January 16, 2013
So the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise. Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact. I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another. An end of things-as-they-were. Let it be so. Endings can be good and healthy.
I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective. I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them. I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job. We must be healthy ourselves. I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational. This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness. This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination. Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different. Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.
Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human. It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life; it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty. Sound familiar? While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature. The healthy life. Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done. I cannot do this without extending consciousness. This is why I do the work I do. This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo. Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.
Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power. Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us. In life, in work, all over the place. This is a challenge to current convention. In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so. In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same. In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live. It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck. They come about with consciousness.
Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy. It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle). I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others. As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life. I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy. Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.” Nothing of the sort. I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.” Something has to give. Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”. Our ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for. A new game.
This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone. It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular. This is the point. This is how we got here. We have to do this together. We have to make these decisions together. Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party. Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them. Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work. Give people a bit of credit. AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other. My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world. This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.
Here’s another challenge to current convention: I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment. A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium. In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself. I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity. Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game. It’s called capital accumulation.” The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough. Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable. We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us. Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new. Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.
They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter. Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities. We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right? I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end. I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I? Why not help a starving child? Why not, indeed? I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible. My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need. Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too. The remedy is part of the disease. My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable. It is possible. Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom. My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise. Consciousness will, though. Watch and listen to Zizek.
This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one. We know some things that will make work work better for everyone. We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.
If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing. Herein lies our work. It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems. While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements. These are each of us. We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us. Who are we? What drives us? What gives us joy? How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others? What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out? Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to? Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things. They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world. We have a part to play. I have a part to play. Hence my focus on health.
Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness. They are all inside jobs. It is not accidental. It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing. If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do. Putting out fire with gasoline? Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?
December 2, 2012
Interesting what can spark an idea and create insight. Staring at the full moon the other night, I found myself marvelling, yet again, that we’ve been there. That led me to consider the languaging: “We’ve been to the moon.” We? We’ve been there? In fact, from Armstrong to Cernan, only 12 white American men have actually set foot on the moon, yet we often include ourselves in this achievement. It is notable that this landmark is considered to be a milestone in human achievement and so we talk about it in collective terms. It came about after JFK set a vision and “we” went along with him. A vision.
There are other achievements that you’ll hear people include themselves in. We defeated Nazism. We eradicated smallpox. We developed penicillin. How did we manage this?
So what happens to us when we go to work and lose this ability to see the “we”? Folks who, in their ordinary lives, are motivated, thoughtful, generous to their fellow human, energised and enthusiastic about life in general seem to leave all that at the door. What is in the air conditioning that infects folks when they come to work and causes them to narrow their gaze and lower their expectations of what is possible? Many workplaces still operate in silos, effectively causing the various departments to compete with one another. It’s like your heart competing with your liver to see which is the best or most important organ in your body. Utter nonsense.
We did some work with the leadership team of a finance company some years ago. Half of them managed the sales side of business and the other half the administrative side of the business. I witnessed them openly expressing sentiments like: “If only your admin people would understand this: they wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us salespeople,” and “If only your salespeople would understand this: they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs if our admin folks weren’t in the back room doing all this really important work.” Our work was cut out for us. I’ve heard similar things echoed in other businesses….and the silos stay grumpy and resentful of each other, losing sight of the bigger picture. I wonder, however, if they have got hold of the bigger picture.
Hierarchical, command-and-control structures draw out the competitor in us. We effectively have businesses running internal competitions, hoarding information, playing politics, who’s the best in the company. Divided by lack of a clear common vision, we miss what is right in front of our noses: the other people here are potentially on the same side.
I’ve previously mentioned our work in a manufacturing firm, assisting team leaders to reduce silos and develop greater confidence in themselves. They developed two key things during the course of our work: improved relationships and the bigger picture of what they were all there to achieve together. When they reduced the isolation they felt from each other, they stopped seeing others as “out to get them”. When they developed the ability to think bigger, to see their “part” of the manufacturing line as integral to the whole, they began to perceive one team’s difficulties, one person’s difficulties, as their own. These two together were the sparks that catalysed shared problem-solving, shared decision-making, shared achievement and they started to celebrate the success of each “part” as essential for the achievement of the whole.
Martin Luther King declared, “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.” Surely, for business, too, the starting point is the vision. We wouldn’t have got to the moon without JFK’s bold vision. He uttered some simple words that caused hearts to swell. Businesses, likewise, can set out compelling visions that cause people to think, “I’m up for that.” When there is a compelling vision, we have something around which we can gather together. We can feel part of something bigger than ourselves; something meaningful.
Sociometric principles and practices point to a way of creating something shared in business. One of the tenets of sociometry is that we have more in common with each other than divides us; however, much of those things that bind us lie hidden and unspoken. Action sociometry aims to make the covert, overt, so that we discover how connected we actually are. This reduces isolation and gives us confidence that we can together resolve our shared challenges and common difficulties. Another thing that sociometry teaches us is that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationships between the people who are attempting to generate that outcome. It is the work, therefore, of leaders and those who consult to businesses to break down the isolation of modern work and to develop the sociometry to grow greater cooperation and collaboration.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African proverb
Is “maximising shareholder return” the best that businesses can come up with? If we now know that humans seek meaning from their work, what could possibly drive someone towards a vision as narrow as that? I would hardly call “maximising shareholder return” what Sinan Si Alhir named as a history-making effort: intrinsic meaningfulness for universal benefit. Where is the higher purpose in that? Where is the universal benefit in that?
Working with the three senior leaders of a cemetery, I asked them, “What is your purpose?” and they paused. As if I was asking them an exam question to which I knew the right answer, one of them hesitantly responded, “To provide good customer service?” I half-jokingly said, “Why don’t you all go work in the local hardware shop then?” They looked at me quizzically. Eventually, after a little discussion between them, they decided that their purpose was to assist families going through a bereavement. At this point, they all three got excited. Grim work, I know, running a cemetery, however, they had finally hit the nail on the head. It was as if they had suddenly realised why they come to work and they had hit upon their real purpose. It wasn’t just scheduling burials or organising graves to be dug. They were providing an essential service to others, one that nobody else could carry out. From here, the conversation flowed. They spoke with each other as if they were on the same team, rather than trying to manage what used to look like competing demands and interests. Also, they began to see a clearer way to delineating the kinds of behaviours and attitudes they wanted to see in their workplace. If everything was about achieving that higher purpose, they could see how to enlist everyone into achieving it. They have found their “We”.
As Louise Altman has written, “WE focussed workplaces bring out the best in their employees–at every level.” Maz Iqbal also described the success story that is John Lewis in the UK. Masterful at employee engagement, customer experience and organisational effectiveness. The collective spirit on which Lewis’s was founded is the driver of its continued success, even in the depths of recession. Collectively, they exist to create happiness for its 81,000 partners (every employee is a part-owner of the business) and to serve customers with flair and fairness. You feel it if you shop there. While I’m not a fan of shopping, I find it a pleasure to shop at John Lewis.
It is this sense of “we” that John Lewis has achieved over 148 years that we need to develop in the world and in more of our workplaces. It starts with the vision. Something bigger than shareholder return, though, please. Drill down and find out: What is it that we are all here to achieve? What is our purpose in coming together and how can we all contribute to that? And it happens with good sociometry–deeper relatedness at work. When people know who others are, how they belong and how much they have in common with others, as humans, it becomes easier to know we are “WE” and not just “you” and “I”.
Go on…..call me a hippy.
….or just see it as good business. Want robust employee engagement, organisational effectiveness and customers that love you? Find your purpose and strive for good relationships.
November 25, 2012
Don’t ask a systems thinker for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Of course performance, engagement, recruitment, they’re all connected, so your systems thinking friend will sound like a fruit loop because they’ll see the whole picture and proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you wanted to know is “how to get people to do stuff”. You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they come up with ideas that seem counter-intuitive at first, but are actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just lovely sounding theories that academics spout? (…wouldn’t work in the real world) In an effort to get them to answer your simple question, you keep repeating “Yes, but they are SUPPOSED to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s a systems issue.
One of the most important things I learnt from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behaviour change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviours”. Similarly, if you want behaviour change in an organisation, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life as a sociatrist, I apply my understanding of systems to organisations and organisational change, not merely the individuals within them.
We can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. As disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, one thing I observed (and I may be entirely off the mark here) is that people behave in ways which surprise themselves and which sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions which compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line. We do what we’re told.
What we need if we want organisational transformation, if we want more effective organisations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful: we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine in England recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just seem to want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioural problem” comes out of a mechanistic worldview. Yuck.
There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different….if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. I’ve been working with a manager and his two off-siders, all three of whom lead their business. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organisational transformation they are seeking to effect. Phase one: eliminating systems blindness. Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so hasn’t done yet again or what what’s-his-name is still doing, despite that one-to-one chat urging them to stop it. I let them get some things off their chest and jot down a few salient things that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a little while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviours as indicators of the wider patterns at play.
The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterised by:
- things done at the last minute without much fore-thought
- poor self-discipline with regards working practices
- low self-reponsibility
- poor following up of commitments and promises
- getting easily side-tracked
- being reactive, rather than proactive
- a “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
- inconsistency in work practices
- an overly laidback attitude towards work
- a “can’t do” attitude
Behaviours at work are tempered by the systemic norms; you could also say it’s the “culture”. You can read this in many places on the interweb: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. The system drives performance.
Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day. Deming
I’m utterly convinced (from my experience) that the organisational changes they want will come about when they focus their attention and their energies on the system and not on the individual behaviours of individual people. So when I share my observations with the three of them, they nod and smile and say, “That’s exactly what they’re like; that absolutely describes the culture.”
I then enquire as to what they’ve tried, in order to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions (for they are really lovely people), they tell me things like:
- “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
- “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
- “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following him up again.”
- “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
- “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
- “Yes, I had a chat with him and said I’d meet again a week later to see how he was getting on, but I let it slip.”
- “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back and I don’t know how I can get it across.”
After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, side-tracked etc etc…. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They (fortunately) find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system and that very same system will be exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.
Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not just true because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. It doesn’t matter how frustrating we find it, but the systems to which we belong will be exerting their influences on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves, as well as others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror, to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.
These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the current phase of their work together. Phase two: creating the vision of what you want. Now they are aware of this thing called “culture”, and that it impacts on them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to see the wood for the trees and are more able to make connections to the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” ”How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, need to stop and really think about it.
Lately, rather than see themselves as victims to all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less and less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. The things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) are the influencers which they can apply to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.
Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do (re-sharpening their sticks or coating their carrots with glitter), they are thrilled to devote more and more time in our sessions to the thing they want, rather than the multitude of things they don’t. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, about the staff and about the business.
Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.
Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt a little like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive and they are now talking more about modelling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility and “can do”, learning from mistakes and “just enough” structure….and for me, they are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to”.
In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.
November 12, 2012
Sometimes you read something that really strikes a chord. I recently saw this quote from Kurt Vonnegut: ”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” In other times, I would read this and it would simply seem like a poetic truism, but I’m currently experiencing a number of shifts in my personal situation which made me read that quote as if it was written just for me. These shifts are creating a fair amount of uncertainty and bringing up all the associated emotions that go with it. In times like this, it is useful for me to remember that trying to control what is going on in my world will not lead to the best outcomes and in fact, that I need to call on the kind of resources that will best keep me going in times of uncertainty. These resources, in my experience, are more related to responsiveness rather than planning, innovation rather than inertia. While some of my uncertainty is environmental, some of it is by choice: I have jumped off a cliff. It would be rather contrarian of me, therefore, to complain about some of my current uncertainty as I am its author, and for good reason, so the thing for me to remember is a lesson from one of my old teachers: “It’s sometimes not so important what you do; it’s what you do NEXT.”
If we are falling from a cliff, either because we’ve jumped or because circumstances have pushed us, what we need is the ability to be in the moment, thus summoning up all our creativity to learn how not to hit the ground. Our brains are hard-wired to cause us to respond to uncertainty in predictable ways. As Thayer et al write, there is “an evolutionary advantage associated with the assumption of threat” and that our “‘default’ response to uncertainty, novelty, and threat is the sympathoexcitatory preparation for action commonly known as the fight or flight response”. Essentially, because we have inherited a certain vigilance to our environment, when faced with uncertainty, we unconsciously prepare for the worst. While useful for survival if we are about to be attacked by a lion, it’s hardly the most progressive state to be in if we want to thrive. This goes for businesses living in uncertain times as well as individuals.
More people are joining the precariat, a new class of people, not in the traditional Marxian sense of “class”, but a section of the populace bound together by the increasing uncertainty in their lives. If, in the face of uncertainty, more people are living their lives in a state of vigilance, fear and worry, how can this not affect business? When more of what is going on in the business world is unprecedented, how can businesses pretend that we will magically go back to “business as usual” once all this financial mayhem goes away. We won’t; things are irrevocably changing. In the fog of transition, the only certainty is uncertainty.
When the business of a business is pretty predictable, as it was in the Industrial era, there is less need to focus on resilience or responsiveness. In the old days, business could undertake planning exercises and be reasonably safe in the knowledge that the functioning of the business would be able to successfully execute its plans and that the environment would not impinge too greatly on those plans. In the modern era where knowledge is “a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation is critical to organisational survival” (Bettis and Hitt, 1995, ‘The new competitive landscape’), business needs to get to grips with the reality of uncertainty and decreasing forecastability. Businesses also need to remember that they are living systems within wider living systems. Global environmental, political, economic and financial challenges all impact on a business’s ability to succeed.
There is much out there which indicates that we are living in a VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. While, for some, this may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, I would contend that the world has been thus for much longer, but that what we have been learning in recent years is allowing us to see what we previously may not have. Systems thinking, for example, is giving us mental constructs with which to make a little sense of a sometimes confusing world. If dealing with uncertainty requires us to embrace it, as some suggest, the question remains, “How do we do that?” It can seem a little glib to simply say, “the world is uncertain, embrace it!”
If, on the way down from that cliff, I succumb to my anxiety, it is impossible for me to be spontaneous. Anxiety and spontaneity sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. Without my spontaneity, I have no spark for my creativity and it is my human creativity which will assist me to come up with new enabling solutions.
Creativity and innovation at work are not just about coming up with new products and services. They are about how we respond to each other, our customers and the business environment. Creativity, however, is strategically linked with spontaneity. As Dr. J.L. Moreno writes in “Who Shall Survive?” (1953), an “individual may have a high degree of creativity but be entirely without spontaneity, a creator ‘without arms’….Spontaneity can enter the creatively endowed individual and evoke a response.” He goes on to say that there have been many more Michelangelos than the one who painted the Sistine Chapel, but “the thing that separates them is the spontaneity which, in the successful cases, enables the carrier to take full command of his (or her) resources, whereas the failures are at a loss with their treasures.” Furthermore, “spontaneity operates in the present, now and here; it propels the individual towards an adequate response to a new situation or a new response to an old situation.”
How do you respond to something novel?
When we encounter something unexpected, do we push ahead with our plans? Do we assist others to embrace uncertainty or do we attempt to keep things as planned so that we don’t unsettle people? For example, in developing people’s abilities to have workplace conversations about performance, we emphasise that there is no “step 1, step 2″ procedure for carrying these out. This unsettles some folks. For one thing, such conversations can be pretty emotionally charged, especially if someone is calling someone else’s under-performing at work. How will they react? What will I do if they get angry/defensive/start crying? For another thing, no conversation can be scripted unless you are an actor on stage. Even in this situation, actors develop the ability to be responsive to what others say to them and how they say it, otherwise we see a bunch of individuals reciting memorised lines, which is not how good drama unfolds on stage. Even though they know what comes next, a good actor will be alive to the present moment and deliver their lines as if they are hearing what the other has said for the first time. Responsiveness.
We can ready ourselves for a challenging conversation, partly by rehearsing what we want to say, but we also need to be ready to respond to what the other person says to us. We encourage people to think bigger about these conversations as one of many elements in their relationship. They are a process within a bigger process, not a stand-alone event. For this reason, we don’t provide tools and techniques, we offer spontaneity development. As I quoted previously, Dr. J.L. Moreno said spontaneity is the capacity to offer a novel response to an old situation or an adequate (i.e. good enough) response to a new situation. Any workplace conversation or relationship would benefit from developing this capacity. Tools, tricks and tips are not sufficient in order to navigate the complex spaces we inhabit at work. They are useful to a point, but the application of these in a mindful and purposeful manner needs to come from the individual. In order to deploy all the knowledge and skills that this individual at their ready disposal, the individual needs to be in a state of readiness; this is the spontaneity state. When we are warmed up to a spontaneity state, we bring out all we have developed and learnt and sythesise them in an appropriate and effective manner to come up with a novel response to a familiar situation or a “good enough” response to something we have never met before. We don’t struggle to remember useful tips, we don’t get anxious about what we are about to say or do, we don’t fail to bring out what we know we know. We flow in response to uncertainty, sometimes producing something that surprises even ourselves. Creativity.
Progressiveness is more than just coping
In many businesses I encounter, the tried and tested no longer seems as effective. Perhaps the conventional marketing wisdom or sales tactics no longer bring in results like they used to. They’ve tried sweeteners, good cop-bad cop, management directives, staff socials and everything else they can think of, but loyalty and engagement seem to be on the wane. As Andrew Zolli describes, we are being called on to develop capabilities that are about “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop them“. Accommodating them rather than building bigger storm walls. I have previously described my experience of first arriving in India and realising while looking down on a Mumbai street that it was a river and that in order to get by, I’d have to go with its flow rather than try to swim upstream.
Politicians concerning themselves with the interests of the precariat talk about building a new progressive agenda. I like that word: progressive. It fits with a model of human functioning that I apply in my work, both for individuals and for businesses. Whether we are the authors of our uncertainty or it is the product of our environment (or a little of both, as I’m currently experiencing), our response to it is key. The enabling solutions lie in finding ways to (re)gain a sense of agency in our lives. Agency, mind; not control. The model I apply comes out of the work of the work of Lynette Clayton and has been refined by Max Clayton: we operate out of Roles which are fragmenting, coping or progressive.
In every living moment, we respond to our world by taking up a Role. We learn Roles from the day we are born until the day we die, as we are constantly meeting new situations. The term “fragmenting” corresponds to “dysfunctional”, reflecting the inner experience of acting in this manner. Fragmenting Role responses are backward-looking, fear-based, stuck, regressive. Coping Role responses are those which have served us well in the past and have become almost habitual but which are more oriented to surviving rather than thriving. Progressive Role responses are those which move us forward. Each of us has a motivating force which takes us forward in our lives and the Roles we enact that take us there are progressive. In times of uncertainty, it seems sensible that we would operate out of our coping or fragmenting Roles; this is related to that hard-wiring. The ones that are most life-giving and useful to us, however, are the progressive.
Once again, we will find it easier to enact out of our progressive Role systems if we can warm up to our spontaneity. Our progressive Roles are the ones which will enable us to thrive in the face of uncertainty. Embracing uncertainty, then, is an exercise in consciousness. Zolli talks about soldiers, ER workers and first-responders training in contemplative practices to assist them to remain resilient. If our hard-wiring is constantly on the alert and tells us that the uncertain is a threat, mindfulness can help us to short circuit that hard-wiring.
What is required is consciousness.
So we don’t like uncertainty? Tough. Just because we don’t like it, doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it. The question becomes, “How can I manage myself in the midst of uncertainty?”
So what am I doing about my current uncertainty? Well, after a few particularly challenging days, I’m writing about it. This activity is helping me to be mindful: of myself and of my resources. These are plenty. Some are intrapersonal, some are interpersonal and some are supra-personal. I’m remembering that if I languish in anxiety, I’ll find it harder to keep going. I’m remembering the moments in my life when I have felt spontaneous. I’m remembering my mother’s recent email telling me to trust in my strengths and that I’m a very capable person. I’m remembering to take exercise and eat my greens.
To quote an old friend of mine, worry doesn’t get the cat fed.
November 4, 2012
Part III (Going Further)
In Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, we will end up asking the wrong questions. We cleverly ask these questions from within our old intellectual bubble, coming up with “new-and-improved” solutions to problems, however we only end up doing the (same old) wrong things righter. What happens if we apply bigger thinking to business challenges, though? So there is this thing called systems thinking, so what?
If we think bigger about business problems, we can make a fundamental shift in effectiveness. I often use our shift in thinking from a geocentric to a heliocentric view of the solar system as an example of the difference that a paradigm shift can have on our lives. So Copernicus said the sun was the centre of the solar system, so what? What did that mean in a very practical sense? Copernicus challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of the time, which was central to Church doctrine. Kepler, Galileo and Newton followed on, demonstrating with science that Copernicus was right. So what? Just try and tell me that the scientific revolution that followed on didn’t make much of a difference to the average person’s life. Think of the ripple effects. The scientific revolution…..science gives us the means to challenge the prevailing institutions of governance…science encourages us to think for ourselves….science revolutionises medicine, technology, art and culture, architecture, food production…..
Similarly, systems thinking is revolutionising how we organise work and how business does business. There are examples of how applying systems thinking is making business more responsive to customers, more satisfying and meaningful for people who work there and more effective at what it does.
How do we organise ourselves? Command-and-control hierarchies are so 19th century. They are about controlling the business. As this example from Portsmouth City Council demonstrates, a really effective business will be driven by its customers. Business decisions will be made at the point where it interacts with the customer. Often, important decisions are made by those in a managerial role, distant from the customer. ”Managers know best” is one of those nasty underlying assumptions on which we base the role of a manager and influences how we organise work. If I’m most effective at work, I should be responding to market demand, not management diktat.
Taking a systems thinking perspective on how a business does business can illuminate the need for transformation; for actually doing something radically different. Much as Owen Buckwell did at Portsmouth City Council, asking the right questions from a bigger picture perspective will highlight what lies beneath some of the seemingly intractable “stuckness” in getting to real effectiveness. Government inspectors routinely gave the Council glowing reports, however Owen knew that things weren’t right. How did he know? ”Noise” in the system that didn’t come from the conventional ways of measuring the work. Customers were constantly complaining and Owen was unsettled enough to ignore the positive government reports and instead seek to uncover what his “market” was actually saying. These government inspectors measured customer satisfaction, for example, by asking questions such as, “Did the tradesman smile when you answered the door?” and “Did workmen clean up after their work?” They didn’t ask, “Was the problem completely rectified?” or “How many times did the tradesman have to come back to fix something that wasn’t fixed properly at the first visit?” They were there to provide a service to ratepayers and Owen recognised that this wasn’t happening satisfactorily, so he began to ask the right questions of the customer. They got the big picture of how the business was performing, which they needed in order to radically transform how they did business. Owen also had an inkling that people came to work to a good job and he was right. By handing more operational decisions to those who carried them out, he found that job satisfaction increased. He took action on the system, not on the people, and shifted how they do business from command-and-control (doing what government inspectors want) to a systems approach (what the customer wants). In the end, they meet government targets “by coincidence”, but more important to Owen is that they are providing the most effective service to ratepayers.
How do we approach performance management? Typically, performance management is about asking the wrong questions. In any case, if we think bigger about it, individual performance management is pretty useless, by and large. This next example demonstrates Deming’s 95% rule: the best place to look for improvements is the system, not the individuals within it. Work on the system, not on the people. If we continue to rely on analytical measures of performance and mechanistic means to make it happen, we will not unleash the kind of thinking and creativity (from everyone) that business needs if it is to survive. Once again, do we tend to ask the right questions when it comes to performance management?
Taking a systems thinking approach can uncover root causes of seemingly intractable blockages within a business. It broadens our perspective and can release us from the kind of inertia that keeps us doing the same things again and again with little significant change. Take a client of ours who realised that the problem with performance management was not “performance management”. While consistently figuring highly in “best places to work” surveys, they had a recurring problem with “poor performance”, specifically, that people didn’t feel the organisation dealt with poor performance very well. In many other aspects, the people felt it was a great place to work, but that something had to be done to manage those who underperformed. In some cases, it got so bad that people were “managed out” of the organisation, much to their surprise. Nobody had told them that they were underperforming until it was too late and relationships had sufficiently soured to the point that they were irretrievable. Listening to this “noise” in the system led the HR Manager to take a systems thinking approach and rather than focus on the individual managers who were not dealing with individual underperformers, the root cause was identified as lying within the culture; it was a systemic issue.
A dominant theme in staff surveys was the friendliness of the place. Digging a little deeper, it seemed that most folks thought that “friendliness” and “performance orientation” were mutually exclusive. In other words, we can either have a friendly place to work or a workplace that focusses on effective performance; herein lay the barrier to regular and frequent conversations about performance at work. The systemic belief that addressing work performance would undermine friendly working relationships meant that it didn’t happen often or well enough. Our work was to assist a shift in the culture to one where “friendly and positive working relationships” were inextricably linked with “performance orientation”. Rather than dealing with the “problem” of managers who don’t deal with poor performance, the focus was on shifting the whole system so that by the end of our work, everyone was having robust, strengths-based conversations about performance all over the place without damaging positive working relationships. About half way through our year-long project, we joked with the executive management team, who were grumbling that their staff were now challenging them on their performance, that they would get what they asked for.
In both of these cases, systems thinking forces us to look at the whole, not the individual parts. It is the job of the modern manager to re-vision their function from one of “controller” to one of “steward”. The focus is on purpose, values and meaning. What does this business exist to achieve or create in the world? What values will guide us in doing this? How is this meaningful for the people who work here? It is the role of managers to ensure that the correct conditions exist for these things to be realised, not to tell people what to do.
Julian Wilson, owner of aerospace company Matt Black Systems uses a beautiful analogy in a MIX article on re-designing their business. To rescue a dying species, old thinking tells us that we should invest ourselves in an intensive breeding programme. New thinking says that we should focus our efforts on ensuring the environment in which the species exists is provided proper stewardship so that nature can take its course and allow the species to flourish. Eliminate the things in the environment which endanger the species, nurture those things which allow it to thrive.
If, as Daniel Pink suggests, people are truly motivated by the search for meaning, mastery and autonomy, these will come to us in an environment where the conditions allow these to thrive. Eliminating adminis-trivia and management power games is a start. This does not mean we leave people to do as they please. Leaders need to re-vision their roles as stewards of the culture. It is the culture, or the system, where managers can exert most influence and create the most opportunities for effectiveness, learning and transformation.
A lot of what is currently going on in businesses is not being talked about because it’s not part of the mainstream discourse. Something is no longer working. We feel it and we feel there should be another way. Systems thinking provides us new lenses to see deeper and wider. We must stop ourselves from repeating old mistakes and develop our abilities to think bigger so that we can go further. Hand in hand with this, we need also to develop greater ease with the complexity we will see before us and greater confidence to deal with being a little less certain about things. The effects of the system are there, whether we decide to look or not.
….and if you are someone who appreciates the power of systems thinking when others think you crazy, it can be useful to remember the words that Galileo reputedly uttered when forced by the Inquisition to recant his crazy notion that the Earth moved around the sun: Eppur si muove (and yet it moves).
October 28, 2012
Part II (Thinking Bigger)
I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece. It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.
In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world. We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live. When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason. Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old. Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble. If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable. There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things. ”Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0″; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.
With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being. So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble. In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets. To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution. We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that. When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change. It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles. They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed. After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.
So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!). For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century. It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.
So why does this matter?
My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity. It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away. It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison. Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.
Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary). However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties. I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B. We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart. A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts. Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’”. For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else. Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation. Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:
- There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things. If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
- Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines. This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
- The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
- Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
- Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.
All of these guide how I approach my work. Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically. In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”. You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face. In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same. For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement. It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business. Yet, managers still behave like this. Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place. It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.
How does systems thinking work?
It’s about working with things as integral wholes. It’s about thinking bigger. Water is inherently wet. We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen. Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”. Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts. Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”. Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).
In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity. The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually. Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.
Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else. When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.
Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism. We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty. I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”. Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.
Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.
The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace. A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal. In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do. We isolate bits and try to fix them. Here is just one example:
How do we hire people? Hire for competencies? Hire because they look nice? Hire because they interviewed well? Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests? For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”. Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention. Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay? There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire. They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!). The system will affect their ability to work well. What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope? Think bigger and look at the whole.
If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden. To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”. If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or….. Hire anyone. Hire people you think are wrong. You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative). I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”. How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones. In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?
We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking. Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy. The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern. We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant. Time to think bigger.
…more to come in Part III.
October 21, 2012
Part one (A Way In)
There are two fish tanks, sitting side by side. The fish in tank #1 glances over and notices tank #2. He shouts across to the fish in tank #2, “Hey, how’s the water?” The fish in tank #2 shouts back, “Wow! Yea…water….I’ve never really noticed it before! It’s great, how’s yours?” Tank #1 fish shouts back, “Much the same!”
Two points about this:
One…much like the fish in tank #2, most folks are mostly unaware of the water in which we swim. I’d go as far as to say that this “unawareness” extends to the fact that we are even in water. However, the water is there, even if we are not aware of it. This “water” is the worldview, or set of assumptions and beliefs, that colours how we live our lives. We are often unaware of these deep assumptions or how influential they have been in determining how we do business, education, economics and so on. They have been our reference points when we crafted schools, businesses, financial systems and so on.
And two…..tank #1 fish looks at tank #2 and for all intents and purposes, believes that life is just the same over there. It looks the same and tank #2 fish speaks the same language and appears to have the same habits and behaviours, so it’d be reasonable to assume it’s just the same. It has a (mostly unconscious) experience of living in water, never really pays it much attention and presumes that water is water is water. What tank #1 fish doesn’t know is that life in tank #2 is entirely different from life in tank #2. That’s because tank #1 is full of fresh water and tank #2 is full of salt water.
Like the fish, we are often blind to both “what is” and “what could be” or “what else is”.
Why bother with systems thinking?
Analytical thinking is hitting the laws of physics and has been found wanting. The analytical mindset is at the foundation of our educational systems, our political systems, our financial systems and the business of business, all of which are reaching the end of their effectiveness in a world characterised by increasing complexity, volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. This is being felt by many, but the awareness of what underlies it is lagging behind, so in an effort to ameliorate chronically low employee engagement, increasingly low voter turnout at elections, poor customer loyalty, or low attainment at school, we deploy little tricks or try to invent new “tools” or “techniques”. However, all the tools and techniques in the world are useless to really address these issues if they come out of the same old mechanistic, analytical mindset. A more sophisticated mindset is required first. A new kind of thinking, not a new trick devised out of old thinking, is required.
A transition is occurring, however. As analytical thinking has reached its use-by date in many spheres of life, something new is forming. We are in between the old and the new. As Vaclav Havel says it beautifully, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself–while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble… ” (Thanks to David Holzmer for bringing that quote to my attention.)
When we are in transition from one way of seeing the world to a new one, we are bereft of words to describe the new thing. Sometimes, we don’t even find new descriptors, even if our understanding shifts. We still call it a “sunrise”, even though Copernicus worked out that it’s the Earth, not the sun, that moves. Nobody would reasonably believe in this day and age that the sun is “rising”, but we are stuck with the word. In this transition period, we are being pulled away from an analytic way of viewing the world by the inexorable forces of increasing complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We could try, Canute like, to behave as if we can keep them at bay. An analytical mindset would drive us to eliminate complexity and uncertainty, but just because we don’t want to see they’re there, doesn’t make them go away. Just because we believe that things aren’t as ambiguous as they are, doesn’t make it so. Spending more energy to control events doesn’t make the world less volatile, it just makes us more tired.
There is another way to see things
Like the two kinds of water in the fish tanks, systems thinking is not slightly different from analytic thinking; it’s entirely different. The challenge of communicating these differences lies in some part with the fact that we have a finite vocabulary. People who are bound by their analytical mindset hear the words and hang a meaning onto them from an analytical perspective and perceive that systems thinking is a new and improved version of what we’ve already got. We all ascribe a meaning to a word that comes from our own experience, regardless of what another person intends. Ask a person in Scotland what “supper” is and they’ll say it’s a wee snack you eat before bed at about 9 or 10 in the evening. Ask an American and they might say it’s the big meal you eat at 5 or 6 in the evening. Same word, different meanings. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I believe many folks often cannot grasp the fundamental differences between the two, perhaps saying to themselves, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck, just a prettier one. Duck 2.0.” No. Systems thinking is not simply a re-packaging of long-held assumptions. The fish in tank #1 cannot have any conception at all of what it’s like in tank #2 until he actually inhabits tank #2. So he believes that “life feels like this” for tank #2 fish and he bases this on the fact that “this is what life feels like”.
If you are a systems thinker, you might sometimes feel you are going a little crazy. We still live in command-and-control land and our assumptions haven’t caught up to the realities of the world. If you have begun to act and talk like a systems thinker, you may be treated a little like the court jester. Actually, I’d say it was closer to the boy who declared the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Nonetheless, this is what it’s like being a systems thinker. You see and say things that others think are a little crazy. Alternatively, people hear your words, but you realise after a while that they are processing them with an analytical mindset and so misunderstand the whole thrust of thinking systemically. We are all prisoners of our own flat-earthisms, after all. So you are either side-lined because your ideas seem a little far-fetched (“If there is no hierarchy, how do you control people????”) or what they think they understand is not what you intend.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey
I described an experience in a previous article, of watching someone attempt to draw an organisational diagram of their business while also describing it verbally, and it jarred. I was watching someone writing something on the whiteboard that didn’t match what he was describing, much like watching TV with the sound off while listening to music. The difficulty they had, it emerged, was how to depict something for which we haven’t yet got any conventions for depicting. When we haven’t yet got the devices to describe something that is emergent, we will shoehorn it into an outdated model and use words like “productivity” when that’s not what we mean at all. This makes sense; we haven’t caught up with ourselves. The ancient Egyptians drew what we would essentially call “stick figures” and it wasn’t until we discovered “perspective” that our visual depictions began to look more like the actual people we saw.
Gary Hamel said it beautifully: we are prisoners of the familiar. In our efforts to advance to a new way of doing business, it is no good to simply remodel the prison; we need to tear it down. In effect, what that person was describing was a business that functions as an organic system (an emergent and self-organising process) but he was drawing a hierarchical tree diagram (a rigid structure). They have radically transformed their business but our abilities to describe this haven’t caught up yet. It was like drawing a robot while describing a human body. This mirrors how modern management still views their role and their relationship with the businesses they purport to manage.
Unconsciously acting out of the flat-earthism that is an analytical mechanistic worldview, managers approach the business as if it was a machine, rather than as an organic system. One major difference between machines and organic systems is that machines do not operate for their own betterment; they operate for the betterment of their masters. If we continue to view business from this mechanistic perspective, by extension we view the people within them as mere machine parts, there to do the bidding of those in “control”. Isn’t work meant to be for the betterment of everyone: customers, staff, suppliers, shareholders and the community (not just shareholders)? Machines do not (yet) have built-in capacity for continuous learning and improvement of its own functioning, but self-0rganising systems have inherent in them, a drive towards continuous improvement. Managers tend to relate to a business as a thing to control, not a self-organising entity to steward and nurture. Machines are designed with efficiency in mind, but efficiency does not equate with effectiveness. Effectiveness is related to having purpose and robots don’t have a higher purpose. They just do what they’re told.
The fundamental principles of systems thinking seem simple enough. Everything is connected to everything else. Most folks would say that makes sense. The key importance is knowing it and behaving as if it was actually true.