Everyone in the systems thinking arena must have heard it, “no-one wants to know!” “no-one’s interested in systems thinking” “I just can’t get my organisation on board!” Don’t you get tired of hearing it? I do. I do because in my experience, and from my observations, it isn’t the system thinking that people/ organisations don’t like – it’s the practitioner’s way of using it and their associated behaviours that they object to.
Do we routinely consider that in organisations where systems thinking might be beneficial, a number of people are in high stress situations – frightened of losing their jobs, their only source of income, the security for their families etc. Huge change programmes are upon us and I for one (amongst many, many others) have been going through them for most of my career. They are not ‘one offs’ any more, they are just how it is. But with those changes often comes restructuring of staff. Those who stand out, are often forced out. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.
So, why do we think that encouraging people in those organisations to be mavericks is a good idea? ‘Mavericks?’ I hear you say, ‘who said anything about mavericks?’ Well, covertly, we – the systems practitioners – did. We expect people to take on ‘different thinking’ to encourage an alternative perspective….and to be enthusiastic about it. Whilst different thinking and new perspectives are great (in my opinion) they make you stand out…..at a time when you might need that like a hole in the head! You challenge your boss, you are likely to be the next head on the chopping block. I hear many organisations cry out for different/ new thinking, but only if that different/ new thinking is totally in line with what they think.
There is something about being one of the crowd – safety in numbers – that often makes people want to keep their heads down in such situations. Do we need to focus on social inclusion, rather than encouraging different thinking that can potentially lead to social rejection, causing people the pain that comes with that which can often lead to them rejecting system thinking because it feels ‘too difficult’? Do practitioners need a different set of skills that allow them to help maintain people’s socially inclusive status whilst at the same time encouraging them to move toward systems thinking in a way that isn’t so powerfully maverick like?
Aren’t we neurologically wired to “fit in”? I think so. So, to ask people to stand apart from the crowd may be asking just a little bit too much. But, all is not lost – as long as we understand the situation we are in well enough. If we don’t, we must be prepared to learn, with an open mind.
So, how have I started to think differently about systems practice to overcome the above and succeed as a practitioner? Well, it all started one lazy Sunday afternoon when I read a book called, ‘Mental toughness for women leaders’ by LaRae Quy, former FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent. I have to say that this isn’t the kind of title I would usually pick up and read. I have no idea why I was drawn to it, but I’m very glad I was. Above all else it gave me a different perspective.
I learnt to consider the politics and protocols of a situation – what are the rules of the game? I learnt to consider situations I might come up against that might make me defensive (like an initial reaction to a VSM being that it is ‘far too complicated for us to use’) and I learnt to tailor my reactions accordingly – work out how I might react in advance and combat the defensive stance I might have previously taken. I learnt how to work to increase my requisite response to other people’s values and emotions (something I was shocked to find I was extremely poor at doing previously). I learnt to recognise where people might have a high level of emotional investment and take care in this area. I learnt to consider the reason for the emotional investment and contemplate whether or not it was valid. I learnt that I needed to understand what my own go to reflexes are in relation to negative reactions about systems thinking and that I needed to learn a new set of reflexes to deploy in the event of those negative reactions. Passion often means people care – what I really needed to do was get to the root of what they care about and try and maintain that throughout the change. I learnt how showing emotional empathy was important to gaining buy in and I learnt that people need some degree of emotional stability to make learning more effective. Was I really trying to build this kind of environment as I was going along before now?
What I learnt was how to take a genuine interest in people – starting with myself. ‘But we already do all that!’ I hear you cry……..really, do you? Is that why I very rarely see it happening in practice?