How do you think about people’s abilities?

fixed vs growth mindsets1I’ve been facilitating discussions on mindsets for a few years now, but I’ve not yet written a post specifically on the subject. So here goes with a basic introduction…

You may have heard of the work of Professor Carol Dweck in respect of the mindsets that people adopt. She has devoted decades of her life to the study of how we think about ourselves, and wrote the first edition of her best-selling book ‘Mindset’ back in 20061.

The book compares and contrasts what Dweck labels as Fixed and Growth mindsets.

What do these labels mean?

Dweck noticed that there is a major divide between how people think about their abilities2. She explains that:

Someone within a Fixed mindset believes that people are born with (or without) their ability i.e. that our ability is innate (as if ‘given to us’) and therefore static. You either ‘have it’ or you don’t3.

If you believe in innate ability, then your actions will necessarily be about judging yourself and others, to determine who fits where in some sort of pecking order.


Someone within a Growth mindset believes that people are on an incremental journey, and that any and all of our abilities can be developed. They believe that people can substantially change what they are capable of.

If you believe in the possibility of ever-changing abilities, then your actions will be concerned with learning and development.

I should note that you or I probably don’t realise which of the two paradigms we (truly) believe. It would likely have to be (carefully) shown to us before we could clearly see it.

Whichever mindset someone adopts leads to some prevalent behaviours and predictable outcomes.

An enlightening experiment

Before revealing these behaviours and outcomes, I think it is useful to summarise one of the foundational pieces of research performed by Dweck and her colleagues:

Working with a group (numbering in the hundreds) of early-adolescent students, they started by giving each of them the same set of problems to work on. The students did reasonably well in solving them.

They randomly assigned each student to one of two categories, in order to treat them differently:

They told students assigned to (what I’ll refer to as) Category A that they must be really smart/ talented to have done so well i.e. they praised them for their ability.

Conversely, they told those assigned to Category B that they must have done well because of the effort they had put in.

They then gave each student the choice to undertake some further problems of a similar difficulty.

Those in Cat. A rejected the choice, not wanting their (supposed) talent to be called into question.

However, 90% of those in Cat. B wanted to undertake the further problems, such that they could learn from them.

They then gave each student some harder problems to complete, which (as might be expected) they didn’t do so well on.

Those in Cat. A (the ‘ability’ praised) now thought that perhaps they weren’t so clever after all. They took their poorer performance on the harder problems as a sign of deficiency on their part.

Those in Cat. B (the ‘effort’ praised) didn’t see it as failure or a reflection on their ability. They simply saw it as requiring more effort and a need to try out new strategies.

They then asked the students about their enjoyment of working on the problems.

All said that the first set of problems (those they had been successful at) had been fun.

The students in Cat. A said it wasn’t fun anymore once it became difficult. They hadn’t enjoyed their ‘talented’ status being in jeopardy.

Those in Cat. B still loved the problems, with many saying that the harder ones were the most fun.

They then returned the students to some more of the easier problems (i.e. like the first set that they had done well on).

Surprisingly, those in Cat. A (the ‘ability’ praised) did worse than they had at the start. They had lost confidence in themselves.

Those in Cat. B (the ‘effort’ praised) got better and better. They had used the harder problems to learn and had moved way ahead.

Finally, they told each student that the researchers would be repeating the study at other schools and asked them to write a short note about the problem exercise that they had just undertaken so that these other schools could read about it. They asked each student to write their overall score at the top of their note.

Some 40%4 of the Cat. A (ability-praised) students lied about their score, where this lie was always an exaggeration They felt a degree of shame in their score and wished to hide it.

Dweck summarised the experimental outcomes as follows:

“So telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don’t think this is what we’re aiming for when we put positive labels (‘gifted’, ‘talented’) on people.” (Dweck)

Putting people into a mindset

The experiment is a sobering demonstration of our ability to put people into (or at least direct them towards) a given mindset by the way we talk to and interact with them. This is especially true with young people.

The following image nicely sets out Dweck’s findings of the predictable behaviours and outcomes of each mindset:

fixed vs growth mindsets2

You can probably see that the simple act of learning about these ‘mindset’ concepts can be a catalyst for a constructive shift in the way people see themselves and others. It is the beginning of understanding that:

“Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind” (Dweck)

Dweck’s ‘Mindset’ book is an excellent place to continue this thinking.

A clarification

Dweck isn’t saying that we are all born with the exact same potential and that anyone can do anything. She’s not denying the effects of our unique genetic make ups.

What matters is what you believe about where you could take yourself:

 “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” (Dweck)

Personally, I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt, paint as well as Michelangelo, or think as deeply as Stephen Hawking….and so on.

But I do believe that: if I put the effort in; am happy to seek out knowledge and be taught; don’t mind making mistakes; want feedback and will act on it….then I can get much better than I am right now at anything.

A person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable). It’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training.” (Dweck)

It’s not about comparison with others, it’s just about continually developing yourself (and others) and enjoying doing so.

An over-simplification

The image above presents a binary Fixed vs. Growth picture. However, in reality, we are all a mixture of the two mindsets and it’s important to recognise this. Events and circumstances might trigger us to move in one direction or another.

The need is to recognise if and when we have adopted a fixed mindset and then ‘talk to ourselves’ about it. We won’t move out of it through denial.

A caveat

It’s not just about you. It’s also about what you believe about others!

You might have a fabulously growth mindset about what you can achieve but think highly limiting thoughts about those around you.

You can help people towards a growth mindset through the discussions you have with them. How about conversations along the following lines:

“What did you put effort into today?”

“What mistakes did you make that taught you something?”

“What did you learn?”

They may surprise you – there’s likely far more to them than you (currently) realise and, with the right environment, this will continue to emerge.

Footnotes:

1. Dweck has written a more recent 2016 updated edition

2. Abilities: I’ve deliberately used the generic ‘abilities’ word, rather than perhaps the more emotive ‘intelligence’ or even ‘talents’ because I want to get across that this is about any and all of our abilities, whether it be intellectual, emotional, physical, …etc.

3. Fixed Mindset: If you were in any doubt…Donald Trump sits squarely in this camp as evidenced in this article.

4. Lying: Dweck doesn’t say if any Cat. B (‘effort praised’) students lied but I presume that it wasn’t appreciable given that she signals out the ‘ability praised’ lying as being striking.

5. Praise: This post ties in very well with a post I wrote years ago about the research on praise

 

 

Epistemology – on knowledge and knowing

ConfuciusMy experiences and understanding (i.e. my mental model) of the world is (incredibly) limited. That wasn’t a confession – so is yours 🙂

Further, I might tell you about my experiences but my description can only be a partial representation and, however good I am at explaining, you cannot share my experience.

You can only construct your own mental representation of what my experiences might be like…and apply this to your (current) mental model of the world.

Epistemology

So what?

If we don’t realise and (regularly) reflect on the fact that we are all working on limited and incompletely-communicated models then we can get stuck in debates about who is right and who is wrong. And of course, we will always be right won’t we!

Instead, we need to (truly) grasp two things:

  • My (and your) mental model of the world is tremendously limited; and
  • If we don’t habitually see this limitation, then we will likely spend our time reinforcing (rather than exploring and expanding) this mental model.

Why does this matter?

So, you might be gloriously happy with your mental model of the world and not give a damn about what others think!

This would be a reasonable position to hold if your mental model also considers that the world is currently, and will remain, perfect (from your point of view).

However, if (as is likely) you think that there are plenty of problems with the world and plenty of room for improvement, then you are (to put it mildly) unlikely to move towards desirable outcomes if you don’t reflect on your (and others) limitations and what this implies.

Some related words of wisdom:

“The more views we have of a thing, the better we can understand it.”

 “Complete understanding of anything, let alone everything, is an ideal that can be approached continuously but can never be attained.”

 “In systems thinking, increases in understanding are believed to be obtained by expanding the systems to be understood, not by reducing them to their elements.”

 Russell Ackoff

It should be of interest to us if someone’s mental model appears to differ from our own.

Footnote:

1. This short post came about from reflecting on a piece written on the subject of epistemology (on knowledge and knowing) within the course ‘Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice’, at The Open University.

Emotions in fancy dress

Fancy dressI published a post last week for the first time in ages.  In so doing, I stumbled across a graveyard of half-written posts (the kernel of an idea comes easily to me, making this relevant and coherent does not). I’ll see if I can finish a few more posts – here’s another. It starts with a quote:

“…opinions are bad things.

By opinions I do not mean ideas, and I do not mean thought. An opinion is rarely born of thought. Instead it arrives fully formed in a head. Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress. They can be inherited, or they can spring from fears or desires, but they are never right.

Yet look how ferociously, how indefatigably, people cling to their opinions in the face of a flood of evidence that those opinions are at best questionable, and more likely mere dump fodder.

Look at the intransigent folly of so much politics. Look at the nonsense that passes for political debate….if you want to take part in this contest you are required to join a team and in order to join a team you have to have a packaged set of opinions.

Where do these opinions come from? Are they arrived at by rational analysis? If so, and if reason is reason, how come they differ? But opinions are not reasonable.

We are emotional creatures in an irrational world. Anyone who holds opinions is wrong and dangerous…The only comfortable seat for a thinking human being is a fence.

…and that’s my opinion.” (Joe Bennett1)

Joe’s article (from which the quote is pulled) brings a broad smile to my face. I absolutely love the penultimate line. In the societies that I have known (the UK, and to a lesser extent NZ) the phrase ‘sitting on the fence’ is often (i.e. normally) used as an insult – and yet this has always irritated me. I often find myself sitting on the proverbial fence…because I feel that I don’t know enough to pass judgement.

I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Whenever I find myself in a ‘fencing-sitting’ scenario, it suggests that:

  1. I shouldn’t be giving an opinion (no matter how hard I am pushed to do so)….since I clearly feel that I don’t know enough; and
  2. I could do with learning some more.

I see the ‘I’m fence-sitting’ circumstance as a useful realisation because, if I care about the issue in focus, then it should trigger me into putting some effort into ‘digging in’, to uncover facts, to appreciate perspectives, to see the bigger picture. In so doing, I am highly likely to move to a new (and more productive) place.

Merely having an opinion and sticking to it is likely to keep me anchored rigidly to the spot, as if stuck at the bottom of a deep lake in a pair of concrete boots.

A likely critique:

“But you’d never get anywhere Steve! You’d be forever stuck, like a broken record.”

I would suggest the opposite.

‘Not having opinions’ doesn’t have to mean staying meekly silent. Rather, it implies entering and sustaining an open-minded dialogue. This would require skillfully setting out:

  • what you think you know, and why;
  • what you are uncertain of, and why; and
  • what you understand as clear holes in your knowledge.

…and thus collaborating with others who can perhaps expand the group’s (never to be complete) jigsaw of knowledge.

Further, ‘not having opinions’ does not mean ‘not making decisions’. Rather, it means using facts to make decisions, and investing in the (hugely rewarding) effort of collecting facts before doing so.

If you feel that you don’t know, well go and find out some more!

We’d probably move away from ‘implementing ideologies’ (going fast to go slow) to ‘experimenting with hypotheses’ and making adjustments as we learn (going slow to go fast).

…but that’s just my opinion 😊.

On ‘going and find out more’

‘Finding out more’ doesn’t mean canvasing other people’s opinions or biasing your search for ‘evidence’ to that which supports your opinion. It means going to the ‘coal face’, observing reality (and the variation within), collecting the evidence for yourself and reflecting on what it is telling you.

A nice quote I heard the other day from a colleague:

“If you haven’t observed, you can’t talk”.

Now, that’s quite a bold and (perhaps blanket) statement, but there’s a rather important point within.

If we are not (yet) in a position to be able to observe (i.e. gain primary evidence) then I’d suggest that we should listen very carefully to those that have.

Linkages

I recognise that this short post may be questioned by many, since opinions are (rightly or wrongly) a huge part of life.

I’ve written a number of earlier posts in this space and if you’d like to play with the idea further, here are a few to look at:

Addendum

Take ‘Brexit’ as an example (the idea of Britain leaving the European Union).

Who’s got a strongly held opinion regarding Brexit? I’d suggest millions of people.

Who can (really) say that they fully understand what is being proposed and what will transpire? I’d suggest maybe a handful of ‘experts’…and even these will likely be wide of the mark.

…and with that thought, who will move onto the fence, to stop pushing their opinion and, instead, spend some real effort to further try to understand? Perhaps not so many.

‘Fence sitting’, at least while you are (meaningfully) learning, is a most excellent place to be.

Conversely, who’s dug into themselves, to think about the emotions that are answerable for driving their opinions? (Inherited from their parents? Created by their fears? Constructed from their cravings?…)

A reminder that Joe wrote that Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress”.

What costume(s) are you (and I) wearing? Why?

Footnote

1. Joe Bennett is a most excellent writer of short, insightful, challenging (usually contrarian) articles that are published weekly in our local newspaper (‘The Press’) here in Christchurch New Zealand. https://www.joebennett.nz/

Smoke and mirrors

Smoke and mirrorsI drafted a post a few years ago, but never got round to ‘topping and tailing it’…and so it never got posted. However, I had a chance conversation with someone this week in which the content of the post became highly relevant. So, after searching around a bunch of digital ‘nooks and crannies’, I finally found it, dusted it down, and completed it:

Over the last few years I’ve run various education courses and coaching sessions to introduce people to the fundamentals of ‘Systems Thinking and Intervention’.

I deliberately ‘mess with their heads’ using questions, exercises and simulations that explore systems, value (in respect of purpose), measurement (of system performance), learning, motivation and leadership. It’s good fun but also serious and important stuff.

I sometimes1 experience somebody come up to me at the end of such a course, saying something like:

“Wow, that’s amazing…we need to do something about this NOW…but we can’t do anything without a clear plan of how other organisations have successfully implemented what you have told us about!”

A variation on this is:

“We accept your critique of how we are now, and the problems this causes…but that’s no good if you don’t tell us what to do instead! We need you (or others like you) to come in and sort this all out!

Now, before I go any further, I should write that I understand the burning desire to do something! The reality is that many of the insights (aha moments) in the education course/ coaching can be quite tender for people – they are having ‘known truths’2 spelt out in black and white to them, they feel uncomfortable about this and they want to go back and change their working reality.

There is a treatment…but it ISN’T me (or others like me) coming in to implement a plan that copies what others have (supposedly successfully) done.

If you want to read some earlier posts that get into the ‘why not’ then:

Often, the person that raised the question doesn’t like hearing this. It makes them think that I’ve just (painfully) diagnosed the truth of their working world but that I am deliberately withholding the cure.

Let’s see if I can provide a rational explanation of the necessary treatment (there’s some irony in that sentence – see footnote 1 again):

Mirrors

First, you must be curious….and if you are not, well there’s not much that I (or anyone) can do for you – except perhaps provoke you!

“And if you can’t come, send nobody” (Deming, quoting William E. Conway)

Okay, so let’s say you show some interest…

Mirror… if you are curious I can find you a mirror

  • that would be your system (which will be made up of its components, their interconnections, and its purpose…though you probably won’t clearly see these yet).

… if you are still curious I can then hold the mirror up for you

  • that would be to help you create meaningful measures as to how your system is actually performing for your customers (in terms of demands placed upon it, and its capability at meeting them).

… if you remain curious I can then help you stand in the right place to see your reflection

  • that would be to help you go to, and immerse yourself within, the place where the work is performed (often referred to by the Japanese word ‘Gemba’)…which will contain the reasons as to why the system performs as it does.

So, having helped you to stand directly in front of the mirror…

I can never see for you!

I would (and should only) be acting as a catalyst3 i.e. assisting, but not being part of, the reaction.

  • I shouldn’t be writing reports for you – because you won’t then own them…though I will certainly reflect on anything you consider necessary to write;
  • I shouldn’t be taking any responsibilities from you – because you won’t experience the feedback from your actions, and learn from this…though I will certainly stand with you, providing counsel and encouragement;
  • I cannot provide any guarantees as to what you can (and will) achieve – because this is in your gift, not mine. Such achievements will likely be hard to quantify, and should continue to flow long after I have carefully stepped away.

Smoke

Dont smokeThe opposite of mirrors would be smoke. And this is where conventional ‘change’ resides:

  • ‘Going to the market’ to procure ‘solutions’ from (often self-anointed) experts;
  • Contracting with ‘outsiders’ who convinced you that they can ‘do it for you’, perhaps with attractive ‘benefits to be realised’ guarantees;
  • Dealing in reports of recommendations, business cases, ‘benchmarks’ on what others have done, methodologies, plans, resources…;
  • Setting up projects, seconding people away from the work and then requiring those in the work to comply with the outcome;

And, finally, at the end of it all, that champion imposter of ‘transformation’ jargon, the promised knowledge transfer!

…which usually means “we did it to you…and we’ll leave you with the ‘artefacts’ so that you can attempt to copy what we did after we’ve left the building.”

Footnotes

1. At first, I saw such a response as a failure on my part (i.e. as in not getting my message across). I don’t see it this way now – it doesn’t matter how good my rational explanations have been, I shouldn’t expect to have solved anything for people – they have to go and see it for themselves. All I can do in such sessions is create curiosity, and provide a language, concepts and frameworks which can assist what may happen next. Many will be curious. A few won’t.

Update: I (think that) I’m a lot clearer when attempting to educate people now.

2. ‘Known Truths’: Once uncovered, most people understand what is being put to them…and indeed, a number exclaim that they’ve thought like this for quite a while but have never had it articulated to them. In fact, for these people, it can be a release – like a valve on a pressure cooker.

3. Catalyst: My school boy chemistry reminds me that a catalyst is “A substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change” (Oxford Dictionary).

This isn’t strictly accurate because, since I am a human being, I (the interventionist) cannot help being changed by my (attempted) intervention. I hope you get the point though that ‘catalyst’ suggests that it’s ALL about you, and really NOT about me.

4. Source of the smoke and mirrors image:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/theilr/5091351124

The source of an idea: Front Office – Back Office

An officeI’ve read a number of John Seddon’s books over the years and they are ‘sprinkled’ with critiques of a range of conventional management ‘fads and fashions’. One of his key critiques is of a particular 1978 HBR article written by a Richard B. Chase, titled ‘Where does the customer fit in a service operation?’

The article title sounds relatively innocuous, but Seddon puts it forward as having been a catalyst for the splitting up of service systems into ‘front office – back office’ functions…because it will (according to Chase) make them much more efficient.

Now, whilst (I believe that) I’ve understood Seddon’s critique of the splitting up of service systems into a myriad of (supposedly) specialised components…and the hugely damaging sub-optimisation that this has caused1, I was never quite sure as to the level of ‘blame’2 that could be levelled at Chase’s article – mainly because I hadn’t read it.

…so, as chance would have it, I’ve just managed to get hold of it. And, wow, yep, it was quite illuminating. I thought that I’d write this post to ‘get behind’ the HBR article title and pull out the bones of what Chase was saying. Here goes:

In the first paragraph…

So I read the following in the very first paragraph of the article:

“…the less direct contact the customer has with the service system, the greater the potential of the system to operate at peak efficiency…”

On its own this quote reads very badly. My hackles are raised instantly, but I hold my nerve and carry on – perhaps I need to read it in context…so I take a deep breath and carry on…

Chase goes on to offer a ‘classification of service systems’ according to the extent of required ‘customer contact’ in ‘creation of the service’.

Chase defines:

  • ‘customer contact’ as the “physical presence of the customer in the system”; and
  • ‘creation of the service’ as “the work process that is entailed in providing the service itself”

He puts forward a table showing high contact services at the top (health care, public transportation, restaurants, schools….), low contact at the bottom (manufacturing) and mixed services in-between (banks, post offices,…). So far, so what.

service contact spectrum

He states that service systems with high customer contact are more difficult to control. Why? Because the customer can affect the demand – e.g. the time it takes, the exact nature of what’s being required, and their particular view on what defines quality.

I think that Seddon would wholeheartedly agree with these points regarding variety within customer demand (Seddon would say that “the customer comes in customer shaped”3). The difference between Chase and Seddon is in their polar opposite thinking of what this lack of control should lead on to.

Where did Chase’s article take it?

Chase went on to state what he considered were the ‘implications for management’:

“…a distinction should be made between high-contact and low-contact elements of a service system. This can be done by a separation of functions: all high-contact activities should be performed by one group of people, all low-contact activities by another. Such an adjustment minimises the influence of the customer on the production process and provides opportunities to achieve efficiency…”

In short, Chase is about breaking up the system (de-coupling the supposed ‘front’ and ‘back’) to make its components more efficient!

Mmmm, any systems thinking giant (or apprentice), even without knowing the details, might conclude that this isn’t going to end well.

Developing the idea…

developing an ideaChase then develops his proposed treatment by asking a set of questions and providing answers.


Chase asks about ‘gearing your operating procedures to your system’:

“Obviously, paying service workers according to the number of customers served tends to speed up service in the high-contact system. However…if the customer feels rushed…he is likely to be dissatisfied with the organisation.

Further, it makes little sense for a seller of any service that can be at all customised to measure system effectiveness in terms of total number of customer served when in fact one should be giving more leisurely attention to a small number of ‘big spenders’.”

Wow, there’s a lot to unpack within this lot!

  • The idea of ‘speeding up’ service by the use of incentives completely ignores the dysfunctional behaviour that this may cause, the failure demand likely to arise and the re-work to be performed. It is clear component-level logic at the expense of the system;
  • I have always hated the idea that a service organisation should smooch with the ‘big spenders’ (and thereby demote the rest as 2nd…and even 3rd class customers) so as to milk them of their cash!

The mind-set of the above is completely ‘inside-out’: the customer is merely a host to bleed money from. The attitude being portrayed is ‘what can we (the organisation) do to you?’ rather than ‘what do you need?’


Chase asks ‘can you realign your operations to reduce unnecessary direct customer service?

“Managers have long recognised the desirability of having ‘attractive’ personnel greet the public…while being more concerned with technical skills on the part of those individuals removed from customer contact…”

I’ve got visions of the ‘ugly people’ being hidden in the back office!

I guess that we should make allowances for the fact that he wrote this back in 1978 (a different world?) but, again, he’s trying to optimise components rather than improve (and remove) inter-dependencies between them.


Chase asks ‘can you take advantage of the efficiencies offered by low-contact operations?’

“Can you apply the production management concepts of batch scheduling, forecasting, inventory control, work measurement and simplification to back-office operations?…”

His suggestions seem laughable now.

Essentially, he is proposing the techniques that manufacturing used ‘back then’ to be applied to service ‘back offices’….and yet just about all of these manufacturing methods would now be seen as poor practise!

Just go into a well-run factory today4 and see the pulling (not pushed by forecasting) of units of work (not batches) through flow (not requiring inventory) on a production line able to handle variety (not simple), using measures against purpose (not narrow activity measurement)

…and you’ll also see those same manufacturing workers trying to get as close as possible to their customers so as to understand them and what they need.


Chase asks ‘can you enhance the customer contact you do provide?’

“If the low-contact portion of a worker’s job can be shifted to a different work force [i.e. a back office], then the opportunity exists to focus that worker’s efforts on critical interpersonal relations aspects.”

Boom! This gets to the nub of the problem – Chase misses the monumentally important point that interpersonal relationships are (worse than) useless if the ‘front of house’ worker can’t actually help the customer with their need.

In short: ‘I can smile sweetly, look good and even say nice things to you…but, sorry, I can’t help you with your need…I’ll just have to pass that on to someone else and hope for the best…but I’ll do so with a really great smile 🙂 ’

Not much customer satisfaction in that!


Chase asks ‘can you relocate parts of your service operations to lower your facility costs?’

“Can you shift back-room operations to lower rent districts…or get out of the contact facilities business entirely?”

And so we get to the eventual end game of this logic – outsourcing of the back office…because it’s (ahem) got no connection whatsoever with the customer anymore. Wonderful!

Not content with creating the unnecessary ‘front-office back-office’ interdependencies, the final nail in the coffin is to make these relationships even harder to handle by splitting up the location and ownership structure.

As Donella Meadows wrote: “Changing interconnections in a system can change it dramatically.”

To conclude:

variety of shoesYep, I see why Seddon has such a downer on this 1978 HBR article…and, sadly, I can also see that many (most?) service organisations bought it ‘hook, line and sinker’.

Rather than leaving it on this depressing note, I should take us back to a Seddon quote:

“Service differs from Manufacturing. There is, inherently, more variety in customer demand

…in service organisations, the problem is how to design the system to absorb variety [rather than frustrate it]” (Seddon)

If you want to understand what is meant by absorbing variety…then here’s a post I wrote earlier: “You keep saying that…but what does it mean?!”

…and I’ll write another post (to follow this one) that delves further into ‘Front Office/ Back Office’ and what a healthy alternative could look like.

Footnotes:

1. Seddon is standing on Deming’s shoulders in this respect.

“If the various components of an organisation are all optimised, the organisation will not be…” (Deming)

2. Regarding ‘Blame’: I’m referring to the article, not Richard B. Chase. I don’t know the man. 1978 was a long time ago – I suppose that he may think quite differently now.

3. Customer shaped: Seddon credits Taguchi with observing that we must first understand exactly what a customer wants (their nominal value) and only then can we aim at perfection.

 4. A well run factory: You know what I’m going to write next don’t you….yep, the ‘T’ word: You could understand what Toyota does 🙂

“I’m confused…what are we doing?”

LabelSo I heard a really good question at a meeting recently, which (with a touch of poetic licence) I’ll set out as follows:

“We seem to be talking about all sorts of different things at the moment, such as ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’…this can be quite confusing (and/or frustrating)…can we be clear as to what we are doing?”

The question nicely highlights the problem with giving something a label, and of having multiple labels ‘out there’ all at the same time.

Most ‘things with a label’ in the world of organisational change relate to a specific philosophy, with defined methods, and a collection of associated tools and techniques. Perhaps they arose from a seminal business article (e.g. in the Harvard Business Review) or ‘meeting of minds’ (e.g. at a conference) …which got turned into a best-selling book…which became a movement…and then a healthy1 consulting revenue stream.

People often say that “we are doing [name of current thing]”, with some becoming quite fanatical in its application.

Conversely, some will (properly) argue that the philosophy is the important bit…but they are often (usually?) still trying to ‘implement’ it…which doesn’t make much sense (see intervention bit near the end).

Consider, compare and contrast

So, the two labels in the quote above are ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’. Let’s examine them a bit:


Agile ManifestoAgile:

In the beginning…: Computing is a relatively new phenomenon, well at least in terms of human years. (If you believe in evolution then) we’ve been roaming around this planet as Homo Sapiens for roughly 300,000 years…but the first computer that could store and run programs didn’t get built until around 70 years ago2.

Early computer programming efforts borrowed the existing thinking derived from the mature discipline of engineering – such as up-front customer requirements, robust planning and estimates, detailed documented specifications and ‘sign offs’, and clear stages and processes within.

However, around the 1990’s the use of such a ‘heavyweight’ approach (often referred to as ‘waterfall’) was becoming a big problem: software development projects were taking many years from start to delivery and regularly didn’t achieve what was actually required…and were often un-useable and even scrapped!

The new science/art of software development was clearly different to a classical engineering project, in two particular ways:

– Dynamic: the customer/ worker/ user environment is constantly changing…what you needed today may be quite different tomorrow; and

– Emergent: ‘an answer’ isn’t (and usually can’t be) known ‘up front’…because what is desirable and possible is constantly evolving.


What is ‘Agile’ and where did it come from? Software engineers were getting frustrated with the situation and, rather than sitting on their hands, were experimenting with doing things differently, to make their work more timely and responsive to actual needs. A whole bunch of (so called) ‘lightweight’ software development ideas were being tried.

A group of software development ‘thought leaders’ began collaborating. A seminal moment occurred in 2001 when they met (at Snowbird, Utah) to discuss the lightweight software development methods that had been developed so far.

Together, they published a ‘Manifesto for Agile3 Software Development’. This short and concise document4 proposes four values and twelve principles

…and that’s it!

Some things to note: It was explicitly about software development. There were no methods, no tools, and no techniques mentioned…and if you read the values and principles, then there’s a lot to like within. In fact, (I think that) it would be hard to objectively argue with them.


And so where did ‘Agile’ go, and what has it become? I’ll start this bit by putting up a diagram to express how I see it:

Agile diagram

The starting point (green box) is the software development values and principles (a.k.a ‘The Agile Manifesto’). This then feeds into a whole bunch of potential methods, which include:

– some that already existed and were then aligned and further developed; and

– new methods that have since been derived.

As such, in ‘Agile Manifesto’ terms, there aren’t right or wrong methods – what matters is whether they fit, and are carried out in accordance, with the values and principles.

If we go below methods, we can get to a whole set of techniques that people use. Many of these techniques may be used across multiple methods…and that’s fine. But, again, the important bit is how they are being used. For example: anyone can do a ‘stand-up’5 …but it’s not much good if I ‘commanded and controlled’ my way through it.

“A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch)

(If you want to get a good understanding of the important difference between techniques, methods, and principles then please read my earlier post ‘Depths of Transformation’ that uses another (related) label of ‘Lean’ to explain.)

And so, at this point, you can imagine that we’ve got lots of different teams working towards constantly delivering useful software in a timely manner, and each such team will have arrived at a method (and set of techniques) that works for them. Nice.

The next thing that happened was the desire, usually within large ‘IT shops’ to co-ordinate all this (now labelled as) ‘Agile’ work together into a portfolio…and we get the birth of approaches6 aiming to scale the method – to align and co-ordinate all those agile teams. It sounds like a reasonable thing to do but there’s a big risk here: such attempts at scaling can obliterate the simplicity, add top-down hierarchy and cause inflexibility and confusion…all things that the Agile Manifesto was trying to cut through….and putting the well-intended ‘Agile’ label in jeopardy.

Further, the ‘Agile’ label, having been created for the specifics of software development, has been pushing its boundaries to become more generalised. Those that (might be said to) ‘love the label’ are applying it to wider areas, such as project management and product development.

And yet further, the word ‘Agile’ is being used to describe an even higher aspiration for business agility…which is taking us to a literal dictionary definition:

Agile: Able to move quickly and easily. Synonyms: nimble, alert.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Now, whilst this might be a commendable (and valuable) aim, it’s a long way from (just) software development. As such, it definitely needs to come back to (i.e. be grounded in)  philosophy rather than methods and techniques.

Right, so that’s a short trip around ‘Agile’….moving on to:


Systems thinking diagramSystem Thinking:

What is ‘Systems Thinking’? Unlike ‘Agile’ (or its relation ‘Lean’7), there wasn’t a seminal moment when people sat around in a meeting and invented/ derived something and labelled it as ‘Systems Thinking’. There isn’t some ‘central body’ that (might attempt to) define and regulate it….however there have been a number of (what I would term) ‘Systems Thinking’ giants over the years.

Rather, ‘Systems Thinking’ is a discipline (heavily based in the fields of science and logic) that has been developing over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, sometimes splitting into new fields, sometimes coming back together again.

“Systems Thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.” (Peter Senge)

It’s about a shift of mind from seeing problems as caused by someone or something ‘out there’ – to seeing the role that our actions (and inactions) have in creating the problems that we experience.

(If you want a bit of a Systems Thinking history lesson then please read my earlier post ‘Hard, Soft or Laminated?’)


“Er, okay Steve…that’s about as clear as mud…so what does it actually involve?

 Well, put simply, it is about:

  • understanding what is meant by a system8, and the implications that flow from this;
  • observing how a system behaves, over time, to better understand:
    • how it actually works;
    • whether it is stable or changing; and therefore
    • what interventions may be beneficial, when considered against the system’s purpose
  • understanding how human beings think (rationally…and irrationally);
  • designing intervention experiments, towards the system’s purpose; and
  • measuring whether, and how these interventions alter the system (for better or worse) and therefore whether to attempt to amplify or dampen them.

 Here’s another nice ‘Systems Thinking’ definition:

“a disciplined approach for examining problems more completely and accurately before acting. It allows us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions.” (thesystemsthinker.com)


HabitsWhat habits need to be learned and practised to enable ‘Systems Thinking’?

I’ve deliberately used the word ‘habits’ rather than ‘skills’ as they mean different things. I’ve also held back from talking about methods and techniques.

It wouldn’t be right (in my view) to say that person X is a systems thinker and person Y is not.

Systems’ thinking is something for each and every one of us to work on….which is a nice link to the Waters Foundation’s one-page poster9 setting out (with useful pictures) the ‘Habits of a Systems Thinker’…go on, have a quick look – it’s very good.

These habits:

  • can (and should) be used in any and every setting, whether at work or home, and with regards to society or our environment…and everywhere in-between; and
  • are lifelong practises, to be constantly explored, matured and extended.

In this sense, it doesn’t make sense to say “we are ‘doing’ Systems Thinking here”…rather, it’s a journey.

Commonality

I’d argue that ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’ are two very different things, and it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Agile to systems thinking target diagramIf I absolutely had to link them together then I quite like this diagram because:

  • ‘Agile’ began as being about improving software development;
  • ‘Lean’ began as being about improving value streams (from customer need to its satisfaction)…where software might be a useful enabling component within this; and
  • ‘Systems Thinking’ is about navigating through, and improving our whole world…where (true) ‘Lean’ and ‘Agile’ thinking fit very well within this endeavour.

In fact, the extension of the meaning and usage of the ‘Agile’ label from its software development roots outwards kind of shows that it was all about the foundational system thinking.

Intervention

I shouldn’t end this post without making a comment about intervention.

You can want the philosophy behind ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’….[and the next label] but you’ll only truly move towards it when you understand about how to intervene successfully.

I’ve written a fair bit about this10 so I won’t repeat it here…but I will say that it’s not about (attempting to) do things to people, it is about helping people discover, experiment and learn for themselves….just give them a clear purpose and conducive environment to do so.

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” (Scholtes)

You don’t ‘implement’ Systems Thinking…you constantly learn about, and question, your thinking, whilst experimenting towards a system’s (customer) purpose.

To close

I started this post using the word ‘label’…because a label can become really problematic11. Here’s a great quote that (hopefully) puts labels into perspective:

Don’t call it anything: If it has a name, then people, including you, will waste time arguing about what ‘it’ is and isn’t… but

Call it something: otherwise nobody can ever talk about.” (Thinkpurpose.com)

i.e. when thinking about labelling something, you are ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’.

Footnotes:

1. Healthy – I mean large 🙂

2. Computers: If you want a history of the term ‘computer’ and the dates of various advances in computing then see this informative webpage

3. The informal use of the word ‘lightweight’ got given the label ‘Agile’.

4. The Agile manifesto can be found here

5. Stand-up: A regular (e.g. daily) meeting where team members have a collaborative conversation about what they’ve done towards the current goal, what they are doing next and any impediments preventing them from making progress. It’s called a stand up because it is intended as a short meeting (hence people usually stand).

6. Scaling methods: Two well-known methods are called SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and LeSS (Large Scale Scrum). There are others.

7. Lean: I mention Lean because it may be seen as a parallel (and related) development to ‘Agile’. The ‘Lean’ label came about from the study of how Toyota were making high quality cars in a highly efficient manner.

8. Definition of a system: “a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim [purpose] of the system” (Deming)

9. Habits poster: It’s worth printing out and putting on your wall…and getting into the habit 🙂 of looking at.

 10. Intervention: Here’s an earlier post that should assist ‘What do germs have to do with modern management?’

 11. Misuse of Labels: If someone attempts to justify prescribing a specific tool or technique by saying ‘this is Agile’ or ‘this is ‘Systems Thinking’ then I hope that you can politely point out that this is unlikely to be the case. A tool/ technique could be useful…but not if you are unclear as to why it is being used or if it is being forced upon you.

A thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos

ThimbleI’m a regular user of a few social media tools (e.g. Facebook and LinkedIn).

As such, I often see the (well-intended) sharing of articles about someone passionately scooping plastic out of our oceans – perhaps with a newly invented contraption – and then lots of people (understandably) pile in with a ‘like’ of what they see. Yep, I often press ‘like’ too.

…yet I get really frustrated with the (seemingly weekly) sharing of such apparent ‘good news stories’ – sure, they appear highly desirable, but I see them as a ‘thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos’.

There’s so much more that we don’t see/ question/ understand/ shout/ do something about. I’d love to see a systemic view – of the problem, and the interventions…and their effects.

What on earth am I talking about? Well, I’m no expert but what follows is my layperson’s (current) thinking. I’d love the real experts to take it on and give us all a regular (i.e. dynamic) and highly visible (i.e. transparent) dose of whole-system reality.

A close-up look:

Here’s a diagram of our oceans – I know it’s not quite accurate…. bear with me…it’s a simplified view! 😊

Plastic picture 1

If you want to get a bit theoretical about it then Professor Jay Forrester, in his early work on System Dynamics, wrote about ‘levels’ and ‘rates’2:

“The level (or state) variables describe the condition of the system at a particular point in time.” i.e. the level (or amount) of plastic in our oceans as of today. I usually visualise a bucket and the current level of its contents.

The value of a level at the start of operation is called the initial condition” which, for the subject of this post, would have been zero plastic in our oceans, because it doesn’t occur naturally.

“The rate (action) variables tell how fast the levels are changing” and “…are defined by ‘rate equations’…that describe action in a system.  In short, we can think of taps into our bucket and scoops (or perhaps drains) out of our bucket. Each of these are rate variables.

“The level variables accumulate the results of actions within the system.” i.e. the current level of plastic in our oceans will (rather obviously) be:

The initial condition (zero in this case);

Plus: the accumulation of all the plastic that we’ve ever put into it;

Minus: the accumulation of any plastic that we’ve taken out.

“A level variable is computed by the change, due to rate variables, that alters the previous value of the level.” i.e. whether our level of plastic in the ocean is going up, staying the same or coming down is determined by ALL the rates into and out of the ocean. So, yes, we might have made a wonderful scoop BUT if we’ve also opened up the tap some more (let alone closed it) then that level will still be going up! And probably rapidly ☹.

To summarise the obvious: There’s a HUGE gushing tap of plastic being dumped into our oceans…and a tiny, irregular scoop of plastic being taken back out. That scoop represents those social media articles we so like.

Why the monumental discrepancy between our tap and our scoop? Well, we’ve got nearly 8 billion (and increasing) people devouring plastic daily, combined with ever-widening uses of plastics3we’ll never have a scoop that can cope with that!

The other bit of interest to me in my simple diagram is what happens after the scoop. Great, we’ve collected tons of plastic…but then what? It’s still plastic and will be for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

And it’s at this point you’d say to me “Don’t be stupid Steve! The collected plastic gets recycled”.

But does it? And even more relevant, does this really assist?

Looking a bit wider:

Here’s my 2nd ‘wider system view’ of plastics diagram:

Plastic picture 2

Now I’ve got four level variables (or, in simple terms, buckets) and four rate variables (the drains from one, and taps into another, bucket)

The raw materials represent the necessary ingredients found on planet earth for the making of plastic (which I understand to be mainly oil). We act in our daily lives (particularly with regards to plastics) as if these raw materials are non-exhaustible…which clearly isn’t the case.

I’ve combined made and in use into one bucket to represent the productive plastic in existence. It’s worth noting that there is an array of different kinds of plastics, and most plastic will go through a journey from its initial conversion into plastic pellets, through its forming into plastic objects, to its assembly as part of a specific product and then to its sale and consumption. This can be a short or long time-cycle (think ‘single use’ plastic vs. plastic used in, say, a car).

I’ve coloured my disposed of bucket brown to represent the fact that such plastic can be found all over the place (not just in our oceans). Most of it is likely piled up on, or buried under, land.

That all looks simple doesn’t it. Surely we just need to collect it (increase rate 3) and then feed it back round (increase rate 4). A lovely closed loop. However…

Adding some of the tricky details

Here’s my 3rd diagram:

plastic picture 3

I’ll take each of the four sub-systems, starting at collected and working my way backwards:

Collected: Much of what we, as consumers of plastic, see (and therefore think about) in terms of recycling is only the front-end collection piece. We can (rightly) feel good about having gathered it all up…but we have very little understanding of what (if anything) happens afterwards. For example, do you know:

  • what % of the plastic that you have lovingly collected is re-useable…and, more importantly, is actually re-used?
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that is ‘rejected’ for re-use?
  • how efficient is the re-cycling process? i.e. what % of your collected plastic makes it to a re-cycled state once the various processes are performed upon it (cleaning, de-stickering, de-capping, separating….)
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that falls out of this processing?
  • what can your re-useable plastic be used for? And what can’t it?

and most significantly:

  • have your efforts prevented ‘virgin plastic’ from entering the system?

Disposed of: My revised diagram is showing that plastic can be responsibly disposed of, or can be discarded (anywhere and everywhere), and can then leak down the chain through the land and rivers to the oceans. There’s masses of it, everywhere!

Made or In use: There’s some really important points of note within this sub-system.

  • Types of plastic: There are thousands of types of plastic, and because of this, it’s not simply a case of plastic collected and put back into the system again. Not all plastics are alike. Yes, there are some common types, but manufacturers are free to develop very specific plastics for their needs…which can then preclude it from being re-cycled (or at least currently).

  • ‘Virgin plastic’: Some plastic applications require 100% brand new plastic. I understand that (much of) the food industry (currently) sits in this category.

  • ‘Down-cycling’: A great deal of what we call the re-cycling of plastic is in fact ‘down-cycling’. i.e. yes, we have got plastic that we can use for something….but in many cases we can’t (or at least don’t) re-use it for its original purpose. Sure, we can make items like hard chunky plastic furniture (a common use) but is this really a good thing? Has it prevented new plastic entering the system? Do we need these down-cycled items?

A common ‘down cycling’ application that is touted as a great thing is the creation of polyester clothing…. which takes us to the thorny issue of micro fibres. Every time we wash ‘plastic fibres’, some bits come off into the water and enter our environment…and our food chain.


  • Re-cycling: Even if we are re-using plastic, many such applications require it mixing with virgin plastic to do so, often in high proportions. Sure, you might be pleased that some of your collected plastic has come back round the loop, but that’s not much good if 9 times as much new plastic is required to do so4.

  • Re-purposing: I often see links to video clips where plastic has been collected and then made into ‘art’. Yes, the result might look very nice (and desirable) but all we’ve done is found a place to sequester the plastic for a few years! Such repurposing has no effect on the gushing tap.

Raw materials: Every time we use raw materials to make plastic (i.e. the red flows on my 3rd diagram) we are adding to the existing problem, no matter how much is collected and returned. Put simply, we are created more plastic that will go somewhere on this earth.

The only sure way to close the loop would be to return the plastic to its original state – the green flow on my final diagram. Can this (truly) be done? That’s where, as a lay person looking at the whole system, I frustratingly admit that I don’t know. I’ve seen videos of people running small scale experiments on this, but I’ve got no idea if this is being (or will be) ‘industrialised’.

There’s probably nothing in the above that you didn’t already know but, because it’s never put to us in one glorious picture…we are good at compartmentalising it all away (hitting ‘like’ on a feel good article) and getting on with our (plastic consuming) lives.

The Whole system

We, the citizens of this world should want to know about the whole system. Sure, that scoop collecting our detritus out of the ocean is (currently) necessary but it’s soooo not sufficient.

Personally, I want my government5 to show us (i.e. everyone) the ‘warts and all’ picture. Transparency of what’s happening (i.e. feedback) is required – without it we aren’t in a position to properly respond.

For your information: Here’s a diagram from a 2017 research study into the amount of plastic ever produced and where it currently resides…

Plastic in the world

Some notes:

  • The figures in the diagram represent millions of metric tons (Mt). i.e. 8,300 Mt is 8,300,000,000 tons.
  • If, like me, you don’t really understand what a ton looks/feels like (I’ve never picked one up) then imagine a 1 kg bag of sugar. 8,300,000,000 tons is 8,300,000,000,000 kg.
  • I’ve not really helped you much there…because that’s unimaginable!!!6
  • This plastic only started to be produced in scale from the 1950s…we’ve achieved this mess in as little as 70 years….and it continues to accelerate.
  • 60% of all plastic ever produced is ‘out there’, discarded
  • Only around 7% has been recycled…but this hasn’t stopped new plastic entering the system.

The simple message within this post is for us to set out, look at, and continue to focus on, the whole.

Addendum

This post was about plastic on our planet but the idea of ‘seeing the system’ rather than ‘focusing on one sub-system within’ is applicable to all complex, dynamic systems.

Turning to models: Forrester defined a model as “…a substitute for an object or system” and went on to write that:

“any set of rules and relationships that describe something is a model of that thing. In this sense, all of our thinking depends on models.”

However, “There are several major defects in mental models of dynamic systems that can be alleviated (not eliminated) by converting from mental models to models represented by explicit statements in the form of flow diagrams.”

Further, “…because we cannot mentally manage all the facets of a complex system at one time, we tend to break the system into pieces and draw conclusions separately from the sub-systems. Such fragmentation fails to show how the sub-systems interact.”

See, and work on, the whole.

Footnotes

1. Health: This post has totally ignored any ill-health effects on humans (and other life forms) from using plastic. That’s a far bigger topic, and one that I don’t know (enough) about to comment on.

2. A Book: I don’t know if it’s currently in reprint but the early work on this is ‘Principles of Systems’. I bought it years ago. It contains Forrester’s original undergraduate course on System Dynamics.

Note: Modern system dynamics seems to talk about stocks and flows in place of levels and rates. Different words, same thing.

3. Plastic use: If you did a ‘plastic usage’ audit for one day of your life…then it’s scary what you’d find, even if you are attempting to be a responsible citizen. When it comes to plastic, we often don’t get a choice!

4. Mixing: here’s a short video clip of the making of plastic bottles. It shows a ratio of 10% recycled plastic to 90% virgin. Not much ‘closed loop’ recycling going on there! I don’t know how current or standard this video is…but you get the point. The narrator explains that “Recycled plastic loses some of its physical properties, so the recycled content can’t exceed 10%”.

5. Government …because I don’t suppose that the plastic producers will do this, at least not objectively.

6. Unimaginable: Some people have tried creating some info-graphics to assist. Here’s one:

what does 8300 Mt of plastic look like