Starting from the wrong place

It’s very short Friday evening post time 🙂

So, you want to transform your organisation? Here’s the conventional recipe:

Step 1: Lay out some beautiful ‘sunlit uplands’ statement that everyone but an anarchist would find obviously desirable!

Step 2: Break down the output from step 1 into some pleasing themes (‘strategic shifts’) to focus on

Step 3: …erm, now what? I’m stuck!

 

Not many organisations actually understand ‘where they truly are’…and so, no matter how much brilliant imagining of perfection is done, and the subsequent strategic planning, they will likely be working in the wrong way on the wrong stuff.

 

The place to start is to really understand your system, from the perspective of how well it meets its purpose (as defined by its customers, not you), and then critically reflect on what this tells you, and why it is like this.

Then…think about what really needs to change.

This will be different to what you are currently thinking. If not, you probably haven’t seen what you needed to see.

Reflecting on reflection

As part of the work that I do, my colleagues and I help people observe the systems that they manage and work within, to cause them to see important stuff which has ‘been hidden in plain sight’ and to think about what’s going on underneath, and why…with the aim of improvement.

In doing this, we use a great deal of (what is often referred to as) reflective practice.

So, the other day I was asked1:

“What have you written on reflection that you can share with me?

…and I reflected that I haven’t specifically written anything on reflection 🙂

So, here goes2

What is reflection?

The Oxford English dictionary defines reflection as serious thought or consideration”.

Some key synonyms (in addition to thinking and consideration) are contemplation, study, deliberation, and pondering.

Underlying the desire (or need) to reflect is its role in achieving valuable learning.

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” (John Dewey)

Dewey was clarifying that experience may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. A good dose of reflection is required to make that experience valuable.

Levels of thoughtfulness

The following diagram (that I’ve fashioned from reading a paper by Jack Mezirow3) makes the point that we might categorise our thoughtfulness when performing actions:

The lowest level4, habit, is where something is done regularly, to the point at which we aren’t consciously thinking about it. We are likely to become relatively consistent (perhaps fixed), almost automatic about it.

One step up is thoughtful action. Here, we must use information to decide what direction(s) to take but, importantly, we are doing so without questioning ‘what we already know’:

It “takes place in action contexts in which implicitly raised theoretical and practical validity claims are naively taken for granted and accepted or rejected without discursive consideration.” (Habermas)

I think you’d agree with me that, if we are operating any work system just at the habit and thoughtful action levels, we can expect its performance to be, or become, ‘stuck’. Further, it’s likely to struggle with the unexpected.

And so, we get to reflection, which is broken into two levels:

Basic reflection is where we pause to consider what happened, or is happening, and what we think about this. Note that, to reflect, there is likely a need for the time and space to do so5.

Critical reflection is at a deeper level: It’s about ‘thinking about our thinking’. More on this below…

On critical reflection

I think that it’s become common for the word ‘critical’ to be put on the front of the word ‘reflection’ in conversations, as if merely saying this makes it so.

And it can be argued that reflection, by definition, is about critiquing something. But I think making the distinction between (basic) reflection and critical reflection is important. Here’s what Mezirow says on the subject:

“While all reflection implies an element of critique, the term ‘critical reflection’ will here be reserved to refer to challenging the validity of presuppositions in prior learning.” (Mezirow)

On reading this, I thought that it was saying something important, but I was unsure about the ‘presupposition’ word…so I looked it up:

Presupposition:

Simple definition: something that you assume to be true, especially something that you must assume is true in order to continue with what you are saying or thinking.” (Collinsdictionary.com)

Deeper definition: “any supressed premise or background framework of thought necessary to make an argument valid, or a position tenable.” (Oxfordreference.com)

I find that these definitions help me.

We ‘do stuff’ without realising the foundations on which we assume them to be reasonable things to do…and if these foundations are limited, problematic, flawed, or even false, we are usually blind to this.

Examples:

  • We break our organisations into specialised component parts, and pass stuff between them, assuming that this is a sensible thing to do
  • We formulate fixed budgets, and ‘explain’ variance from them, assuming that this is a sensible thing to do
  • We devise detailed rules and procedures, and check compliance with them… [you know what comes here]
  • …I could go on

The assumptions in these examples are based on deeper ‘frameworks of thought’ which we are (typically) unaware of. Critical reflection would be to get down to this level – to ‘think about our thinking’.

Mezirow proposes that critical reflection might be viewed as:

premise reflection – i.e. question[ing] the justification for the very premises on which problems are posed or defined in the first place.”

And so we get to (what I think is) quite a clean, working distinction between (basic) reflection and critical reflection:

“Critical reflection is not concerned with the ‘how’ of action, but with the ‘why’, the reasons for and the consequences of what we do.” (Mezirow)

I see a similarity between reflection vs. critical reflection, as described above, and single vs. double loop learning

(Basic) reflection might help us ‘do the wrong thing righter’ (ref. Ackoff)

Critical reflection might help us to move towards doing the right things’.

A learning cycle

The above may be of interest, but you might now be wondering whether there are any models that could ‘help you get there’.

I want to share the idea of a learning cycle…which has the beauty of containing three (seemingly) simple, yet powerful, questions to ask of ourselves/ of the system(s) we play roles within:

The ‘What?’ is about doing something (or observing it being done) and describing what happened. E.g.

  • What triggered the event to occur?
  • What was trying to be achieved?
  • What actions were taken?
  • What basis was used for doing these things, in the way(s) they were?
  • What was the response, and the consequences?

The ‘So what?’ is about reflecting on the experience6, to derive valuable insights. E.g.

  • Why did it turn out that way?
  • What could have made it better?
  • What broader issues arise from seeing this?
  • What is my/our new understanding?

The ‘Now what?’ is about action-oriented reflection7, to consider what might be done based on what’s been learned. E.g.

  • What could be done differently?
  • Why would this be better?
  • What might be the consequences?
  • What barriers need to be overcome?
  • Who needs to be involved?

If you ponder these questions, you’ll note that they can be explored at a basic reflection and/or a critical reflection level.

The basic level may lead to modest, highly confined, and likely temporary, improvement.

The critical level has the power to transform.

On Transformation

If we want (real) improvement, we must cause ourselves to ‘see the unseen’…but that sounds like a hard thing to achieve.

How might we do this? Well, we probably need to put ourselves in a position to have eye-opening experiences!

“Our [perspective] may be transformed through reflection upon anomalies.

Perspective transformation occurs in response to an externally imposed disorienting dilemma…[which] may be evoked by an eye-opening experience that challenges one’s presuppositions.

Anomalies and dilemmas, of which old ways of knowing cannot make sense, become catalysts or ‘trigger events’ that precipitate critical reflection and transformations.”

“Reflection on one’s own premises can lead to transformative learning.” (Mezirow)

Those eye-opening experiences are sat, waiting for all of us, ‘at the Gemba’ (the place where the action happens).

If you’d like a guide to help you with this then here’s one I prepared earlier.

Where’s the barrier?

Perhaps THE critical part of reflection is to find the actual barriers (constraints) to improvement, to then drill down to their underlying causes and to establish where the power lies to tackle them.

This is important to retain your sanity! There’s little point trying to change something when it’s not in your gift to do so.

  • If the power is with you (e.g. in exploring yourself, altering your worldview and/or developing your capabilities), then great. Jump on, strap in, and enjoy the ride!
  • If it is elsewhere, then your role (if you so choose to take it) is to work on causing ‘them’ to see what you have seen, via eye-opening experiences, just as you did. Don’t resort to merely writing it down in a report.

A Summary In five bullets:

  1. ‘Go to the action’ (whatever that is for you) and observe what happens (regularly, respectfully, rigorously)
  1. Have eye-opening experiences (encounter anomalies to your thinking)
  1. Pause to reflect (wrestle with those disorienting dilemmas)
    • The learning cycle may assist
  1. Ask yourself, and those with you, what’s beneath this? (what premise(s) do you need to re-examine?8)
  1. Locate the power to change the premise (ref. dichotomy of control) and act accordingly:
    • …it’s likely to be a combination of the two!

 A couple of extra thoughts…

A truth criterion as your anchor

Critical reflection sounds awesome…but against what?

I’m reminded of Peter Checkland around the need for an ‘advanced declaration of what constitutes knowledge of a situation.’

It’s all very well having oodles of reflections, but we could do with an anchor from which to tether them to…such as a desirable purpose.

Otherwise, we might find ourselves indulging in copious amounts of navel-gazing9 and going nowhere.

…and, of course, critical reflection would also include regular reflection on what you’ve defined as your purpose anchor.

Making critical reflection a habit

It’s worth pondering the well-known quote:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Will Durant, writing about Aristotle’s work)

This seems to contradict the ‘thoughtfulness staircase’ picture above…but perhaps it’s elegantly linking the top step back around to the bottom step, in an endless loop.

If we want to become comfortable with, and competent in, critical reflection, we perhaps need to purposefully work on exercises and routines that cause us to experience it repeatedly…thus making it a habit.

I won’t presume to tell you what your routines should be. That’s for you to reflect on…

 

Footnotes:

1. Thanks Ange 🙂

2. On the topic of reflection: As ever, I am straying into a large field of knowledge, so what I write will be biased to what I have read/ understood (vs. what I have not) and constrained by how deeply (i.e. shallow) I dive within a short blog post.

Reflection could be written about in many different ways e.g. about oneself or about the world around us (and the systems within). A big part of reflection should necessarily be about becoming aware of our own social conditioning and (current) ‘lens’ on the world (including the biases within).

3. Mezirow’s paper (sourced from here) is titled ‘Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: How critical reflection triggers transformative learning’

4. A staircase: I’ve chosen to visualise these four definitions on a staircase (Mezirow did not). I’m not criticising ‘habit’…it’s rather good for when I’m driving my car etc. However, it is the bottom step of the stairs if I want to improve.

5. Time & Space: Many organisations appear not to value time spent (or is that wasted?!) on ‘reflection’. It’s seen as ‘people not doing work’…and yet there’s often a ‘poster on the wall’ championing a learning culture.

6. The ‘So what?’ reflection: This can be difficult to do well because it’s very easy to self-justify and get defensive (and not realise this). This is where Argyris and Schon’s work on productive reasoning fits well.

7. The ‘Now what?’ reflection: Sadly, many people skip getting to the critical ‘so what’ reflections and jump straight into the action piece. However, if we do the ‘so what’ properly, we’ll be working on the ‘right stuff’ in the ‘now what’.

8. Premise to re-examine: This may be the very nature of the system you presume you are working with (ref. ordered vs. complex vs….)

9. Navel-gazing: I’m using this term here to mean ‘becoming excessively absorbed in self-analysis, to the detriment of actually moving forwards.’ However, on checking the definition of navel-gazing online, I love the fact that I find the practice of Omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing in Greek) to be an aid to meditation 🙂 .

The ‘Spaghetti notes’ phenomenon

Most people I know like pasta. I don’t. I find it bland and boring (sorry Italy).

I find spaghetti particularly annoying. No matter how much I eat, the portion in my dish never seems to reduce. It gets all tangled on my fork, it dangles everywhere, and it makes a big mess.

Which is a nice segue to this post:

The more ‘functional’ (i.e. specialised/ compartmentalised) a service has been designed then…

…the more likely that a client must speak with lots of different people (‘a new person every time’)

and the more likely that the client’s needs are then broken up into ‘transactions’ and passed on (a.k.a ‘referred’) to lots of other people to work on…

…the more people ‘touch’ (i.e. work on) a client record…

…the more file notes are left on the client record…

…the harder it is for someone working on a client record to work out what is going on…

…the more likely that, during a client interaction, the person attempting to help can’t possibly read ‘all the notes’ and so only reads what is obvious to them in the time (that they feel1) they have available to them…

…the more likely that something important is missed from within the notes…

…the more likely that inappropriate/ incomplete actions are taken and, worse, serious errors are made…

…the more likely that a client needs more work done2 on their record (to deal with the resultant failure demands, to ‘undo’ the actions taken, and the knock-on effects)…

…the more likely that a ‘leaving good notes’ policy is rolled out (including ‘best practice note templates’ and ‘quality control’ by inspection of note taking)…

…the more time taken by everyone working on a client record to make detailed notes (and to ‘police’ this)…

…the more involved each note becomes…

…the even harder it is to work out what is going on (because there’s yet more notes and each one has become painful to read – even containing internal hieroglyphics to supposedly make an ‘easier to consume’ short-hand)…

…until we arrive at the ‘spaghetti notes phenomenon’ where it’s virtually impossible to know, let alone understand, what’s gone on when viewing a client record, and it would take days of effort from a dedicated and experienced worker to review all the notes and patch them together into a coherent whole…

…and if they do this, they will stand back and think “oh my @%&!, what a pile of waste it took to achieve a shite client experience.”

 

The final ‘nail in the coffin’: Someone helping a client can often look at the spaghetti before them in the client record and (rationally) arrive at the conclusion that it would be much easier to ignore all the notes and talk to the client as if they are starting all over again.

 

Reflection:

Focusing on making good notes is an example of single-loop learning (‘making a wrong thing righter’).

The real problem isn’t with the notes, it’s with the design of the system that means that so many people are working on the same client record, because it’s this that creates the spaghetti.

 

Clarification: I’m absolutely NOT against good notes – if I’d worked on a client file a month ago, I’d like to read my own note that effectively and efficiently reminds me where I left off. I’d also like any colleague to be able to read it and gain a similar understanding.

What I AM against is a system design that causes a ‘note making’ reinforcing feedback loop3.

 

Footnotes

1. A person helping a client could take a great deal of time to work through the notes – to make sure that they gain the necessary understanding – but does their working environment cause them to think that this time isn’t available to them?

Do they feel like they’ve got to get through x number of tasks today and so time is of the essence?

2. And, of course, this ‘more work’ needs yet more notes adding to the client record.

In my experience, a ‘here’s what we did to undo an error’ file note is a convoluted thing to read (let alone write), and almost impossible to follow because ‘you had to be there’ to actually get it…which means that such file notes are often glossed over because it’s easier to do so…which leads us back around into the same torturous circle.

3. For those readers that may not understand what this means, a reinforcing loop is one in which the result of an action produces yet more of the same action, thus producing growth (or decline depending on which direction the action in question is leading).

On Vector Measurement: the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of

I’ll start this post with an excerpt from a podcast in which Stephen Fry was the guest. He recalled the following passage from a Sherlock Holmes book:

“You know Watson, the statistician has shown that we can predict, to an extraordinary order of accuracy, the behaviour of the ‘average man’

…but no one has yet, and probably never will be able to predict how an individual will behave.” (Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of Four’ as verbally recalled by Stephen Fry)

Fry went on to add:

“We can be talked about as ‘a mass’, and advertisers and politicians…and all kinds of other people are very good at knowing how we behave as a group, but as individuals we are unknowable without face-to-face conversation, and [knowing a person’s] history and so on.” (Stephen Fry)

This made me smile. He is discussing a point that is (for me) quite profound and I’d like to use it to link a few things together1.

A reminder about Complex vs. Complicated

I wrote a post ages ago that explained the difference between a complex and ordered system (ref. ‘It’s complicated…or is it?’)

If you’d really like to delve into this, then I’d recommend looking at the Cynefin sense making framework2.

In short3:

  • An ordered system (whether simple or complicated) is predictable. There are known or knowable cause-and-effect relationships.

There are right answers (which may be self-evident or may require expert diagnosis)

  • A complex system is unpredictable. The elements (for example people) influence and evolve with one another. The past makes sense in retrospect (i.e. it is explainable) BUT this doesn’t lead to foresight because the system, and its environment, are constantly changing.

 It’s not about having answers, it’s about what emerges from changing circumstances and how to respond.

The difference between the two is hugely important.

On working in a system with a purpose of helping people

There are many social systems that are put in place with the intent of helping people with their lives. As an example: most (so called) developed countries have social welfare systems that provide a level of income support. They also help people with their housing needs and gaining employment.

Each of these welfare systems has a choice as to how it sees the people that need their help, and therefore how they choose to design their response.

The ‘average person’ response

The welfare system can look at their population of ‘clients’ and create a host of data about ‘the average’.

They can even break this population down into cohorts and look at more detailed ‘averages’. They might even design ‘personas’ around the ‘average’ per cohort.

But, if they design responses to individuals with reference to these averages, then they are falling into Sherlock Holmes’ stated error – that they believe they can know about an individual from an average.

They would be presuming an ordered (complicated) system and designing answers in response.

Example4:, We can all understand that, on average, it is beneficial for a person to gain employment and thus be able to become independent from the welfare system…so the ‘ordered’ answer must surely be ‘get everyone into work’…so let’s direct all our focus (and targets) to achieving this!

The ‘individual’ response

Each person reliant on a welfare system has a complexity to their life (whether we see this or not).

Expanding upon this, the complexities for many ‘clients’ can be huge – such as:

  • dependents (children, and others that they care for)
  • lack of permanent address and other financial barriers
  • limited education and work experience
  • mental health (incl. depression, anxiety), habits and addictions
  • physical disabilities
  • family violence
  • criminal records
  • history of institutional care
  • …etc.

If those working in the welfare system want to achieve meaningful help, then the starting point is for them to know the client as an individual, and then iteratively work alongside them according to what emerges.

Measurement of success

We would hope that each welfare system has thought about what its purpose is, from a client’s point of view, and that this is the anchor point from which everything else is tethered.

Such a purpose will likely be about helping people towards ‘good’ outcomes (such as independence, safety, …and other dimensions of wellbeing)

A welfare system should want to measure its performance against that purpose.

If I’ve assumed an ordered system (via the ‘average person’ design response) then I will take my ordered answers (in this example ‘getting people into work’) and likely measure things like ‘Number of clients into employment this period’. I might even set targets to (ahem) motivate my staff….

…and I will predictably (though unintentionally) promote dysfunctional behaviour5:

  • A mindset of whose ‘on my books’? (and therefore, who can I get off them)
  • Who can I get into work quickly? (with the reverse effect of leaving the ‘difficult ones’ languishing to one side)
  • What work can I get them into? (as opposed to what will help them succeed)
  • Who needs coaxing/ persuading and what can I use as levers to do this?
  • Who got themselves into work by themselves (i.e. without any help from us)…so that I can ‘count them in my numbers’
  • ….

Attempting to push someone into work might be an incredibly dumb thing to do for that individual (and for those that depend upon them).

The above is not blaming anyone working in such a system. It is to say that these are, sadly, “healthy responses to absurd work” (Herzberg).

To Vector Measurement

If I correctly see that the welfare system is a complex one, then I realise that I need to work at the level of the individual.

The type of measure that fits for a complex system is a vector measure. A reminder from schoolboy maths that a vector has both speed and direction. It is especially used to determine the position of one thing, in relation to another.

I will know the performance of my system if I regularly measure, for each individual, their speed and direction of travel – from where they are now towards, or away from, a better place (as defined by them).

Such a measure causes a total focus on the individual:

  • whether things are working for them or not
  • whether to continue with the current stimuli and perhaps amplify them; or
  • whether to dampen them and work to stimulate new ideas

It’s very likely that there will be a collection of unique needs per individual, and therefore a set of vectors to be monitored (one per need). These may cluster around the various dimensions of wellbeing (see footnote for a wellbeing model6).

Example: My financial wellbeing might be slightly (and temporarily) better off because you pushed me into a job, but my mental wellbeing might be sinking like a stone because it really wasn’t appropriate.

Which leads to…

Measuring over time

Vector measurement shouldn’t be one-off thing. The individual is on a (lifelong) journey. The reference point is continually changing, but the question of ‘better or worse off?’ (or perhaps progressing vs regressing) is a constant.

As such, each person steps from one place to another, sometimes forwards (i.e. towards where they thought they wanted to go), sometime diagonally (to new possibilities that have emerged) and sometimes backwards (requiring reflection and perhaps some helpful interventions).

Playing with a way to visualise such a journey7, it might look something like this:

If we were measuring the performance of a system aimed at helping individuals, we would want:

  • the aggregate of our clients to be going forwards (and most certainly not be stuck and dependent on us); and
  • to spot the individuals who are stuck or, worse, going backwards, so that we can (quickly) help;

Returning to the ‘average person’

Every welfare system says that it wants good outcomes for those that they are tasked with helping. Whether this happens will depend upon how we think this can be achieved.

I contrast:

  • Fighting people into (what we have determined for them as) good outcomes;

with

  • Dancing8 with people towards what they arrive at as their good outcomes

I hope you can see that if we truly help ‘the individual’ then, on average, people are quite likely to move towards employment (and better mental health and…). But this is a case of ‘cause’ (helping individuals) and ‘effect’ (improving the average).

Conversely, I can ‘badger the non-existent average’ till I’m blue in the face…but it would be the wrong place to work from!

In summary:

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex intelligent behaviour.

[Complicated] rules and regulations give rise to simple stupid behaviour(Dee Hock)

The simple, clear measure of ‘are you better or worse off (as defined by you)’? will give rise to all sorts of varied, individualised and highly relevant actions and interaction.

The complicated rules around, say, how many people a team is supposed to get into employment this period, what counts as ‘getting employment’, what rules determine who gets the credit, how long does this ‘employment’ need to be sustained to keep the credit,…and so on, will give rise to simple, stupid behaviour.

 

Footnotes:

1. Sources for this post: As is so often the case when I am energised to ‘write it down’ in a post, the ideas within are because of a coming together (at least in my mind) between a few separate things.

The main two for this post are:

Whilst the former is about ‘the individual’ and the latter is (I think) written with respect to, say, an organisation (or bigger system), I see them as complimentary.

Richard Davis’ Chapter 4 ‘Using data’ nicely shows an example of an individual with a set of needs (as defined by them), and how they are doing against each over time.

Dave Snowden’s piece adds to, and broadens, Richard Davis’s work by naming, and clearly articulating, vector measurement.

2. Cynefin: There’s also a useful book called ‘Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world’ by Dave Snowden and friends

3. Sensemaking framework: I have chosen to provide a very brief reminder here. I have omitted the ideas of chaos, disorder, and liminality.

4. Employment as an example: I could have used various examples to make this point. I picked employment after reading an article about a new UK Govt. initiative called ‘The way to work’, with a target to get 500,000 into work.

The article is titled ‘Way to Work Scheme: forcing people into jobs they aren’t suited for has damaging effects’.

The article also links on to a systematic review by University of Glasgow on the research in this area. The abstract notes

“…we found that labour market studies…consistently reported positive impacts for employment [i.e. yes, we can ‘force people into work’] but negative impacts for job quality and stability in the longer term, along with increased transitions to non-employment or economic inactivity. …increased material hardship and health problems. There was also some evidence that sanctions were associated with increased child maltreatment and poorer child well-being.”

5. Dysfunctional behaviour: A reminder that this isn’t a case of ‘bad people’; this is normal people attempting to survive within their system.

6. Wellbeing: Googling the (often referenced) notion of wellbeing shows that there are lots of different (though similar) n-dimensional models of wellbeing ‘out there’.

Using the Te Whare Tapa Whā model, as derived by Sir Mason Durie, four core dimensions of wellbeing are:

  • Taha tinana: Our physical health
  • Taha hinengaro: Our mental and emotional health
  • Taha whānau: Our social wellness (e.g. a sense of connection, belonging, contributing, and being supported)
  • Taha wairua: Our spiritual wellness (g. a sense of purpose and meaning in life/ the degree of peace and harmony in our lives )

Other dimensions that feed into (i.e. will likely affect) these four core wellbeing dimensions include:

  • Our financial/ economic situation (now) & outlook (expected)
    • e.g. access to resources (food, clothing, shelter,…)
  • Our environmental situation – where we live
    • e.g. safe, clean, pleasant, cohesive, with access to facilities
  • Our intellectual situation – what we do (education, work, and leisure)
    • e.g. stimulating/ creative, productive/ useful, learning/ developing/growth, autonomous (self-determining)

7. Visualising the journey: I’m sure that there are lots of people far more skilled than me that could really ‘get into’ how to visualise a person’s journey (and probably have).

The point is to be able to see it, as a vector, moving over time, comparing ‘where I was’ to ‘where I am now’ on some useful dimensions. These could be:

  • a set of needs as identified through actively listening to the person (as per Richard Davis); and/or
  • a set of wellbeing dimensions (as derived from a useful wellbeing model)

 To clarify: This would be the opposite of scoring where the person is at on a goal set by the welfare system that is ‘managing’ them.

A reminder that the former recognises the person’s complexity, whilst the latter assumes an ordered reality…which is not the case.

8. Re. Dancing with people: This phrase might sound flippant – I have no wish to be simplistic about people whose lives are really tough. It comes from the rather nice concept as explained by Miller and Rollnick in their book on Motivational Interviewing.

Part 2: The problem of changing from ‘this’ (Control) to ‘that’ (Autonomy)

This post discusses a ‘how’ and follows on from a discussion of the ‘what and why’ in Part 1: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling (a Dec ’21 post – it only took me 7 months!)

I’ll assume you know that the ‘how’ I am writing about is with respect to an approach to moving a large people-centred system:

  • from (attempted) control
  • to autonomy (and its enablement).

Please (re)read ‘part 1’ if you need to (including what is meant by people-centred)

 Oh for the luxury of a ‘Green field’!

You could be fortunate to start in a relatively ‘green field’ situation (i.e. with very little already in place).

This is what Jos de Blok did in 2006 when he founded the community healthcare provider Buurtzorg in the Netherlands. He started with a few like-minded colleagues to form a self-managed team (i.e. an autonomous unit), and when it reached a defined size (which, in their model, is a team of 12), it ‘calved off’ another autonomous unit.

Buurtzorg carried on doing this until, 10 years later, there were 850 highly effective self-managing teams (autonomous units) in towns and villages all over the country.

In doing this, the autonomous units evolved the desire to have some (very limited) support functions, that would enable (and most definitely not attempt to control) them.

Sounds wonderful.

But many (most) of us don’t have this green field scenario.

We are starting with huge organisations, with thousands of workers within an existing set of highly defined (and usually inflexible) structures. The local, regional and (usually large and deeply functionalised) central model exist in the ‘here and now’.

So, the Buurtzoorg example (whilst recognised as a brilliant social system) is limited.

Rather, we would do well to look to an organisation that successfully changed itself after it had become a big control system. And Handelsbanken is, for me, a highly valuable organisation to study in this regard.

 

Some context on Handelsbanken

I recall writing about Handelsbanken and their forward-thinking CEO Jan Wallander some time back…and, after searching around, found a couple of articles that I wrote five years ago (how time flies!). A reminder if you are interested:

I’ve added some historical context1 in a footnote at the bottom of this post, but the upshot is that the results have been hugely impressive, such that they have been written into management case studies and books. Wallander successfully transformed the organisation, for the long term. It is now an International bank (across 6 countries) and turned 150 years old in 2021. It continually wins awards for customer satisfaction, financial safety, and sustainability.

I should deal with a likely critique before I go any further:

“But it’s a bank Steve!!!” Over the last few years, my area of interest has become the social sector (rather than ‘for profit’ organisations)…and, if you’ve noticed this, you may be questioning my use of a bank for this ‘Part 2’ post.

I’d respond that much of Jan Wallander’s thinking fits incredibly well for organisational design within the social sector. He saw that the answer was ‘about the long-term client journey’ (people-centred), within a community and NOT about pushing ‘products and services’.

 

An introduction to the ‘how’

I’ll break up my explanation into:

  • Some key ‘up-front’ points;
  • How Wallander achieved the transformation; and
  • The core of Wallander’s organisational design

 

Some key ‘up front’ points

“As a rule, it is large and complex systems and structures that have to be changed if a real change is to take place.” [Wallander]

  • There is no magic ‘let’s do another change programme’ silver bullet. It is a change in organisational paradigm
  • It will take time and, above all, leadership (in the true meaning of the word)
  • Most important for the ‘leadership’ bit is that those leading ‘get the why’. Constancy of purpose can only come from this

 

How Wallander achieved the transformation

Saying and doing are quite different things. I expect that I could have lots of agreeable conversations with people throughout an organisation (and particularly with those at its ‘centre’) about ‘autonomy at the front line, with enablement from the centre’and yet nothing would change.

The following quote interests me greatly:

“The reason why [such an ‘autonomy and enabling’ system] is so rare and so difficult to achieve is quite simply that people who have power…are unwilling to hand part of it over to anyone else – a very human reaction. So, if one is to succeed, one needs a firm and clear goal and one has to begin at the top…with oneself.” [Wallander]

Which leads on to…

Wallander’s head office problem

“The staff working at the head office saw themselves as smarter, better educated and ‘more up-to-date’ than the great mass of practical men and women out in the field. They also felt superior because they were in close contact with the highest authority [i.e. the members of the senior management team].

A steady stream of instructions…poured out from the head office departments…amounting to several hundred a month. Even if a branch manager was critical of these instructions and recommendations, he did not feel he had any possibility of questioning them.” [Wallander]

Wallander saw things very differently to this:

“The new policy…aimed at turning the pyramid upside down and making the branch office2 the primary units.

In the old organisation there was a clear hierarchy: at the bottom of the scale were the branch offices, and on the next step up the [regional] centres. [‘Success’ was] a move up to a post at the head office.

In the new organisation, it was service at the branch offices that would be the primary merit…[because] it was the branch offices that gave the bank its income [i.e. delivered value to clients, towards their purpose]

In the new organisation:

    • the branch offices were the buyers of [enabling services]; and
    • the [central] departments the sellers who needed to cover their costs.”

It’s one thing saying this. It’s quite another achieving it. So how did Wallander do it?

Put simply, he stopped ‘push to’ the front line and enabled ‘pull by’ the front line.

Initially, he wanted to ‘stop the train’:

“[Head office] Departments were forbidden to send out any more memos to the branch offices apart from those that were necessary for daily work and reports to the authorities [e.g. regulators].

[All the head office] committees and working groups engaged in various development projects…were told to stop their work at once and the secretaries were asked to submit a report on not more than one A4 page describing what the work had resulting in so far.”

Then he wanted to change the direction:

“An important tool in the change process was the creation of a central planning committee that had a majority of members representing the branch offices.

This committee summoned the managers of the various head office departments, who had to report on what they were planning to do… and how much it would cost the branch offices [i.e. what value would be derived].

The committee could then decide [what was of use to their clients] and [where they considered it was not] the departmental managers were sent back to do their homework again.

In short, those delivering to clients (the branch offices) were given ‘right of veto’ over those from elsewhere proposing changes to this.

This had a dramatic effect. If you are a central department and you don’t want to be wasting your time on unwanted stuff (and who does?), then you’d better (regularly) get out to the front line, observe what’s happening, understand what’s required and/or getting in the way, and then collaborate on helping to resolve.

Further, if (after doing this) a central department develops something that the branches don’t want to use, then the next step turns into dialogue (leading to deeper understanding and valuable pivots in direction), not enforcement.

…which would create adult – adult interactions (rather than parent – child).

 

The core of the organisational design

I’m going to set out a bunch of inter-related points that need to be taken together for their effect to take hold. Here goes:

1. The local team ‘owns’ the client (relationship):

A client isn’t split up into lots of ‘bits’ and referred ‘all over the place’. Rather, the local team owns the client, as a whole person, throughout their journey. This provides: the client with direct access to the people responsible for helping them; and the local team with meaningful work.

“If you want people motivated to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” (Hertzberg)

2. The local team functions as a semi-autonomous self-managing unit, and is the primary unit of importance:

They are fully responsible for their local cohort of clients and, where they need to, pulling expertise to them (rather than pushing them off to other places).

3. The local team manager is a hugely important role:

This is because they are the linchpin (the vital link). They are responsible for:

  • the meaningful and sustained help provided to their local cohort of clients;
  • the development and wellbeing of the local team helping clients; AND
  • ensuring that the necessary support is being pulled from (and being provided by) the enabling centre.

They are NOT the enforcers of the centre’s rules. Rather they are the stewards of their local community (clients and employees).  This is a big responsibility…which means turning the ‘local team manager’ into a highly desirable role and promoting highly capable people into it.

In a reversal of thinking:

  • the old way was that you ran a local site in the hope of one day moving ‘up’ to head office
  • the new way is that a job at the centre might be a stepping-stone to being appointed as one of the highly respected local team managers

4. The capability of the local team employees is paramount:

If the local team are to truly help clients, then focused, ongoing time and effort needs to go into developing their capability to do this.

They are no longer merely ‘front line order takers’…so they need help to develop and grow (‘on the job’, ‘in the moment’).

5. Local team employees must receive a reasonable salary:

If we want people to develop and grow such that they deliver outstanding help to their clients, then we need to pay them accordingly. This is not ‘unskilled’ work (whatever that means nowadays).

 

Putting points 1 through to 5 together creates a virtuous circle: meaningful work, self-direction, relatedness, growth, wellbeing…and back around to meaningful work.

 

We now turn to some enabling principles:

6. The centre’s job is to enable (and NOT control) the local team:

Basically, re-read (if you need to) what I’ve written above about Wallander’s head office problem and how to transform this.

THE core principle here is that the local teams (via representation) have right of veto over central ideas for change.  After all, YOU (the centre) are impacting upon THEIR clients.

For those of you ‘in the centre’ who are thinking “but this is Bullsh!t, the problem is that the local team just don’t get why [my brilliant change] is necessary!” then

  • either they know something you don’t…and so you’d better get learning
  • and/or you know something they don’t…and so you’d better get into a productive dialogue with them

…and whichever it is, a dose of experiential learning (at the Gemba) is likely to be the route out of any impasse.

In short: If the local team don’t ‘get it’ or don’t ‘want it’ then the centre has more work to do!

7. All employees (local team and centre) need clarity of purpose and a set of guiding principles:

Whilst we want each and every local team ‘thinking for itself’, we need them all to be going in the same direction. For this to occur, they need a simple, clear (client centred) purpose and principles, to use as their anchor for everything they do…and with this they can amaze us!

Which leads to one of my all-time favourite quotes:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour.

Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.” (Dee Hock)

We also need the ‘centre’ (and most definitely senior management) to live and breathe the purpose and principles*. Without this it’s just ‘happy talk’.

* Note: This list of nine points (and the context around them) is a good start on a core set of principles.

8. There needs to be transparency across local teams as to the outcomes being achieved (towards purpose):

A key role for the centre is simply to make transparent that which is being achieved, so that this is clear to all…and then resist dictating ‘answers’.

This means that each local team can see their outcomes and those of all the other local teams…and can therefore gain feedback, which creates curiosity, stimulates collaboration, generates innovation, and produces learning towards purpose…

…we are then on the way to a purpose-seeking organisation.

Once outcomes are transparent, then if the centre is demonstrably able to help, it is highly likely that local teams will pull for it.

 Clarification: Transparency of systemic outcomes towards purpose, NOT activities and outputs (i.e. how many ‘widgets’ were shoved from ‘a’ to ‘b’ and how quickly!)

 

and last, but by no means least…

9. The budget process needs to be replaced with something better:

I’m not going to write anything detailed on this, as I’ve written about this before. You are welcome to explore this point if you wish: ‘The Great Budget God in the Sky’.

In short, the conventional budget process is also a HUGE problem for a system in meeting its client defined purpose.

 Right, I’m one point short of ‘The Ten Commandments’…so I’ll stop there. This isn’t a religion 🙂

 

To close

The above might seem unpalatable, even frightening, to the current ‘Head Office machine’ but there’s still seriously important work for ‘the centre’ to do…but just different to how you do it now.

In fact, if those in the centre really thought about it (and looked at the copious evidence), how much of what the head office machine currently does provides truly meaningful and inspiring work for you? Perhaps not so much.

Sure, we tell ourselves that we’ve ‘delivered’ what we said we would, according to a budget and timescale…but how are those clients going? Are things (really) getting better for them, or are they stuck and perhaps even going backwards?

How would you know? I expect the local team could tell you!

 

Footnotes:

1. Historical context: Handelsbanken was, back at the end of the 1960s, a large historic Swedish bank that had got itself into an existential crisis

It was run in the typical functionalised, centralised command-and-control manner, according to the dominant management ideas emanating from American management schools (and which still leave a heavy mark on so many organisations today)

The Handelsbanken Board decided to headhunt a new CEO in an attempt to turn things around (i.e. ‘transform’ in the proper use of the word)

Dr. Jan Wallander was an academic who, through years of research and experience, had arrived at a systemic human-centred management philosophy. To test his thinking, he had taken up the role of CEO at a small Swedish bank (which was becoming an increasingly successful competitor of Handelsbanken)

The Handelsbanken Board were struck with the highly successful outcomes that Wallander had achieved, and they wanted him to rescue them from their crisis.

In 1970 he said yes to their request…but with strings attached: They had to allow him the time and space to put his ideas into practice.

2. ‘Local team’, ‘Branch’, ….: Organisations choose various words to refer to their local presence, be it office, site, shop, outlet, etc. What matters most is the decentralised thinking, not the word chosen or even how the ‘localness’ manifests itself.

I’ve used the generic phrase ‘local team’ in this blog because it implies (to me) a distinct group of people looking after their clients. You’ll note that Jan Wallander refers to the ‘Branch’ in this respect (which fits with his banking world). You can substitute any word you wish so long as it retains the point.

3. The detail for this post comes mainly from Jan Wallander’s book ‘Decentralisation – Why and How to make it work: The Handelsbanken Way’. It is an interesting (and relatively short) read.

I found this book a bit hard to get hold of. I got mine shipped from Sweden…though I had a little mishap of accidently procuring the Swedish language version – sadly, not much use to me and my limited linguistic skills. I happily amended my order to the English version.

4. ‘Within a community’: The conventional public sector model is to have a huge number of branches within a given community – one for each central government department, one for each separate NGO, etc. etc. They are (virtually always) at cross purposes with each other, causing vulnerable clients to have to adopt the inappropriate (and unacceptable) position of trying to ‘project manage’ themselves through the malaise.

The need is to replace this controlling central-ness (lots of central Octopuses with overlapping local tentacles) with meaningful local teams. This is a huge subject in itself, and worthy of another post (or a series of).

Control Charts: A ‘how to’ guide

A key component of Deming’s ‘Theory of Profound Knowledge’ is in relation to the measurement of performance (of a system) and the ‘Theory of Variation’.

I’ve noticed over the years that, whilst the foundational points around variation can be well understood, the use of control charts within operational practice can be ‘absolutely butchered’ (technical term 🙂 ).

 

This caused me to write a ‘how to’ guide a while back, for me and my colleagues.

I recently ‘dusted it down’ and tidied it up into a version 2.0 in order that I can share it more widely, for anyone who can find value within.

I attach it as a pdf document for anyone interested:

Control charts – a how to guide V2.0

It doesn’t replace the excellent writings of Donald Wheeler…though it hopefully makes you curious to ‘pull’ his writings towards you.

It doesn’t tell you what to measure…because it couldn’t!

It doesn’t ‘do it for you’…but, hopefully, it does give you enough so that you can experiment with doing it for yourself.

…and it can’t beat working alongside someone who knows what they are doing, and can act as your coach.

 

Note: If you do end up using/ sharing this guide then I’d be grateful if you could add a simple comment at the bottom of this page so that I am aware of this. Not because I’m going to invoice you (I’m not!)…but because I would find this knowledge useful (#feedback).

You might tell me: what you thought of it (warts and all), where you might use it, whether you have shared it with others (and whether they appreciated this or not!)… and if it has improved your measurement practices.

Thanks, Steve

Word soup: The ‘V’ words

A very short post…

I’ve written a fair bit on this blog over the years using the v word(s).

A useful interaction with a colleague1 today caused us to become clearer on our terms (always a good thing).

In the spirit of sharing (and at the risk of stating the bleedin obvious):

1. Variance = a difference, usually between what was expected/wanted and what happened (e.g. a discrepancy)

2. Variation = the act of varying (i.e. that something changes/ is changing)

3. Variety = the quality of being varied; diversity

4. A variant = a specific instance of variety

They are inter-related, though different terms. They vary 🙂

I’d add: beware of (improperly) analysing 1; constantly work to see and understand 2; embrace 3; and you are a great example of 4.

For those of you who are now wondering what on earth I’m on about, here are links to some previous posts that explain the importance of the V words (particularly variation and variety):

Footnote:

  1. Thanks Sarah

The Righting Reflex

So I overheard a conversation the other day: One person was desperately trying to convince another person of the ‘right thing to do’…

…and for every (highly rational) justification provided by the would-be ‘persuader’, a counter was volleyed back by the ‘subject’ of the persuasion….which led the (what we might loosely label as) ‘conversation’ onwards to the next round.

I listened until, eventually, the persuader had exhausted all avenues of logic, and ran out of steam. The subject had become quite entrenched and the persuader was frustrated and worn out.

The conversation ended at an impasse, with a solid divide achieved between its participants.

It was at this point that I reflected on an important few pages at the beginning of an excellent Miller and Rollnick book1. I searched out and re-read these pages to remind myself of the message within. I will now try to write a short post that I hope does them justice:

Ambivalence to change:

Ambivalence: the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.” [Oxford English Dictionary]

People partake in lots of risky behaviours, such as: smoking, drinking too much alcohol; eating a poor diet; not exercising; not taking their medication2

I’m sure you could keep adding to this list based on your experiences and of those around you.

Most people that do these things understand that there are ‘downsides’, whether it be their health, finances, relationships with others, environmental impacts…. They can also describe the positives that would come from a change in their behaviour.

Yet they experience a conflict.

Most people who need to make a change are ambivalent about doing so. They see both reasons to change and reasons not to. They want to change and they don’t want to, all at the same time. It is a normal human experience.” [Miller & Rollnick]

Miller and Rollnick go on to describe two kinds of talk:

Change talk: a person’s own statements that favour change; and

Sustain talk: the person’s own arguments for NOT changing, for sustaining the status quo

If we listen to a person who is in a state of ambivalence, we will usually hear both change talk and sustain talk occur, even in the same sentence. Such as:

“I’d love to…but I can’t because…”

“I know that I should…but how can I if…”

“I get that the right thing to do is… but what’s the point when…”

The cadence of the conversation is “yes, but…” i.e. [change talk] and then [sustain talk].

Miller and Rollnick go on to say that:

“There is something peculiarly sticky about ambivalence, even though it can be an uncomfortable place to be. People can remain stuck there for a long time, vacillating between two choices, two paths, or two relationships. Take a step in one direction and the other starts to look better. The closer you get to one alternative, the more its disadvantages become apparent while nostalgia for the other beckons.

A common pattern is to think of a reason for changing, then think of a reason for not changing, then stop thinking about it.

[However] the path out of ambivalence is to choose a direction and to follow it, to keep moving in the chosen direction.”

The ‘helper’ with the righting reflex:

Let’s suppose that we have an ambivalent person (i.e. most people) interacting with a person that wants to help them (again, most people).

The helper’s natural reflex is to champion the ‘good’ side of the argument for change, usually with explanations of why its good, and advice as to how to move towards it.

By doing this, the helper is idealistically supposing that the person is going to respond along the lines of “gosh, I hadn’t realised/ thought of that” and/or “yes, yes, you are sooo right!”

However, Miller and Rollnick point out that:

“Arguments both for and against change already reside within the ambivalent person”

Further, the ambivalent person has probably already heard the helper’s ‘good’ arguments from others, as well as from their inner voice.

If we recall from above that the cadence of ambivalent conversations is “yes, but…”, then all the helper is doing is starting the ‘yes’ (change talk) part of the sentence, with the predictable response that the ambivalent person falls into completing it with the ‘but…’ (sustain talk) part.

Argue for one side and the ambivalent person is likely to take up and defend the opposite. This sometimes gets labelled as ‘denial’ or ‘resistance’ or ‘being oppositional’ but there is nothing pathological about such responses. It is the normal nature of ambivalence and debate.”

You might think “mmm, I can see that such a conversation hasn’t moved the ambivalent person forwards… but what harm has been done?”

However, this pattern of conversation isn’t benign:

“Causing someone to verbalise one side of an issue tends to move the person’s balance of opinions in that direction.”

And so, to the monumentally important ‘punch line’:

‘If you as a helper are arguing for change, and [the person you are trying to help] is arguing against it, you’ve got it exactly backward.”

 Scratching the surface3 of what to do instead:

So, if the righting reflex4 is likely to send someone in the wrong direction, what should a would-be helper do instead? A couple of quotes to reflect upon:

“What people really need is a good listening to.” (Mary Lou Casey)

“Listen to the [person], and they will tell you [what you need to know]” (Hippocrates)

So, how about:

  • beginning with asking a thoughtful open question5 that invites the person to think, and choose how they respond
  • respectfully listening to what the person has to say; and
  • reflecting back (affirming, developing, summarising) what the person has shared

…which will likely lead to more open questions, more sharing and listening and more reflection.

A nice way of thinking about this is that the conversation should feel “like dancing rather than wrestling. One moves with, rather than against, the person.”

Such an approach is known as active listening.

Here’s a definition:

Active listening is…the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, reflecting back what is said, whilst withholding judgement and advice.”

A great deal of the listening that we commonly do isn’t to understand, it is just ‘listening to respond’…which is highly limited in its effectiveness.

There’s a fantastic ‘side effect’ of active listening:

“It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens” (Carl Rogers)

Have you ever noticed that the act of being able to talk to someone about your problem6 (i.e. that they properly listen to you) is very often the catalyst for you to move yourself forwards? It’s as if the listener did nothing…and yet they changed everything!

Why is this?

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they themselves discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.” (Blaise Pascal)

 To close:

Going back to the very beginning of this post, and the conversation that I overhead, you can probably imagine the predictable and firm direction that it took as the (attempted) helper was drawn into arguing through the list of ‘good’ reasons for change.

It was like listening to a metaphorical car crash. Every attempt at help made things worse.

Footnotes:

1. Book: Motivational Interviewing – helping people change, 3rd edition by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. All quotes in the post above are from this book unless otherwise attributed.

2. Re. medication: which might include vaccination

3. Re. scratching the surface: There’s sooo much more on the why and how to doing this. I’m just ‘wetting the appetite’ by opening up the topic. Refer to reference 1. for a great book that will take you deeper…

4. A definition of the term ‘the righting reflex’: “the belief that you must convince or persuade the person to do the right thing…and that you just need to ask the right questions, find the proper arguments, give the critical information, provoke the decisive emotions, or pursue the correct logic to make the person see and change.”

5. Definition of open and closed questions:

Closed: “The question implies a short answer: yes or no, a specific fact, a number etc.”

Open: “Questions that are not closed, which leave latitude for response.”

6. Clarification: Don’t expect that one conversation can uncover and resolve everything. Our understanding of another person and their situation will likely emerge as we gain their trust. They will not tell us the things we really need to know unless, and until, they trust us.

7. The image at the top of the post is of a boomerang, because it refers to the ‘Boomerang Effect’: “the unintended consequences of an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead” (Wikipedia). You can see that a helper adopting the righting reflex will likely experience the boomerang effect!

Part 1: Autonomy – Autonomy Support – Autonomy Enabling

I wrote the 1st of a 2-part post some time ago, but never published it because I didn’t get around to completing part 2. I’m finally publishing part 1 now…because it might ‘make me’ finish the 2nd part.

I’ve been on a book-reading1 and work-experiential journey over many years and have reached a place that I’d like to ‘set out clearly in writing’ (for myself, and others) …and yet I’ve struggled to do this so far (a.k.a writer’s block).

I’ve been talking ‘about’ (but not been writing) this post for months!

So here goes…

Some context:

I (and hordes of other people) work in, around, and across large, complex people-centred systems. Think government departments, NGO’s and so on who are trying to help thousands of clients2 better live their lives.

Such systems are usually highly bureaucratic, operating in an (attempted) ‘control system’ way.

They can be helped to see the problematic performance that this system design provides to their clients, but they (we) can then struggle with moving to a different way of thinking and being.

The aim of this post (‘Part 1’) is to set out the ‘what and why’ of moving to a different paradigm, where ‘control’ is replaced by ‘autonomy’. ‘Part 2’ will aim at discussing the rather important topic of a ‘how’ to get there.

As the title and opening image suggest, there’s an ‘autonomy’ chain (from the client, all the way through the system)

What follows is broken up into:

  • Link 1 (of the chain): Autonomy;
  • Link 2: Autonomy support; and
  • Link 3: Autonomy enabling.

Link 1: Autonomy – People-centred…what does that mean?

I used the term ‘people-centred systems’3 above and I should set out what is being meant, and its relevance.

(As usual) I am writing in respect of service systems (as distinct from manufacturing).

Service systems themselves have been broken into different archetypes. I’ve read various ways of setting these out4, but here’s a simplified version (of 3 archetypes) from me:

  • Archetype 1: Transactional where, given the nature of a customer’s demand (a.k.a. need), it should be able to be resolved in a single interaction.

Example: If I contact my home entertainment provider because I want to change aspects of my plan (e.g. gain access to a movie channel), then I should be able to achieve this by the end of that one interaction.

Note: this may or may not happen in the one interaction, depending on how they have designed their system to respond! It might turn into a right dog’s dinner!

  • Archetype 2: Process where, due to the nature of what the customer/ client needs, it could not be delivered in a single interaction. Instead it needs to enter a process.

Obvious example: If I contact a builder because I want an extension to my house, this can’t be delivered within an initial interaction. Instead, a bunch of (often well understood) stuff now needs to happen (and hopefully flow).

I should reach a point at which the process is completed: I’ve got what I wanted (hopefully efficiently and to a high quality) and I can go on my way.

  • Archetype 3: People-centred (or Relational) where the nature of the need is about the person (client) themselves. This is far more complex than a transaction or a process. All our social systems fit here.

Each person (client) is unique and recognising this is of fundamental importance if we are to help – we can’t just treat it like ‘a transaction’ or ‘put them through a ‘process’.

To help the person, we will need to achieve engagement with them (reaching and sustaining a trusting relationship), and then understand and support them through a (dynamic and evolving) journey in which they have the most important role to play.

The other word used here is relational, because THE important variable for successful change is the relationship between the person and their helper(s).

“At the heart of this new way of working is human connection. When people feel supported by strong human relationships, change happens. And when we design new systems that make this sort of collaboration and connection feel simple and easy, people want to join in. This is not surprising.” (Hillary Cottam, ‘Radical Help’)

The big mistake that many social systems make is that they are designed along transactional and process lines by a (centralised) control system. A relational response can’t be achieved transaction-ally. Sure, such a system might be able to ‘smash out’ transactions…but it will most likely keep its clients dependent upon it, with repeat visits and, sadly, relapses and deterioration.

So, I’ve tried to explain ‘people-centred’ and you might now think ‘er, okay, so what?’

Well, if we are talking about people, and them achieving meaningful and sustained change, then we need to understand the fundamental importance of self-determination (a.k.a autonomy).

People achieve true change when they choose to do so for themselves.

We end up with the (hopefully) rather obvious point that the best way to help another person is via autonomy support (with this concept set out in detail in a previous post), which can only happen via strong human relationships.

Link 2: Autonomy Support – Variety…and how best to handle it

So, we’ve got:

  • the uniqueness of every client and their contextual and dynamic situation;
  • each client (a human being) needing to ‘go there for themselves’; and
  • helpers (also human beings!) that need to travel alongside them, without judgement or attempts at control.

Looking at this, we can see that we have enormous variety in a people-centred system (in clients, in helpers, in ‘client–helper’ relationships). So, what’s the best way to handle this?

Turning to W. Ross Ashby’s Law of requisite variety to assist…this is explored by Gerrit Broekstra in his book ‘Building high-performance, high-trust organisations’:

“Variety is a measure of complexity and refers to the number of possible states of a system.

[There is a] colossal proliferation of variety in dynamic systems.

Applied to organisations in their complex environments, only matching the variety of the organisation can soak up the complexity of the situation with which it is confronted. No hordes of consultants, planning committees, surveys or management training courses can do the trick.

[The most effective way to deal with such variety is to] be organised on the basis of the principle of self-organisation….as exemplified in autonomous groups.

Or, to put it into a simple statement:

          “Only variety absorbs variety.” [Stafford Beer]

I recognise that the above reads as rather theoretical. Here’s a practical example:

Take any large social system. It is usually trying to serve a large geographic area (perhaps even a small country).

A central control system attempts to:

  • monitor what’s going on across the whole (ref. KPI’s);
  • judge from afar (ref. targets, comparisons);
  • design ‘solutions’ (ref. departments/ functions/ specialist roles, products & services, detailed policies and procedures…)

…and then push these out to all (to be ‘standardised’) and then…‘rinse and repeat’.

Not only does this fail to absorb client variety, it often (usually) frustrates it!

The opposite would be where each ‘locality’ functions, by design, as an autonomous unit – a group of peers who (are enabled to) take responsibility for the wellbeing of their local cohort of clients and helping them with their unique needs.

“Self-managed teams are far more productive than any other form of organising. There is a clear correlation between participation and productivity.” (Margaret Wheatley)

This creates that glorious (yet rare) combination of:

  • each client feeling that someone actually cares about them;
  • each front-line worker feeling like they have a meaningful job; and
  • each unique client situation (variety) being understood, with bespoke support provided (variety absorbing variety)

“Idleness, indifference and irresponsibility are healthy responses to absurd work…if you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do” (Frederick Herzberg)

We’ve now added the concept of autonomous units to deciding how best to help and support a cohort of autonomous clients.

So, if autonomous units are what’s required, where does that leave the concept of ‘organisation’?

Link 3: Autonomy enabling – Organisation…what should it be for?

This post is not suggesting that such autonomous units can, or even should, work on their own. It is saying that they pull for help from central support functions when they need to.

The (paradigm-shifting-ly) huge difference is that the front-line autonomous unit is the one leading what they need help with, rather than being dictated to.

They also decide whether any central support provided is actually helpful, and adopt or disregard it accordingly.

The onus is on the enabling centre to provide valuable support (as judged by those helping clients).

“The logical consequences of this way of viewing organisations, with its abundance of freedom of choice for its purposeful parts, unequivocally leads:

    • on the one hand, to the autonomy of the operating units and the people contained in it as purposeful entities; and
    • on the other hand, the remaining ‘upper part’ of the high-variety organisation as an enabling entity, actively involved in furthering the development of the autonomous unit and their people.” (Gerrit Broekstra)

A sense-check on the purpose of ‘organisation’:

“Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers…

The original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating systems do their jobs better…

This is something …that…a greatly articulated hierarchy can easily forget.

Many systems are not meeting their goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies.” (Donnella Meadows)

Right, so we’ve worked our way through the concepts of self-determining clients (tick), autonomous units (tick) and an enabling (as opposed to controlling) centre (tick), but if this is sooo good, why doesn’t this eventuate?

That’s the subject of Part 2: the problem of changing from ‘this’ to ‘that’ [Link to Part 2]


Addendum: Towards a picture…

If we’d like to ‘draw a picture’ of what the fundamentals of an effective people-centred system might look like, whilst remembering that “all models are wrong, some are useful” (George Box),

Then here’s an attempt from me…

I’ll build it up in three stages:

Picture 1 – The core:

1. The client (in green) is at the centre, along with the principle of self-determination (a.k.a. autonomy). It is about helping them on their journey, not (attempts at) pushing them through ours.

2. Their family/ Whānau and friends (in yellow) surround them, in recognition that:

  • no one is an island. The client exists within a social structure (for good, and sometimes, not so good)
  • to effectively support a client, we need to understand, contextualise and appropriately leverage their social network. This includes helping the client do the same. This might be the most powerful thing we can do.

3. The helper(s) (in blue) directly working with the client (‘value creating’). Their aim should be to create, and retain, a ‘working alliance’, in which there is mutual trust and respect. This will be about:

  • active/ reflective listening (truly seeing the world from the client’s point of view); and then
  • supporting the client through their journey, including resolving their transactional and process needs along the way

In doing this, we shouldn’t expect that helper(s) need to know everything. We would hope that they can easily ‘pull’ knowledge (from a useful source) as and when they need it. Note the deliberate choice of the word knowledge, rather than ‘policies and procedures’.

Picture 2 – adding support ‘in the work’:

We’ve now added a support ring around the core.

4. Local support (also in blue) that support the value creating workers in helping clients. Their aim is to be ‘in the work’, to observe the work as it happens, to be pulled ‘live’ as and when the value creating worker hits an obstacle.

 Such a pull may result in:

    • developing the capability of the helper (‘in the moment’ experiential learning); and/or
    • capturing evidence of obstacles outside of their control

5. Accessible help (in red) which represent those things that naturally sit outside the capability and/or capacity of local support.

It (deliberately) isn’t worded ‘available products and services’ because this isn’t the nub of what’s required. Sure, there might be a set of services available to be utilised, but it is up to the local team (with the client) to determine what to pull for, and when.

Further, the client isn’t being ‘referred over to’ the help. The help is being pulled into the client and their value creating worker…. who will also consider whether it is working for them or not.

Picture 3 – adding the enablement of those in the work:

6. Central roles (in purple) whose whole purpose is to enable those working with clients. They don’t attempt to control. Rather, they enable when they are pulled for help in removing obstacles in the way. This is a drastic change to the conventional central function.

The locus of control is with those directly helping the client.

An enabling response might include a focus on developing any of:

    • the knowledge available;
    • the tools (such as financial and technology support);
    • the accessible help (such as adding/ linking to new services, making them more flexible,…);
    • the capability of those helping clients (and those supporting this).

A note re. ‘Delivery engine’: Many central functions of large organisations are working hard to become ‘Agile’. I’d concur that it is important to work on ‘how’ to deliver (efficiency). However, of more importance is ‘what’ to deliver (effectiveness).

So, whilst we would want an ‘Agile’ delivery engine, we want it to be delivering to enable (from pulls), not to control (via pushes).

Being ‘Agile’ might be necessary….but it’s by no means sufficient.

And this completes an ‘autonomy – autonomy support – autonomy enabling’ model.

Or (if you are a Kiwi who watches the NZ comedy quiz programme ‘7 Days’) …”and this is my picture”

[Link to Part 2]

Footnotes

1. A book reading journey for this post – for those that are interested:

  • I first came across the idea of different system types and the transformational importance of matching the appropriate organisational model from reading a brilliant Russell Ackoff essay in his book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management’. If you’d like to understand (or remind yourself of) this, then I wrote a post some years back: “Oh, so that’s why command and control doesn’t work very well!” Today’s post picks up where the ‘what might that [social] model look like?’ question posed at the end left off.
  • Some years back I read Hope and Fraser’s 2003 book ‘Beyond Budgeting’, which gave me an initial introduction to Jan Wallander and his wonderful thinking in respect of how best to run a large service system for the good of clients, and employees. If you’d like a bit of an introduction to Wallander and his different thinking then I wrote about him here: Back to that ‘Profit Sharing’ Nirvana
  • This book led me to Gerrit Broekstra’s 2014 book titled ‘Building high-performance, high-trust organisations: Decentralisation 2.0’. This gets into some meaty understanding of the ‘what and why’ of a different model. Broekstra refers to the model as an ‘autonomy and enabling’ paradigm.
  • I was on a parallel path when I read Edward Deci’s ‘Why we do what we do’, which introduced me to self-determination theory and the hugely important concept of autonomy support.
  • I had original come across Deci from reading Alfie Kohn’s ‘Punished by Rewards’.
  • I then managed to get hold of Jan Wallander’s 2003 book ‘Decentralisation – why and how to make it work’, which nicely got me into the nuts and bolts of how he successfully led the change of a service system from centrally controlled to autonomous units. [This is the subject of my ‘Part 2’ post]
  • I also read Hilary Cottam’s 2018 book ‘Radical’ which cemented my thinking in respect of the need to create relational (rather than transactional) systems when we are trying to help people help themselves.
  • I then read Miller and Rollnick’s book on Motivational Interviewing (3rd Edition) which also connects extremely well.
  • And Motivational interviewing fits well with Gerard Egan’s book ‘The Skilled Helper’.

And this all comes together into an ‘Autonomy – Autonomy support – Autonomy enabling’ logic. Now you know why I was struggling to put something into a single post.

2. Clients, not customers: See footnote on my previous post for a comment on the difference

3. Person-centred system: I believe that the root of this phrase is Carl Roger’s person-centred approach.

4. Service system archetypes: Stuart Corrigan’s 2012 little book ‘The need for change’ was the first time I read about service archetypes. This thinking has been refined/ matured by others since then. Also reference Hillary Cottam and her setting out relational systems.

5. Re. people-centred/ relational: Amusingly (to me), many ‘for profit’ consumer businesses are desperate to be relational with us…even though they are, by their nature, transactional or process system archetypes. They want to forge a relationship with us (their customers) and yet we don’t want it! Think about that communications/ entertainment provider – they’ve often invested millions in expensive ‘Customer Relationship Management’ (CRM) technology that remembers your birthday!

6. Systems within systems: A tricky thing about people-centred systems is that they are likely to involve transactional and process sub-sets within. The important bit (I think) is to realise that the people-centred (relational) system is the master, and transactions and processes are its servant…. they aren’t separate.

A social system example: Let’s imagine that I am working relationally with a client on their journey.

  • Whilst doing so, they might move address – it should (probably) be a single and simple transaction to handle this change in circumstances.
  • Further, my relational work might lead to the client wanting help to, say, gain a qualification – this should be a smooth process to set up and then help them to achieve.

Both the transaction and the process sit within the relational journey of helping them better lead their lives (whatever that means for them). Here’s a diagram that hopefully visualises these words:

 

Thou shalt care for thy customer!

I haven’t published a post for ages. However, I was part of a conversation last week in which I realised that I’d drafted a relevant post a couple of years ago. Here it is:

Show me a service organisation and I’ll likely be able to show you posters on their walls imploring (or perhaps commanding) their front-line employees to ‘care about their customers’ (or clients1).

I expect that we are all in agreement that we should care about our customers – who they are, what their situation is, what they really need, how they are thinking/feeling (because of the past, the present and their view of the future)…

…BUT whether our employees can and will ‘see the customer’, and whether they act accordingly, will depend.

The conventional way to ‘convince’ employees to care is to roll out some form of a ‘we must be customer-centric’ programme (which likely includes those posters on the wall). There might even be some framework rolled out to score how well each ‘service agent’ did within each customer interaction or (so called) ‘moment of truth’.

However…

‘Customer-first programmes’ are essentially an attitude/orientation exercise.

All too often we discover that people return highly motivated from an excellent training experience only to find an organisation with procedures, systems and other conditions which do not adequately support the values expressed in the programme.

People can’t delight the customer if their organisation won’t let them!

(John Seddon)

Seddon is clearly questioning the simple (simplistic) notion that ‘our people’ are the problem…and therefore where to aim a (supposed) solution to this.

But what about the ‘bad eggs’?

You might respond with “Yes Steve, but I’ve got clear, undeniable evidence of some of our people providing really poor service to our customers!” and, yep, I’d expect that you do. Perhaps even bucket loads of it.

The fact that poor service often happens isn’t in doubt.

The question that needs asking is “why is this happening?” And just to be super clear, NOT “who did we catch doing it?!”

If you know the why, then you will know what to act upon to achieve meaningful and sustained improvement.

Conversely, you can spend all day rooting out the ‘who’, and perhaps publicly ‘parade them around’ with the aim of shaming them for all to see…but I doubt you will achieve any meaningful improvement to your system and its performance. In fact, likely the reverse.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

So, we want our front-line employees to be ‘customer-centric’ and yet we regularly see instances where it can be said that they weren’t…and it is very easy to fall into a ‘blame game’.

However, a quote to ponder:

“When we take people merely as they are, we make them worse.

When we treat them as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of being.”

(Translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1795)

I really like these words, and they have been repeated in various forms by many since they were first written. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit with the work of Douglas McGregor (ref. Theory X and Theory Y).

To me, there are three points worth drawing out from von Goethe’s quote:

  • ‘As they are’: If we look to blame a person for the poor performance that occurred during an event that they were involved in, then we’ll be heading in the wrong direction!

  • ‘What they ought to be’: If, however, we start from a position of presuming that a person would want to do the right thing (and was likely born that way), then we change the game completely. Clarification: This isn’t denial of what has happened, just a better starting point to move forwards.

  • ‘What they are capable of being’: What I particularly like about the quote is that von Goethe wasn’t suggesting that all people can do/be anything and everything.  Rather, he recognised that people are individuals and that, if they are treated accordingly, they can achieve what they are capable of…which is likely to be far greater than what we can currently imagine.

Do you believe your own rhetoric?

If you are employed in a ‘leadership position’2 then I expect that you often find yourself talking with your team about how they should behave. In fact, if you stood back, this might be somewhat of a ‘broken record’.

However, I am reminded of the proverb “do as I say, not as I do”.

Turning this around – and therefore realising why this proverb is often stated…to little effect – is to make clear that people take note of what you do and use this as their guide…no matter what you say.

Those in leadership positions are responsible for the organisational system – its purpose and the working environment. You can say ‘wonderful things’, but the system you preside over is the key.

“People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing the system that we can expect a change in behaviour.” (John Seddon)

Management is responsible for that system, and therefore the behaviours that it produces. No amount of ‘training’ or exhortation will undo this tie.

In short:

  • beware the dissonance between management talk and management behaviour

  • don’t spend (waste?) time exalting people to ‘care for thy customer’, provide them with an organisational system in which this is the obvious and natural thing to do

  • to do this requires much reflection as to why things are as they are, which can be discovered  from regular and respectful ‘eyes wide open’ time ‘at the Gemba’

Footnotes

1. Customer or client?: I was interested as to whether there is a meaningful difference between the use of these two words…and, after a bit of a trawl through definitions, I think that there is.

The Oxford dictionary sets out the origin of the word ‘client’ as a person who is under the protection of another i.e. dependent upon them.

The normal use of the word ‘client’ (as opposed to ‘customer’) is when it is associated with the services of a professional (examples: lawyers, accountants,….plumber) and so this now makes some sense…

I am a customer where I am clearly in control of what is happening and can make my own choices e.g. transactional situations.

I am a client where I am highly reliant on another and their care over me.

2. Leadership position…which is very different to ‘leading’. Ref. an earlier post on the notion of leadership