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’.


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”

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:

It’s complicated!…or is it?

mandelbrot-setI’ll  start with a question: What’s the difference between the two words ‘Complex’ and ‘Complicated’?

Have a think about that for a minute…and see what you arrive at.

I did a bit of fumbling around and can report back that:

  • If you look these two words up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), then you’d think they mean the same thing; however
  • If you search Google for ‘complex vs. complicated’, then you’ll find oodles of articles explaining that they differ, and (in each author’s opinion) why; and yet
  • …. if you were to read a cluster of those articles you’d find totally contradictory explanations!

Mmmm, that’s complicated…or is that complex?

This post aims to clarify, and in so doing, make some incredibly important points! It’s probably one of my most ‘technical’ efforts…but if you grapple with it then (I believe that) there is gold within.

Starting with definitions:

Here are the OED definitions:

Complex: consisting of many different and connected parts.

  • Not easy to analyse or understand; complicated or intricate”

Complicated: consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements; intricate.

  • Involving many different and confusing aspects
  • In Medicine: Involving complications.”

So, virtually the same – in fact one refers to the other! – but I think we can agree that neither are simple 🙂 . They are both about parts and their interconnections.

Turning to the ‘science’ of systems:

scienceWhilst the OED uses the ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ words interchangeably, Systems Thinkers have chosen to adopt distinctly different meanings. They do this to usefully categorise different system types.

Reading around systemsy literature2, I repeatedly see the following categorisation usage:

Simple systems: Contain only a few parts interacting, where these are obvious to those that look; Extremely predictable and repeatable

Example: your seat on an aeroplane

Complicated systems: Many parts, they operate in patterned (predictable) ways but ‘how it works’ is not easily seen…except perhaps by an expert

Example: flying a commercial aeroplane…where, of note, its predictability makes it very safe

Complex systems: unpredictable because the interactions between the parts are continually changing and the outcomes emerge – and yet look ‘obvious’ with the benefit of hindsight.

Example: Air Traffic Control, constantly changing in reaction to weather, aircraft downtime…etc.

“…and the relevance of this is?”

There is a right way, and many a wrong way, to intervene in systems, depending on their type! Therefore, correct categorisation is key.

A (the?) major mistake that ‘leaders’ of organisations make is they presume that they are dealing with a complicated system…when in fact it is complex4. If you initially find this slightly confusing (it is!) then just re-read, and ponder, the definitions above.

Management presume that they are operating within a complicated (or even simple) system whenever they suppose that they can:

– administer a simple course of ‘best practise’ or external expert advice…and all will be well;

– plan in detail what something will turn out like, how long it will take and at what cost…when they’ve never done it before!;

– implement stuff as if it can simply be ‘rolled back’ to an earlier state if it doesn’t work out…not understanding that, once acted upon, the people affected have been irrevocably changed (and regularly suffer from what I refer to as ‘change fatigue’5);

– isolate and alter parts of the system to deliver a predicted (and overly simplistic) outcome…by which I am referring to the slapstick ‘benefits case’ and it’s dastardly offspring the ‘benefits realisation plan’…

…Management can, of course, invoke the Narrative Fallacy to convince themselves that all that was promised has been achieved (and will be sustained)…whilst ignoring any inconvenient ‘side effects’;

– strip out (and throw away) fundamental parts of a system whilst invoking their constant simplification battle cry…because they can’t (currently) see, let alone understand, why these parts are necessary;

…and I’m sure you can carry on the list.

The distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ fits quite nicely with Russell Ackoff’s distinction between deterministic (mechanistic) and organic systems; and  John Seddon’s distinction between manufacturing and service organisations (and the complexity of variety in customer demand).

Put simply 🙂 , in complex systems, it’s the relationships between the parts (e.g. people) that dominate.

So what?

jack-deeWell, if Management understand that they are dealing with a complex organisation then they will (hopefully) see the importance of designing their system to take advantage of (rather than butcher) this fact.

Such a design might include:

  • aligning individual and organisational purpose, by sharing success (and removing management instruments that cause component-optimising behaviours)
  • putting capability measures into the hands of front line/ value creating workers, where such measures:
  • allowing and supporting the front line/ value creating workers to:
    • absorb the customer variety that presents itself to them; and
    • imagine, and experiment with, ways of improving the service for their customers
  • …and much much more systemsy thinking

This would mean creating a system that is designed to continuously adjust as its components change in relation to one another. That would be the opposite of ‘command and control’.

Huge clarification: Many a command-and-control manager may respond that, yes, they already continually adjust their system…I know you do!!!  It’s not you that should be doing the adjusting…and so to self-organisation:

From simple to complex…and back again6

answersThe giant systems thinker Donella Meadows wrote that highly functional systems (i.e. the ones that work really well) likely contain three characteristics – resilience7, self-organisation and hierarchy8.

I’ll limit myself here to writing about self-organisation:

“The most marvellous characteristic of some complex systems is their ability to learn, diversify, complexify, evolve…This capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex is called self-organisation(Meadows)

Wow, ‘complexify’ – a new word?!…and it can be a very good thing…and goes 1800 against the corporate simplification mantra:

“We would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying, the self-organising capacities of the systems of which we are a part….which are often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stabiliy7(Meadows)

It turns out that complexity isn’t of itself a bad thing…in fact quite the opposite – a system can achieve amazing things as it becomes more complex. Just consider that, through the process of evolution, ‘we’ have ‘complexified’ (can you see what I did there) from amoeba to human beings!

…but what’s REALLY interesting is that this complexity is enabled by simplicity!

“System theorists used to think that self-organisation was such a complex property of systems that it could never be understood…new discoveries, however, suggest that just a few simple organising principles can lead to wildly diverse self-organising structures.” (Meadows)

Meadows went on to note that:

“All of life, from viruses to redwood trees, from amoebas to elephants, is based on the basic organising rules encapsulated in the chemistry of DNA, RNA, and protein molecules.”

In short: Simple rules can allow complex systems to blossom, self-learn and grow.

I believe that a wonderful, and complex, organisation can be created and sustained from living a simple philosophy.

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

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

….so what might such a simple philosophy be? Well, Deming was ‘all over’ this with his ‘Theory of Profound knowledge’* and ’14 points for Management’.

* Deming explained simply that we should:

  • Observe, and handle, the world around us as systems (which, by definition, require a purpose that is obvious to all);
  • Expose, and understand, variation;
  • Gain knowledge through studying and experimenting;
  • Understand psychology and truly respect each and every human being ; and
  • Lead through our actions and abilities.

…and a final warning against that oversimplification thing:

“Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”  (Clay Shirky)

The short ‘simple’ version at the end of the long ‘complicated’ one 🙂

‘Complexity’ is not the inherently bad ogre as persistently painted by contemporary management. Rather, it can be a defining property of our organisational system that we would do well to understand and embrace.

Let’s feast at the ’complex but right’ bookcase of knowledge, design appropriate and evolving responses based on simple scientific wisdom and climb the mountain…rather than automatically follow the crowd over the ‘simple but wrong’ cliff!

Footnotes

1. Opening Image: This image is a part of the Mandelbrot Set – an amazingly complicated (or is that complex?) image that is derived from the application of a simple mathematical formula. It sits within the fractal school of Mathematics (repeating patterns) alongside others such as the Koch snowflake.

Image Source : CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=322029

2. Systems Thinking Literature: This systems thinking is taken, in part, from a 2011 HBR article Learning to Live with Complexity.

3. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework is built (partly) around the difference between complicated and complex….and the importance of correctly identifying your system type before intervening. Snowden’s framework also adds the idea of chaotic systems, where there is some emergency that requires urgent action (without the time to experiment)…where the action chosen may determine how the chaos is halted…which may or may not be in your favour!

4. The inclusion of people in a system likely makes it complex.

5. Change Fatigue: This is my phrase for those people who have worked for an organisation for many years and had the annual ‘silver bullet’ change programme rolled out on them…and got bored of the same lecture and the same outcomes. It is very hard to energise (i.e. excite) someone with ‘change fatigue’.

6. Cartoon: I LOVE this cartoon! It is sooo apt. The vast majority are on the simple road, following the crowd over an (unseen) cliff…or at least not seen until it is too late. A few turn right at the ‘bookcase of knowledge’ – they take a book or two and then travel a circuitous and uphill road to an interesting destination.

7. Resilience vs. stability clarification: “Resilience is not the same thing as being…constant over time. Resilient systems can be very dynamic….conversely, systems that are constant over time can be unresilient.” (Donella Meadows)

8. Hierarchy: I’m aware that some organisations have experimented without a formal hierarchy (e.g. Holacracy). However, even they create a set of rules to assist them co-ordinate their component parts.

It’s worth noting that “Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up…the original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating subsystems do their jobs better…[however] many systems are not meeting our goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies…

 To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve co-ordination towards the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organising.” (Meadows)

 

“Why is your proposed change so profound?”

knot-systemMy recent serialised post titled “Your Money or your Life!” proposed that every ‘large corporate’* should make a meaningful change…that would be for the good of all.

Wow, that would be great!

* Where ‘large corporate’ is short form for ‘controlled by free-floating short-term thinking shareholders’.

I got thinking (as is often the case after pressing the ‘publish’ button) about readers thinking:

“Erm, okay – interesting perspective –  but why is the suggested change supposedly so profound?”

…and this caused me to question whether I had got the ‘this is a potential game changer!’ point across.

Note: What follows is relevant when considering ANY proposed change, not just the contents of my last post!

And so to a ‘systems thinking’ explanation:

First, a definition:

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something.

If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose1.” (Donella Meadows)

Going back to an organisation (yours, mine,…wherever) as a system to ponder:

  • The Elements are pretty obvious – they include the people, the products and services offered, the physical buildings and resources, lots of intangible pieces (distinct departments, teams within) and so on…;

  • The Interconnections are the “the relationships that hold the elements together” e. g. the physical flows of work, the business policies and guidelines, external laws and regulations, the communications (including the gossip!), and flows of information (signals that go to decision or action points…which may or may not trigger reactions);

  • The Purpose of a system, whilst essential, is often hard to see (even if you think you know what it is!):

 “The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves…Purposes are deduced from behaviour, not from rhetoric or stated goals.”

 What you see may be very different to what you are told.

…and so, if you want to change an organisational system, presumably through a desire to improve (and even transform) it, then you have three “kinds of things” to play with.

Taking each ‘kind of thing’ in turn:

Elements

 “Changing elements usually has the least effect on the system.”

Using rugby and the All Blacks to illustrate the point: The coaches can change one or two players but, if they keep everything else the same, then not too much will change.

Now, sure, some elements may be very important (perhaps the introduction of a brilliant goal kicker) but, even then, the worth of such a change is hugely constrained by the rest of the system.

You might change ALL the elements (e.g. players) but if you keep the interconnections (such as the game plan, methods of communication, information sharing, the environment of trust and respect…) and purpose the same, then very little change may occur.

dan-and-richieA positive example of this phenomenon: The All Blacks won the rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015, making them the first team ever to achieve ‘back-to-back’ rugby World Cups.  They did this with a core of extremely influential world-class players3who then promptly retired!

The world rugby media wondered how the All Blacks would rebuild, given the apparently gaping holes these players would leave. Many a pundit envisioned dark days ahead.

And yet a few weeks ago (on 22nd Oct 2016), despite introducing many new players, the All Blacks broke the world record for the number of consecutive international games won against ‘Tier one’ rugby nations (18 games). In short, rather than going backwards, they have ‘kicked on’ to even higher levels.

Their purpose and interconnections have clearly been shown to be stronger than the elements (e.g. players).

To the world of work: and organisational ‘restructures’. If you re-jig your hierarchical structure, changing the departments and faces within, but keep the methods of interconnection (the management system) and the underlying purpose the same (whether profit or political ideology), then not much has really changed.

“A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitution of its elements – as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact.”

Further, you may have convinced yourself that your problems were ‘because of’ individuals…but consider that you may have ‘cut out’ the symptom and not the cause. If you don’t learn from this then you can expect another (costly) restructure in maybe 12 months time…and again…and again.

Interconnections

 “Changing interconnections in a system can change it dramatically.”

chris-robshawSo, staying with rugby, let’s move to the English national team.  In contrast to the All Blacks, they have had two terrible World Cups.

In 2011: they travelled to New Zealand and were awful (I know – I watched them!) They were heavily criticised for their attitude, and off field behaviour – they acted as if they were on an all expenses paid holiday…and, in the end, they were! The coach (Martin Johnson) resigned.

In 2015: they had home advantage – hopes were high. The whole of England was supporting them…but they exited the competition at the pool stages – the first time in their history. The coach (Stuart Lancaster) resigned.

So how has 2016 gone? Well, they’ve played 9, won 9…which includes:

  • achieving the Grand Slam (which they haven’t done for 13 years);
  • a 3-0 tour whitewash of Australia (a rare achievement); and
  • rising to be ranked 2nd in the World (from 8th)…just behind those mighty All Blacks.

So what’s changed? Well, England appointed a new manager (Eddie Jones)…but he has stuck with the core of previous players (those elements).

Instead of wholesale changing of the elements, he’s changed the interconnections – how they work together – resulting in players that had become labelled as ‘bad boys’, ‘past their best’ and ‘donkeys’4 being reborn, putting in controlled, consistent and herculean performances.

We don’t yet know whether the change will be long lasting…but it has most definitely been profound.

Back to the world of work: Perhaps the best known modern(ish) example of keeping the elements but changing the interconnections has to be NUMMI:

General Motor’s Fremont car plant was one of the worst performing plants in the whole industry, with high costs, low quality and terrible worker relations. GM closed the plant in 1982.

Toyota, wanting to start production in America, struck a joint-venture agreement with GM and the Fremont plant reopened as NUMMI in 1985. They rehired 85% of the original workforce (who still belonged to the Union – considered by GM as a serious problem). After taking 100s of the workers over to Japan to experience totally different thinking (involving a high degree of meaningful worker interacting), these learning’s were put into practise and the factory went on to produce the lowest cost, highest quality cars within its first year!

“Toyota took a bunch of [apparent] F Players, retrained them, put them into a great system, and magically they became superstars.” (Pfeffer and Sutton)

In short: Changing from a command-and-control management system to one that better understands systems and people will be dramatic.

Purpose

“A change in purpose changes a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection remains the same.”

So, to switch from rugby to football: There’s an annual knockout competition in English Football, known as ‘The FA cup’. First played in 1871, it is the oldest football competition in the world. There is something rather magical about it because, given that it is open to any eligible club down to level 10 of the English football league system, it allows amateur minnows to mix it with the millionaire mega-stars…and, every now and then, create an upset – a minnow becomes a giant killer!

I searched for a game between a low-league minnow and a 1st division giant…and came up with Wrexham vs. Arsenal back in 19925. Both appeared to have had the same purpose – to win the game – but I suggest that their true purposes were rather different (and not so obviously stated).

Arsenal’s stars were probably trying to keep themselves injury free, to focus on other important matters – win their league (the 1st division) and perhaps get into their respective national sides (it was European Cup year)….and maybe avoid the embarrassment of defeat.

wrexham

In contrast, every man in the Wrexham team was aiming to become a legend!

Wrexham won 2 – 1. The crowd went nuts!

But here’s an interesting point: Wrexham, the giant killing minnow, went back to their low-league competition the following weekend and drew 0 – 0 at home with Maidstone United. Maidstone who? Exactly! The same players and staff, same coaching system, same methods of communications…different purpose!

This example, I hope, serves to illustrate the point that a (true) change in purpose will be profound, even whilst retaining the same elements and interconnections.

To the world of work: Even better than a transient change in purpose (like Wrexham’s), would be a permanent one!

…and so we finally come to that ‘profound point’ from my recent serialised post: long-term profit sharing. Bringing ‘Live Money’ into an organisation permanently changes its purpose, for the good of all…which would lead to experimentation with new interconnections…which would reinvigorate the elements (or at least naturally sort through those that fit vs. those that wish to pursue something else).

All in all – a profound change to the system. It would be…well…‘Transformed’.

To close: So, what if your ‘leader‘ changes?

Let’s say your organisation hires a new CEO – an element, but a central one. Everyone’s chattering about this ‘big change’…but will it change much?

The answer is “it depends”.

It will depend upon whether the leader understands systems and people (through education and experience, or perhaps instinctively)…because:

  • if the new leader goes on to change interconnections and, even better, the (actual) purpose then transformational change will likely occur; but
  • if that leaders attempts change merely through changing the elements (new people, new departments, a new IT system, some new products and brands….) then not much will actually change.

Changing the interconnections relates to the management system.

Changing the purpose relates to why the organisation exists, and for whom.

…and I hope I don’t need to say that a fancy new ‘purpose statement’ doesn’t, of itself, change a thing!

Footnote:

1. The word ‘Function’ is generally used for non-human systems and ‘Purpose’ for human systems.

2. Quote source: All quotes (unless otherwise stated) are taken from the excellent book ‘Thinking in Systems’ written by the late Donella Meadows (a giant to add at some point).

3. All Black players that retired after 2015 rugby World Cup:

  • Richie McCaw (148 caps): Regarded by many as the greatest ever rugby player, Most capped rugby player of all time, 3x World Rugby Player of the Year….and his accolades go on and on;
  • Dan Carter (112 caps): Regarded by many as the greatest ever no. 10 (fly half) player, Highest international test points scorer of all time (1,598), 3x World Rugby Player of the Year…and on and on;
  • Ma’a Nonu (103 caps) and Conrad Smith (94 caps). Most successful mid-field pairing;
  • …and other great players: Kevin Mealamu (132 caps), Tony Woodcock (118 caps)

4. England players: If you are a rugby fan then I’m referring to the likes of Dylan Hartley (‘bad boy’), Chris Robshaw (‘has been’) and James Haskell (‘donkey’). Sorry chaps…but this is what you had seemingly become!

5. FA Cup Giant Killing Context: Wrexham came last in League 4 the year before (i.e. came 92nd out of all the 92 league 1 – 4 clubs). At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Arsenal won League 1 (i.e. came 1st out of these 92 clubs).

6. Explaining the main post Image: The system is made up of ropes (elements), knots (interconnections) and purpose (what it is intended to achieve)….which may be to look pretty or to hold a heavy load.

7. Clarification: This post is NOT saying that purpose is the only lever you should focus on. It is merely explaining the likely impact of working on each type of lever. We should be working on improving all three ‘kinds of things’ and, being a system, they are all related!