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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Weber

Systemic Constraints: Taking Ownership and Making Choices

"People often obsess on systemic constraints" – Jim Collins

This statement holds profound truth, reflecting a reality I've encountered numerous times. It took me considerable time to grasp the power of choice and personal action in altering this perspective. Working closely with teams and organizations, it's common to hear phrases like "leadership says..." or "We can't do that because ________ won't support it..." While acknowledging the validity of these responses, it's crucial to recognize that within them, we may unwittingly surrender our creativity and agency.

John Miller, author of the book QBQ, emphasizes the need to reconsider our responses to systemic constraints. Are we assigning ownership to others? Are we implying that we lack the ability to act independently? QBQ centers around personal accountability, offering a valuable framework for navigating such challenges.

One effective tool I frequently use is the Line of Choice. It's a straightforward yet powerful concept. The question posed is simple: Are we operating above the line or below the line?








This line signifies expected behaviors, applicable both personally and professionally. The choice between operating above or below the line determines our responses – whether they reflect ownership, accountability, and responsibility or blame, excuses, and denial.

Realistically, we all may slip below the line at times. However, the key question is whether we predominantly operate above or below the line. In this question lies the power of choice; we have control over how we respond to the situations we encounter.

Bringing it back to Jim Collins' quote, at work, we possess power in our choices. Choosing to operate above the line fosters higher morale, improved team effectiveness, and greater self-satisfaction. The Line of Choice could be envisioned as a funnel – the higher you are, the more control you have.

During work challenges, responding below the line by placing blame is easy. John Miller's guidance suggests reframing issues intentionally. Following three simple guidelines for creating a QBQ:

1. Begin with "What" or "How" (not "Why," "When," or "Who").

2. Contain an "I" (not "they," "we," or "you").

3. Focus on action.

For instance:

- Instead of asking: "Why won't they let us make these changes?" Ask: "What information is missing? How can I ensure everyone is informed about the reasoning?"

- Instead of asking: "Why can't you do anything right?" Ask: "What can I do to support you in your role?"

I highly recommend reading QBQ! for a deeper understanding of asking better questions. Ultimately, the bottom line is taking personal responsibility when faced with challenges. It's tempting to pass ownership, accountability, and responsibility to others through blame, excuses, and denial. The choice is yours – how will you respond to systemic constraints?




Collins, J. (2005). Good to Great and The Social Sector. Jim Collins.

Miller, J. (2001). QBQ! The Question Behind the Question. Denver Press.

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