Thinking of hiring a systems thinker but wondering what they actually do?

I am often asked what a systems thinker is and what they do in their work. Of course, there are many academic responses to this and systems practitioners (and others) can spend an inordinate amount of time debating the answer. Whilst this might be helpful to the academic advancement of systems thinking, it doesn’t really help people in organisations who just want to know, ‘If you come and work with me, what will you do and how will it help me?’

There is a huge breadth of differences in how systems practitioners work and the approaches they use. So much so, it is impossible to answer on behalf of everyone. However, I can tell you some of what I do in my work and what I might focus on (which will invariably change depending upon the context of the situation). No references to academics or academic text, just ‘plain speak’:

I look at the bigger picture

I don’t just look at one tiny area. I zoom out and look at your problematic situation and the context in which it sits and how they impact one another now and/or how they might impact one another in the future.

I ‘see systems’

I look at things as systems. This means that I do not jump to blaming staff for the problematic situation. Nor do I jump straight to reorganising, restructuring, outsourcing etc. Issues in problematic situations are usually systemic and I seek to understand why they are really happening before making any kind of recommendations or changes. This doesn’t mean taking a long time either. My approaches can help me make recommendations or changes very quickly sometimes.

I don’t look at problem/ solution per se

In complex situations there is no problem/ solution per se. There is only and improvement from where you are now. Yes, in improving the situation you may solve some kind of problem along the way, but I look at how I can help you to be adaptable so that you can deal with your own issues on an ongoing basis

I respect different views and perspectives

I use a number of techniques (like diagramming) to work with different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The diagrams might include visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

I allow time to accommodate conflicting interests and help people work through their own understanding of the situation and that of others

This is a very under-rated exercise. It is extremely valuable. In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not as valuable as someone else’s interest. Just knowing that the person working with you and the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

I explore organisational arrangements and governance and diagnose what is preventing the system from operating to its maximum effect

This is done via systems modelling. I use a very powerful diagnostic approach to explore your situation and work out why things aren’t working quite as you want them to be.

I examine the thinking behind some of the faulty decision making in the system

It’s easy to have faulty decision making without even realising it. All of us are guilty of it at some time or another. It might be that there hasn’t been enough information when making the decision or someone might have been given poor advice. If a decision hasn’t given the outcome that you wanted it to, I can often pick up in my diagnosis why this might have been the case.

I use methods, concepts, tools and techniques to examine and deal with complex, dynamic and diverse problematic situations

I don’t just ‘wing-it’ or do what someone else has told me to do. I have applied systems and complexity thinking to my work for over 10 years. I use a variety of approaches that have sound theory behind them and I have, at some time, ‘tested them out’. I do try new things also, to ensure that my approaches keep developing and my thinking is ‘fresh’.

I support you to manage the complexity and manage in the complexity and encourage adaptability as key to your system surviving

I look to see what makes your system breathe, what makes its heart beat, what conditions have to exist to enable it to live, what makes it die. I look at how your system interacts with the environment around it. I look at what interdependencies exist, or don’t exist but should or could. I look for the drivers of your complexity and I look for the energy levels in your system – are people and processes energised, frantic? Are they stressed, fearful or in despair? Or are they asleep, calm, laid back with not a care in the world? I don’t just consider, ‘What is this thing?’ I consider, ‘What does it do?’

I examine the potential consequences of different configurations of the wider system

This is another place where I use some systems modelling. I use a number of approaches, depending upon the context of the situation. These approaches help me to understand what configuration might be most useful to you and allow you to be more adaptable moving forward.

I support collective decision making

Particularly in complex situations a collective decision can mean you get buy-in right from the start. Not all decisions can be made collectively of course but I do try to avoid top down dictates. I believe in the expertise that exists in systems and can often be ‘hidden’. I like to tap into that and make sure it is utilised and people are recognised for it.

I share whatever I can to help you learn

I don’t believe in keeping my ways of working to myself. When I work with you I put as much effort into sharing as I do into doing any other aspect of the work. The more systems and complexity thinking I can ‘infect’ you with the better, in my opinion. I try not to use technical language and complex ways of describing things. I try and keep it as simple as possible so that you can use the learning yourselves and pass it on to others.

 

Systems thinkers can bring a very different perspective to your work. They can help you understand why something keeps happening over and over again and can help you find options for improvement that you might never have thought of.

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Are you riding the waves of change or drowning in the turbulent seas? What can we learn from Gareth Morgan?

‘Imagine a long, open Hawaiian beach. The surf is rolling in, and the waves are speckled with surfers and surf-boards. Some surfers are riding the waves with flowing determination. Others are flying high into the air and plunging deep into the foam. The image provides a metaphor for management in turbulent times. For like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean.’ (Gareth Morgan, 1988)

What are you doing right now? Are you surfing, swimming or drowning? Are you surrounded by beautiful fish or man-eating sharks? Today, in public services, it is all too easy to feel like the surf is spinning you around, dragging you under and then crashing you against the rocks. But, back in 1988, Gareth Morgan gave us some great insights into the management competencies that would be required moving forward, to help us surf like a professional.

Morgan reminds us that, ‘many organisations and their managers drive toward the future while looking through the rear-view mirror. They manage in relation to events that have already occurred, rather than anticipate and confront the challenges of the future.’ He is clear in highlighting that organisations are becoming flatter and more decentralised. Self-organisation is occurring where autonomy is given to remote staff groups who are controlled from a distance.

With these changes comes the undeniable need to think and work differently. Possessing specific skills and abilities and combining technical, human and conceptual skills to create efficiency is no longer enough. To date, many organisations have tended to be successful because of very tight centralised control. Direct control can often feel like an attractive and comfortable way to manage. It suits those at the top who often can’t let go because their concept of being organised is linked to controlling and monitoring their constituent teams/ services. There is also some fear that the people at the bottom will not be driven to the same excellence in decision making as those at the top. But what can replace this direct control and how do people need to work to make it happen?

Moving forward, control will look more like management of relationships across a network, rather than management of discreet activities. ‘A network must be managed as a system of interdependent stakeholders, with collective identity and management philosophies that recognise the importance of mutual dependence and collaboration and a collective sense of accountability and control.’ ‘Collective identity’ itself will be a particular challenge, in my opinion. It is all too often that teams/ services/ organisations cling on to their identity for dear life and even after years of restructuring/ integrating/ changing, being dragged under the water over and over again, they still emerge flustered, gasping and adamantly refusing to let their old identity go.

Morgan tells us that, ‘Increasingly, the leadership process will become identified with an ability to mobilise the energies and commitments of people through the creation of shared values and shared understandings’. Development of operational skills will be only one part of the story. Developing attitudes, values and the mindset to allow teams to confront, understand and deal with forces inside and outside of the organisation will be the other side of the coin and the two must work in harmony together. Navigating the forthcoming waves with foresight and flexibility will be imperative to survival.

Management competencies will look and feel much different to those of today and will include:

  • Developing contextual competencies – building bridges and alliances, reframing problems to open up new possibilities, acting nationally and locally, developing a new approach to social responsibility;
  • Reading the environment – scanning and intelligence functions, forecasting, scenario planning and identifying major occurrences that could shape the future environment;
  • Proactive management – developing proactive mindsets, managing from the outside in (keeping in close contact with the evolving environment and enhancing capacity to rise to challenges and opportunities in an ongoing way) positioning and repositioning skills (the ability to manage tension between present and future so that you can position for the future whilst avoiding collapse in existing operations);
  • Promoting creativity, learning and innovation;
  • Skills of remote management (helicoptering, managing through an umbilical cord, promoting self-organisation, managing ambiguity and managing the balance between chaos and control);
  • Using I.T. to drive improvements;
  • Managing complexity (many things at once, transitions and multiple stakeholders)

The manager may no longer be able to function as a technical specialist who is also responsible for managing people, as is so often the case today. He or she will have to be become much more of an all-round generalist. Traditional supervisory roles are likely to disappear and the important competency may then lie in the ability to get employees enthused and fully absorbed with the new corporate philosophy, rather than to follow instructions in a mechanical way.

Innovation will be essential and with it comes the need to improve lateral interactions. Team managers will need to be able to:

  • Talk to and work with one another, embedding really successful interactions;
  • Develop a sense of common purpose;
  • Engage in effective conflict management and be able to read and handle hidden tensions;
  • Be a general resource to teams, a trouble shooter, a networker between self-organising teams, linking those teams to the wider organisation;
  • Take a more hands-off approach to management so that the initiative and control is passed to others;
  • Feel comfortable dealing with loosely structured situations and only intervene when necessary and in ways that empower;
  • Be aware of feedback systems that keep them informed without giving direct operational control.

In addition, organisations will need to adopt a risk taking ‘see if this works’ attitude, developing a supportive culture to experimentation. They will need to give parameters within which to operate, monitor on the basis of results and give teams the autonomy to operate quickly and flexibly to the changing environment. Planning can be bottom up, with management ensuring that plans fit with the organisation’s overarching vision. However, early warning systems should be built in to let managers know when intervention is required. Those mechanisms should seek to maintain the autonomy of the teams.

To deal with accountability, organisations and their managers should create systems of values, so employees can share and understand the mission and general parameters that guide action, rather than developing a set of rules as bureaucratic organisations do now. This, in itself, will require a mind-set shift from current day. Future managers will have to become as skilled in the art of empowerment as traditional managers are skilled in exercising direction and control.

Anticipating, communicating, sharing, inspiring, empowering, facilitating, networking, motivating are all words which are likely to become more and more common place in relation to management competencies.

As Morgan tells us,
‘You must have a remote type of management facility – the Europeans call it the helicopter principle – where you hover like a helicopter over the scene. If something goes wrong, you can come down and resolve it, but essentially you operate at a distance, and let the operation go.’

Which, I dare say, will be easier said than done for most organisations……

(Riding the waves of change, Gareth Morgan 1988)