I recently took a career break to complete a PhD in Addiction Science, whereby I discussed the importance of a whole-systems perspective when trying to implement new treatment approaches for those with problematic substance use. In trying to solve a social problem such as addiction, a whole-systems approach aims to bring about lasting change by altering the underlying structures and mechanisms in a treatment system that operates in a particular way. Since then I have been thinking about additional angles on how such an approach can provide an alternative way for solving business problems. Like non-profit and public sector agencies, companies operate as internal complex systems (i.e. strategy, structure, staff competencies, values, processes, ways of working and technologies) within complex external environments (i.e. markets, politics, society). Leaders tasked with devising and implementing strategy to ensure long term competitiveness and sustainability must process ever increasing sources of information and act accordingly. Taking a systems approach means that the only way to fully understand a problem is to understand the parts in relation to the whole. This means that when devising strategy or organisational change, leaders must focus on less visible elements of an organisation such as patterns, beliefs and values, as well as the more visible elements such as discrete events, processes and policies. Such an approach facilitates insights into root causes, rather than symptoms, meaning efforts can be more productively focused on high leverage points within the system.
An example of the type of workplace culture that operates under the surface is illustrated in a case study belonging to the MIT Center for Organisational Learning (co-founded by Peter Senge, the author of the well regarded Fifth Discipline2). They worked with a leading US manufacturer to identify, confront and change a powerful pattern of secretiveness in the company whereby designers felt unable to disclose problems until they were close to the solution. This had resulted in costly investments in tooling for the production of a new car design that needed changing by the time the engineers had highlighted the identified problems. The long-standing workplace culture or ‘mental model’ of what made an ‘impressive design engineer’ emanated from a management culture that made engineers feel humiliated for bringing up unsolved problems. In order for the engineers to learn new ways of behaving, their managers had to learn new ways of supervising. MIT reported major cost savings (over £60 million) from addressing this aspect of workplace culture in the manufacture of the new car design.
In my own profession, I have worked with leaders who were able to face their own biases and shortcomings (becoming truly vulnerable) in order to uncover potential blind spots to organisational change, or problem solving. In one company, it was to the tremendous credit of the CEO that he was able to listen to the feedback I provided following extensive staff consultations. Among other things, I had identified that the low-challenge and conflict avoidant culture of his management style were contributing to issues with the functioning of some of the departmental teams. With this new insight acknowledged, we were able to put actions in place that would help achieve meaningful culture change within the company. Crucially, this insight had not been identified in the annual staff survey, but rather through the investment in face to face group sessions I held with the staff. Guided by a framework that views organisations as complex living eco-systems3, I asked a series of questions to the different teams (in the absence of managers) to help them elicit different aspects of the company system. First, this included surface level visible manifestations of the company (e.g. the office layout, policies, procedures, marketing literature, website, social media messages), second, the underlying values (the beliefs about how things should be done to achieve the required outputs) and third, the patterns and beliefs that operated at the root of the system reflecting “how things are really done around here.” In all companies, there will be some discrepancies between these levels, but problems often emerge when the discrepancies are too large. Identifying the areas of mismatch helps pin-point the high leverage points of focus for a leader wishing to solve an organisational challenge.
Creating space and opportunities for people to come together to answer questions, tackle problems, whilst being open to challenge, with no hidden agendas, can create a very different energy compared to a leadership approach that aims to get people committed to your strategy, or plan of action. Another tool to help with this dialogue is Action Inquiry4. It requires teams to reflect on an issue in the first, second and third person, using a progressive cycle of mini experiments and discussion. At the first person level, we recognise how our own assumptions, biases and conditioning influence our thinking and doing. In the second person inquiry, we try to understand the assumptions and mental models of others and become curious to take this into our management style by building close, trusting relationships and becoming comfortable with risk, confrontation and feedback. The third person inquiry explores the interacting nature of symptoms and issues and recognises these may not operate in a linear causal way. At this level, we recognise that there is not one easy solution and change is required in numerous places, potentially across organisational boundaries and in workplace attitudes and beliefs. We are able to see value in diverse perspectives, even when contradictory, experiment with risk and new ideas, and recognise failure as an opportunity for learning. Some examples of inquiries that may help shift the dialogue and help find creative solutions to organisational challenges include:
• Do I hold underlying commitments or intents that may be competing against stated objectives and goals?
• Do I engage in habitual and (in)effective responses to certain people or situations that do not necessarily service the stated objectives, or strategic goals?
• Do I seek feedback from others that may challenge or disconfirm my views and what do I do with this information?
Starting to think in this way helps to pave the way for truly transformational change.
Dr Karen Bailey
Independent Consultant – Strategy, Organisational Development and Research
*1 Senge, P., Hamilton, H., & Kania, J. (2015). The Dawn of System Leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2015
2 Senge, P.M. (2006) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization: First edition. Random House. Also see https://www.solonline.org
3 Schein, E.H. (2004) Organisational culture and leadership. 3rd edition. San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass
4 Torbert, B., & Associates (2004) Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco CA: Berrett-Koehler