It’s just the consequence of being born into, growing up in, and building a business in relationship to this larger economic and cultural system.

But that doesn’t mean we should leave our complicity unexamined.

In the rest of this piece, I’ll deconstruct some of the ways that common business practices encourage us to disregard the complexity of the human system. And, I’ll provide ways you can bring greater awareness to the complexity of the humans involved in the system that is your business.

Technology makes it harder to see people as people

While we commonly understand “technology” as the hardware and software we use on a daily basis, the true definition of technology is broader. Technology, according to Brittanica, is “the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life.”

The way we do business is based on technology.

Management thinkers, consultants, and strategists have performed countless experiments and analyzed piles of data. They’ve then applied that scientifically-gathered knowledge to the processes of branding, marketing, sales, operations, and growth. We learn about these technologies when we read books like Start With Why, The Lean Startup, or Fascinate—now part of the source code we use to build businesses today. We use these technologies every time we follow a “proven” social media procedure or sales process we learned in an online course. It’s a technology that helps us formulate an automated email sequence or new employee onboarding.

Technology is wonderful. It makes our lives easier. It helps us get things done faster and often more effectively. And yet, technology has tended to also transform the way we see other people. On Facebook, we might see an angry comment instead of someone with a personal history that’s led them to make that remark. Driving along, we often see cars instead of drivers who are late for their kids’ performance. With email marketing, we see open rates instead of people who have questions, needs, and prior experiences.

With business technologies, we transform people into consumers and then quickly into wallets because that’s how the system is designed.

Problems become solutions that become products to be consumed. Every problem, real or imagined by a marketer, is an opportunity to cash in. We structure our businesses to make that cycle as frictionless as possible. Our business technologies grease the gears so that we can turn people into wallets faster and with less waste.

A couple of months ago, I discovered L.M. Sacasas’s 41 questions to ask of the technologies we use. While they’re all important things to think about, this question struck me as particularly useful for examining business technologies:

Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?

— L.M. Sacasas, The Convivial Society

Technologies are rarely unethical or inhumane on their own.

They become unethical or inhumane in the way we use them. But when a technology is designed in a way that makes it much easier to behave unethically or inhumanely than it is to do better, I think we’re called to consider other options.

The technologies we use to make more money, spend less time working, and extend the reach of our brands often encourage us to view others as a means to the end we have in mind. While I won’t attempt to argue that every content marketing formula, sales process blueprint, or outsourcing system results in viewing others that way, it’s a common enough result to cause concern.

It happens every time we look for ways to earn more likes or shares. It happens when we write off people who don’t buy as tire-kickers. And it happens when we focus on conversion rates instead of delighted customers.

What business technologies are you using today that encourage you to view others as a means to your profit and influence?

Again, I don’t mean that question as an indictment. I mean it as a wake-up call. Losing track of the people we do business with at the expense of seeing their problems in need of solutions or their desires in need of something new to buy is a normal byproduct of the larger economic system we operate in.

But by raising our awareness, we can push back and start to see people as people again.

One of the things I loved about my conversation with Christie Mims for What Works is that she described the sales funnels she’s built as taking difference into account. Christie has a variety of ways people can find out about what she offers and a few different paths they can take to decide if they want to buy her program. She told me that some people want to buy fast. Other people are still weighing their options or finishing up with a coach training process and will take much longer to buy. Some people are glad to dive deep into a few articles she’s written and then make a purchase. Others need to hear straight from her in a live webinar or on a pre-recorded video.

Instead of trying to cram all of the people she could help into a single process, Christie has developed options. To do that, she needed to see people as people—people with different budgets, different urgency, different learning needs, and different experiences. And while she couldn’t possibly account for every difference, over time she’s created a system that accounts for many of them.

Similarly, I created a business design retreat a few months ago. First, I needed to design it with many own (very) human needs in mind which meant teaching in a way that felt really comfortable to me. Second, I wanted to design it to accommodate different learning needs. So we incorporated live teaching time with visual aides alongside a very visual and creative workbook. We added quiet work time and small group collaboration time. We offered pre-work and post-retreat support. Plus, when business owners signed up to the retreat, they were asked if there were any other learning needs that we should know about so that we could either make accommodations or let them know that we couldn’t help them at this time (and refund their money).

I’ve put in my 10,000 hours of teaching and coaching. I know firsthand just how much someone’s neurology, history, culture, disability, or even family background can impact the way they learn. I’m incredibly grateful for the people who have clued me in on how they do things differently so that I can adapt how I create things. Again, I can’t account for all of these learning differences but I can work to make the way I design learning as human as possible.

What does it mean that people are systems, too?

Let’s return to our definition of a system courtesy of Donella Meadows:

A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective.

I believe we want to do business with real, complicated humans—and not simplified consumers, wallets, or even “ideal customers.” So how can we reclaim a more nuanced perspective on the people who buy our products or services?

A possible answer comes from the work of philosopher Kathleen Wallace. Dr. Wallace suggests that, instead of seeing the self as merely biological or psychological, we can see the self as a relational network that includes biology and psychology but also includes our relationships, personal history, interests, personality traits, and more. She writes in her article “You Are A Network:”

“Just as selves have different personal memories and self-awareness, they can have different social and interpersonal relations, cultural backgrounds and personalities. The latter are variable in their specificity, but are just as important to being a self as biology, memory and self-awareness.”

Before I made the jump to see the network self as an interesting way to examine the people I was doing business for, I thought it sounded like a fun exercise for better understanding my own self! Further, by merging the concept of the network self and our definition of a system, I can map out the System Of Me.

Here goes.

I’m a system, too

My objective as a system is to live a meaningful and satisfying life. The environment that system operates in is the 21st-century United States.

Some of the related components of this system are:

  • 39-year-old Woman
  • Wife
  • Mother
  • Business Owner
  • Hobbies (Book lover, athlete, podcast listener, hiker)
  • Protestant upbringing (United Methodist)
  • Feminism
  • Secular humanism
  • Autism
  • Depression & Anxiety
  • Education in religious studies & music
  • Born in Harrisburg, live in Lancaster
  • English speaker
  • Internal processor
  • European American
  • Progressive

Obviously, I could keep going and going. Each one of those bullet points represents an identity that acts as a defining influence on the way I move through the world—as well as the buying decisions I make.

Every single person reading this has their own list of related components. You have the identities, relationships, interests, cultural background, religious tradition, neurology, learning style, geographic location, language, ethnicity, etc… that make you you. And that means you interact with me, the articles I write, the podcast episodes I produce, and the emails I send based on your unique (and fluid) system.

I can’t flatten that down, ignore those differences, or convert you into a metric without losing some of that very human system.

And yet that’s what we’re trained to do.

When we come up with an ideal client profile, we squeeze out difference in favor of familiar demographics. We exclude people who don’t fit a narrow idea of what our consumer looks like, sounds like, and consumes like. I’m not suggesting we abandon useful tools for better understanding our customers—but what I am suggesting is that the ideal client profile might be the business technology that helps us understand our customers the least.

Yes, we need to work to better understand our customers. But that means understanding them as complex human systems—not empty vessels for us to project the motivations and needs that will lead to our profit.

Understanding our customers means celebrating complexity and difference. It means recognizing that our customers’ experiences are different from our own. It means questioning what’s “normal.” It means acknowledging that nothing about our customers is static and unchanging.

“…humans are always evolving. Humans are malleable; they’re movable. And I think that when you’re looking at the psychographics instead of the demographics, it also is coming from that same energy of people can change their mind about who they want to be tomorrow, and give them the grace to do that.”

— India Jackson, Pause On The Play

Your customer is a system, too

The different relationships and identities that make up that system influence the way they interact with your business. When we don’t consider their complexity, we end up making it harder for them to buy from us, as well as harder to get the results they want from our businesses. We put unnecessary obstacles between them and the outcome we can help them achieve.

Considering difference and complexity in the way you do business isn’t the same thing as trying to be everything to everyone.

It doesn’t mean you don’t narrow in on your market or provide solutions to a specific group of people.

When I write articles or create solutions, I’m targeting a business owner with 3+ years of experience, progressive values, a love for critical thinking, and an ambitious vision. They primarily do business in the online space and are probably offering services or digital products. That’s a fairly specific target market—but it still has so much room for difference.

Our customers’ race, gender, class, neurology, disability, sexuality, family history, etc creates incredible variety in the people I create for. Before I was more conscious of how business technology often flattens our understanding of the people we’re serving, considering this variety wasn’t part of my process. Over the last 5 years, I’ve developed a habit of considering how what I’m creating or the messages I’m sharing might be received by people who have a different set of identities or have different experiences with the systems we’re part of than I do.

Building a business that never loses track of difference is the ideal.

It’s a tall order—one that might even be impossible to fill. It’s at least next to impossible in a capitalist economy. But we can explore what it’s like to reclaim difference and humanness as our businesses evolve.

What is it like to:

  • Remember that we don’t all share the same bodies, histories, or experiences?
  • Provide a path toward buying that allows a customer to choose their pace?
  • Design learning that accommodates different needs and styles?
  • Consider how a customer’s schedule might change when the kids go back to school?

I don’t always get it right but I’m practicing.

I know that I still exclude people I don’t mean to exclude or make assumptions about what you’ve experienced or how you feel about things that make it more difficult to use the work I do. But little by little, I’m creating more room for difference and complexity among the people I create for—and hopefully, you see yourself reflected in this work in ways that you might not have before.

I write this because this is something I think about all the time—not because it’s something that I’m an expert at. It’s taken a lot of work to remember that what seems obvious or natural to me might be anything but for someone else who has a different set of components than I do. It takes attention to consider how someone’s question or email or comment might be the product of a hundred different factors that I have no knowledge of.

You can practice seeing people as systems, too.

Try focusing on one component of their systems at a time. Maybe this month, you examine your work through the lens of gender or class. What are the ways that different gender expressions might intersect with the way you create? How would different class consciousnesses receive your message? Next month, you dig into family history or disability. How do different family structures impact the way we see possibilities? How does chronic illness or disability impact the way someone uses what you’re creating?

As you practice, you’ll start to internalize more humane ways of approaching your work and make it easier to let people be people—not just consumers, users, clicks, or client profiles.

That’s the work of reclaiming humanity in our businesses.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

Read More

What Worked in 2022: 4 Insights From A Rebuilding Year

What Worked in 2022: 4 Insights From A Rebuilding Year

I typically don’t do a big “year in review” routine—only because review and reflection are a big part of my work in practice. But last week, when Sean and I sat down to record a “quick” rundown of our favorite things from the year for the podcast, he preempted me with...

Hustle Culture: How did we get here? And what do we do about it?

Hustle Culture: How did we get here? And what do we do about it?

American culture is hustle culture. We place extraordinary value on productivity, efficiency, and the willingness to suck it up and squeeze more in. Our heroes are entrepreneurs and artists who put in the work. We are educated in hustle culture from the time we start...

What Works offers in-depth, well-researched content that strips away the hype of the 21st-century economy. Whether you love the podcast, the articles, or the Instagram content, we’d love your support