Change and the mystery of systems

The last thing a fish notices is the water.  I’ve said it before, and once again am reminded of it in my work with clients.  How do managers ever effect real change when they are steeped in the same fetid water that holds the rest of the system back from better performance?  I’m in the privileged position of being able to come in as an external consultant and see things that those who work there have long since stopped seeing, feeling and smelling.  It doesn’t take long when you join an organisation to “go native”, i.e. to become infected by the patterns and behaviours of the culture of the organisation and stop seeing them as ineffective or even bizarre.  I wrote an article some time ago that described how organisational cultures replicate themselves and it’s always affirming when I hear a manager tell me the same story in an effort to describe how they ended up in their situation.

Similarly, it’s easy for a culture to lose sight of its strengths.  Just as quickly as we stop seeing what is bizarre and take it as normal, we also overlook the capabilities and relationships that already exist and take them for granted, failing to build on them and use them to our best advantage.

One manager and his 2IC have got a pretty good picture of the kind of culture they wish to create, and get a little frustrated when they are stymied in their efforts by people who have been there for many years.  The vision they have includes improved customer service, increased initiative-taking on the part of the staff and a workplace orientation to both performance AND friendliness (no, the two are not mutually exclusive) …..in short, it’s a picture that will ensure longevity.  There is plenty in it for staff to work in this new way.  They will have greater long-term job security, they will have greater autonomy and less micro-management from the boss, they will have more appreciation from more satisfied customers.  However, because “it’s always been done this way”, there is resistance.  I’m reminded of the old adage, “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”  Initially, the manager was stuck in confrontation and faced with bloody-minded laziness with some of the staff, who would creatively find ways to avoid doing anything different.  I encouraged him to think differently and take a different tack.

Systems thinking focuses on transformational change.  This requires being able to see the organisation from a bigger picture perspective.  Tiny incremental steps and tinkering around the edges will not effect the changes that many folks are looking for.  They don’t shift the culture as effectively because these tiny changes will continue to be overwhelmed by the predominant culture which is working hard to maintain itself.  For this manager, this means not fighting the resistance.  Rather than go head to head with belligerent staff who don’t like the changes, taking some distance is having more effect.  He is behaving in a way which is congruent with how he will behave when the new culture takes hold.  In response, staff are having to shift how they respond to him.  As the manager ceases to micro-manage and gets on their backs less, the staff are left wondering what is going on.  As a result, they are taking a little more initiative and just doing what he has been haranguing them to do for ages.  They are realising that if they don’t do the job he is now leaving them to do, there will be a consequence, of which they will have been the author.  He is becoming more careful about choosing his fights, as it were, and granting the staff more space to do what they know how to do really well.  He then follows up with regular performance conversations where he and staff can reflect on how much work is getting done and how effectively this is happening, always mindful of getting staff to do more of the talking.  He is slowly beginning to see the old culture of “manager dependency” shift to one where he has more time to do his job, rather than chase other people to do theirs.

Another group are in the process of re-organising themselves so that they are working more effectively.  They have inherited a departmental structure that is not fit to achieve what they wish to achieve.  They focus their gaze on what is not working, their detractors and the things which get in their way.  I remember when learning to ski being told not to look at the queue of skiers at the bottom of the lift and instead to look at the clear space where I could stop safely.  I forget how many times I had to crash into people before I actually learnt to look at where I wanted to go, instead of where I didn’t.  Again, as an external consultant, I can see as plain as day how much in the way of strengths and resources this group of highly capable professionals already have, which, if deployed with greater awareness, could actually help them surmount the obstacles they struggle with.  I can see how much alignment they have around common values and beliefs.  While there is an impatience in some members of this group to just “get on with the work”, the manager and several key others are giving pause.  This is so that they, as a whole group, can get a really good picture of what resources they have, where they are headed and what their purpose is.  Once this is solidified in people’s minds, they will be better able to carry out the work they are itching to engage in.  They will focus their energies on what they do well and what alliances they have, rather than what they don’t have or what the barriers are.  They will have greater clarity of purpose.  They will have clearer lines of accountability and shared authority.  They will have a group which responds to its customers, both internal and external, with greater authenticity and less burnout.

Systems thinking focuses on values, purpose and meaning.  It’s important, as a leader, to learn how to see systems and to guide others to see the bigger picture as well.  The patterns that occur within a workplace are a reflection of the inner workings of that workplace-its values and beliefs.  A leader who wishes to effect change will first get a real grasp of how the system works and encourage others to do likewise.  In many cases, a thing observed is a thing changed.  Look for patterns; not much that goes on in this world is a one-off.  What do these patterns say about the organisation?  What are the values and beliefs that are being enacted?   What relationships does the system have which are life-giving, not energy-sapping?  What, if any, core beliefs or principles does the system live by?  Systems thinking leaders, like the manager of this group, will help the system develop and maintain a sense of identity and optimism.  Effectiveness comes out of shared values and purpose, shared identity and relationships, shared interests and information; not hierarchical imposition.  The focus is not so much on efficient individuals as an effective whole system; a living, breathing entity.

A systems thinking leader will train his or lens on the vision for the future, ensure others have a clear line of sight to this vision and trust that the actors within the system will achieve the kind of collaboration and assembly required in order to achieve the system’s objectives. This requires a shift in how managers view themselves.  It requires them to trust the people that work there.  It requires them to foster learning, values and relationships, not micro-management and control. It requires managers to stop seeing themselves less as “Doers-in-chief” and more like orchestra conductors or a ship’s navigator.  This implies that a manager, if they wish to develop greater leadership, will need to develop personal capabilities that allow them to be in ambiguity with greater ease.  They will need to be more comfortable letting go of power and control.  They will need to trust people and value difference.

Obviously, there is much more to add to this topic and these are simply the reflections that have been darting about my mind these last few days.  I value comments and contributions that build on the thoughts I set out.  I look forward to hearing from you.

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11 thoughts on “Change and the mystery of systems

  1. Yet another awesome article John! I love this part: “…to develop greater leadership, [managers]will need to develop personal capabilities that allow them to be in ambiguity with greater ease. They will need to be more comfortable letting go of power and control.”

    Being comfortable with discomfort is like learning to abseil – getting use to the awkwardness and the terror of going over a cliff backwards. The more you do it, the more used you get to feeling off balance.

    In fact, disequilibrium – that feeling of letting go of power and control – is not only a requirement for good leadership in complexity, but essential for growth as a leader too.

    1. Thanks for commenting Zoe. Agreed with your comments about the need to let go and really experience disequilibrium. Essential for growth of anyone, I’d say.

  2. Hierarchical imposition. I love that. Well, I mean I don’t love it in the workplace but that is such a succinct way of putting it. The old hierarchies don’t exist anymore, we absolutely need to negotiate new ways for managers and leaders to relate to their teams.
    I often talk about collaboration but the concept of systems thinking seems to be similar and less stereotypically female sounding.
    Great thoughts. Thanks!

    1. Interesting that you say “less stereotypically female sounding” Stacey. I think systems thinking, collaborative workplaces and strong networks (as opposed to hierarchies) are a truly human thing. Such a shame that we have got ourselves caught in a hierarchical paradigm and have been stuck there for centuries for sadly, not all males go along with this mechanistic, command and control model. Thanks for commenting and adding in!

  3. Hi John,

    Nice post. In my Rightshifting work I have come to see that culture is best not operated on directly, but through its roots i.e. the collective mindset of the organisation. Put another way, culture is a function (a manifestation) of the prevailing collective organisational mindset. Too many organisations attempt to “fix” or change their culture directly, and wonder why they’re not gaining much traction. Much better, in my experience., to work on the collective mindset through powerful tools like organisational cognitive dissonance, and other organisations psychology approaches.

    HTH

    – Bob

    1. Yes, good point Bob. Rings true with my experience, to work on the culture indirectly, as it were. Am keen to know more about those tools you mention and see how they work in action, will do some googling.

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