Embracing Systems Thinking Journey - Challenges...


We continue the Embracing Systems Thinking
journey by exploring our Cultures and
Perceptions in an online dialogue.


At the Lean Agile Systems Thinking conference on 2 August two Embracing Systems Thinking (ST) workshops were held, their outputs highlighted the key themes for further understanding and working-out, focusing on the Challenges and Embedding ST. The preliminary analysis helps to provide an extended context, and this post follows up on the preliminary analysis providing the basis for a continued dialogue on the challenges.

Key Themes

According to the preliminary analysis Culture and Perception presented the biggest challenges to embracing Systems Thinking. Here are the key themes to explore in our dialogue regarding Culture and Perception:

Either, Or -> AND
Grey is Wrong
Management Style
Predetermination of Solutions
Prevailing Organizational Culture
ST Awareness in Services
Symptomatic Problem Solving
Time to Think

On the following link you can find a brief and hopefully refreshing description of the key themes... In both morning and afternoon workshops Culture and Perception were called out as the top challenges with embracing ST.
Next Steps

Pick-up a key theme from the above list and explore it here online by leaving a comment on the following link... Here are some questions to help guide the thought process:

1. Are these themes (or similar ones) currently happening in our organization? Have they happened before?
2. What kind of structures drive these themes? Why and how do the structures exist?
3. What is my understanding of the themes and structures? Do others know about their existence?
4. What is my belief about all of this? Am I making any assumptions about my understanding and beliefs, why am I making them?

Download the mindmap, check out the preliminary analysis and explore some different views on the key themes for further context:

Download the Embracing Systems Thinking Workshops Mindmap (PDF)...

Some different views of the key themes of Culture and Perception...

Posted by   
on October 13, 2013, 9:36 am
Symptomatic Problem Solving

1. Are these themes (or similar ones) currently happening in our organization? Have they happened before?

Yes, Symptomatic Problem Solving is one theme that prevails strongly, it has happened in the past and continues to happen frequently.

2. What kind of structures drive these themes? Why and how do the structures exist?

I see a couple of structures, one of the largest and most damaging being under-investment, this ultimately led to a major outsourcing agreement (in both recent organizations I have worked in). The underlying structure is "shifting the burden". The consequences are and will continue to be far reaching.

The other structure, which is also characterized by "shifting the burden" and reinforced by "fixes that fail", is a perceived lack of time to address fundamental problems. The buzz word for many years now has been "pragmatic" and I am seeing pragmatism being used as an excuse for doing things properly.

In technology we have the legacy of the Y2K to blame for this underlying perception of senior management. Many CIOs had blank cheques for the Y2K (me included) and as a result IT activities have been under increased scrutiny ever since.

"We need a pragmatic approach, just what we need to get over the line", I hear this often and when I do I'm searching for the fundamental underpinning structures that threaten to emerge as recurring problems as a result.

3. What is my understanding of the themes and structures? Do others know about their existence?

My understanding of the themes is good, I have seen them in many organizations. Many people also know about their existence, we talk about them frequently.

4. What are our beliefs about all of this? Are we making any assumptions about our understanding and beliefs, why are making them?

My beliefs are to continue to make these themes more transparent to people, to engage people in dialogue about the themes whenever possible, to understand other people's perceptions and to try to understand the assumptions that are being made.

My overall belief is that through increasing transparency and calling out things for what they are, we can overcome. To do this a strong emphasis needs to be placed on learning from mistakes and fostering mental models that can become shared throughout the organization.

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Posted by norrvall  
on October 17, 2013, 5:20 am
Hi James and thanks for continuing the conversations following the conference.

The challenges identified follow the same path that John Seddon (and many before him) outlines when talking about improving organisations and embedding ST.

Or in other words, performance is a function of the organisational mindset.

We have to work on the mindset and shift how organisations are viewed and perceived to have any hope of embedding ST.

This might seem like an almost impossible challenge – to design organisations from an ST perspective without designers actually having an ST view of the world.

What I have found is that there has to be a level of maturity with the people you are trying to influence. Unless they are open to the challenge of viewing the world through a different lens they will just filter out anything that does not reinforce their current mental models. This is a condition we all suffer from but being aware of the fact that we actually see what we believe, not the other way around is at least a start.

The prevailing cultures of many organisations are there partly because the organisational systems currently in place reinforce the undesirable behaviours like rewarding short-term thinking and individual performance. You only have to have a rudimentary understanding of Deming and ST you will know how silly individual performance ranking and reward is.

A problem with ST is that it is not always easy to "prove" as cause and effect are often too far apart to connect, and when we get to the complex domain (see Cynefin) there is no direct linkage between cause and effect to look for. I recommend reading up on Dave Snowden's work on the Cynefin framework, which is a great sense making framework for thinking about suitable decision making approaches depending on context.

You mention that ST is more prevalent in manufacturing organisations; I sincerely doubt this is the case. Whilst manufacturing have tried to embrace Lean, more often than not it is from a toolset point of view and with really poor understanding of the mindset that underpins the Toyota way (before the Americans labelled it Lean). It is still very much copying of approaches from the ones seen as leaders without an understanding of the underlying theory. There is a big difference between recipe cooks and chefs as Dave Snowden puts it. It also symbolises a confusion of correlation and causation, a common mistake when looking for a quick fix. The fact that people are even thinking that there is such a thing as instant pudding for shifting organisational culture or lifting organisational effectiveness is in itself quite telling.

I’m not sure I am moving the conversation forward or not but we might find that the online dialogue will diverge to begin with to converge at a later stage, hopefully with some practical ways to make ST embedded practice.

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Posted by   
on October 17, 2013, 3:26 pm
Great comments Stefan. I am thinking along similar lines and looking at the outcome of the workshops Perception is the big-ticket item for us to address. My thought process has been along the lines of the 80/20 rule, although maybe when we get to Systems and Measurement we’ll hit the real “tangible” blockers, but at least we should have an organization that has acquired the will to make the necessary changes, reinforced with positive perceptions.

Not wanting to go get into solution mode, however when we take the key themes from the Embedding part of the analysis ( http://tinyurl.com/n456lhs ) we again see an 80/20 although it’s not as pronounced as with the Challenges. The Support and Education themes are really interesting and I’m looking forward to working on those. Especially at this time as these themes are currently being addressed where I work.

The proof is in the pudding right? I would like to skip over Measurement for now and spend more time on the key themes of Culture and Perception, although we may get a little hen and egg around Measurement and proving that ST works. How can we change perceptions of people that learn from direct experience when there’s (a) no proof, or (b) they haven’t been on the journey? Proof and all the better, tangible proof, would help a lot in changing perceptions.

The comment on manufacturing came from the afternoon’s session, there were a number of engineers participating and we got on the subject of education. So it turns out (and I’ve checked a couple of syllabuses) that ST modules are more common in engineering degrees than in technology degrees. I’ve also seen ST modules in some MBA courses. I frequently speak with technology grads having recently completed computer science or IT management degrees and most of them haven’t heard of ST. A real pity but nothing that a change in awareness and perception cannot remedy.

I will continue to pick-up the key themes of Challenges in a few more comments then we can make some conclusions and move onto Embedding. A number of people whom attended the workshops indicated that they wanted to get involved. The challenge as always is getting engagement from people.

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Posted by James Wood  
on October 23, 2013, 10:53 am
Prevailing Organizational Culture

I wanted to write about one of the more insidious inhibitors to ST in IT, which stems from the finite way in which IT people view the world. I talk about it in some detail in the post The Immutability of Change Management http://tinyurl.com/a2e6okr.

1. Are these themes (or similar ones) currently happening in our organization? Have they happened before?

There’s a particular quality to IT culture that is rooted in finite planning and systemically reinforced by process based working and demarcation. This is also more and more compounded by outsourcing, particularly large scale outsourcing. It leads to a linear thinking, which is one of the most entrenched traits of IT and ST’s most belligerent enemy. Linear thinking is systemic in most IT organizations, from the call center service desk agent, in some cases, right through to the CIO.

2. What kind of structures drive these themes? Why and how do the structures exist?

Unfortunately IT is destined to battle with linear thinking from day zero. It starts with projects that are designed to implement IT solutions, they start, have a bunch of milestones, and they finish. The solutions projects implement also have lifecycles, again a start and a finish. Each year capacity plans are produced to support annual budget cycles. Most mid to senior IT management roles are occupied with this start / stop or short term cycle.

Process based organizations are great and they’re also terrible, or at least some can be terrible, I’m referring here to demarcation. When I implemented the new SDLC at CSOB in 2003 I put most of the emphasis of the training on the customer value chain and gaining an understanding of who the customer was. I had already seen the entrenched effect of demarcation at IBM during the ‘90s, I wanted to avoid it with the new SDLC. Quite simply each role in the SDLC had to identify who their customers were and understand what influence they had on the overall customer value chain.

Demarcation calls and hand-balling were strictly frowned upon, the SDLC was an interconnected process that every role was accountable for and ultimately through the chain of (internal) customer interactions they answered to the customer on the street who consumed the IT services we provided in one way or another.

3. What is my understanding of the themes and structures? Do others know about their existence?

My understanding has been built over the past 24 years, primarily working in type one and two internal service units providing IT services to the group. I would say that I haven’t seen much change during this time and with the increased commercialization of IT things have only gotten worse.

4. What are our beliefs about all of this? Are we making any assumptions about our understanding and beliefs, why are making them?

I believe that the customer is either suffering or the organization can achieve much more if IT can come to terms with linear thinking. It has become so ingrained in organizations that it influences every aspect of how people perform each day. How they solve problems, how they communicate, even how they choose their colleagues and workmates. There are no assumptions being made, this remark is based on candid observations made over a long period of time in several organizations.

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