Thinking about Systems Change

Early in my career, I taught and believed change was a linear process. Implicit was the idea that we could plan, organize and control change as well. My views changed as I was exposed to systems and systemic change.

One of my first exposures was reading Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. For the first time, I saw organizations and communities as living organisms best understood through scientific lenses such as biology, chaos theory and quantum physics. I didn’t (and still don’t) grasp all the concepts, but I understood you cannot “change manage” a system.

I attended a talk by Peter Senge who, to explain systems, said, “When you flush, it goes somewhere.” Now this I could understand, and it made me think about the ripple effects over distance and time that change can create, as well as unintended consequences.

I had the honor of attending a training program in Orlando led by Dr. Deming. Understanding Systems was one of the four pillars of his System of Profound Knowledge. Rather than organizational charts, we used systems maps to understand organizations. I learned a system:
• Consists of inter-related and interacting parts
• Exists in an environment with which it also interacts
• Has a purpose or “aim”
• Is ever changing and needs to managed effectively
• If parts of a system compete or strive for optimal performance on their own, the performance of the whole system suffers and this is called sub-optimization.

Deming’s famous Red Bead Exercise reinforced powerful learnings such as:
• If you pit a good person against a bad system, the system will win every time.
• If you change out the people without changing the system, you will not change the results.

At a practical level, when I work with an organization, I start with a systems lens and the premise that the organization is perfectly operating as a system to get the results it is getting. In other words, the structures, policies, processes and relationships inside and outside the organization are interacting to produce the current organizational outcomes. To improve outcomes, you need to approach change through a systems lens.

How do you do that? These Seven Lessons for Leaders in System Change are helpful:
1. To promote systems change, foster community and cultivate networks.
2. Work at multiple levels of scale.
3. Make space for chaos and self-organization.
4. Seize breakthrough opportunities when they arise.
5. Facilitate – but give up the illusion you can direct – change.
6. Assume that change is going to take time.
7. Be prepared to be surprised.

Systems change is not for the feint of heart.

Is Your Cup Overflowing?

Are you exploring new ideas and methods? Is your organization trying to change and innovate? Consider this story:

“There was a man who was determined to become enlightened.  After many years of sacrifice and study, he felt ready to visit a very holy man in India.  He journeyed far and long and finally reached the holy man’s home.  The holy man invited him in and offered him a cup of tea after his long journey.  The man held his cup while the holy man poured tea from a pot.  The man was surprised and then shocked when the holy man continued to pour more and more tea, causing the tea to flow out of the cup and over the floor.  The man asked, “Please holy man, why do you keep filling my cup?”  The holy man paused and then said, “You have come to become enlightened but your mind is full.  Like the cup, your mind is so full that my words will just flow over and away from you.  To become enlightened, you must unlearn some of what you believe to be true.  You must empty your mind to allow new ideas in.”

To learn, we must first unlearn, and give up what we know “for sure”. We must have a beginner’s mind, meaning an attitude of openness. As Zen Buddhists would say, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few”. [1]

But this is easier said than done. How can we empty our cup so that new information and insights can take hold? Here are a few ways[2]:

  • Take one step at a time, without trying to pre-determine the outcome.
  • Celebrate failures as well as successes for their gifts of learning.
  • Question all your “should”s.
  • Let go of being “the expert”.
  • Face your fear of failure.
  • Focus on questions, not answers.

Like stripping old paint, letting go of old paradigms and habits makes room for the new. Happy spring-cleaning!

[1] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. p. 21



Because It’s 2015

When Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was asked why he appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, he replied succinctly, “Because it’s 2015”. In other words, it’s time or well past time for change to occur.

In simple ways, 2015 has reminded me that my clients and their expectations are changing, and with it, some of my facilitation practices. Here are some examples:

  • Jeff Chase (@Chase_Jeff), urban planner and Senior Policy Advisor to Mayor Nenshi, tweeted that “parking lots” to capture off-agenda discussion items were “so 1990s”. Others jumped into the conversation and said they used terms like “conservation area” or “community garden” instead. As a result, I now use a “Bike Rack” flipchart, a small step to help me be mindful of the language I am using AND promote thinking about different modes of transportation.
  • For a December planning session, I proposed to one client that I include Christmas trivia questions throughout the day. She rightly reminded me of the cultural diversity of this team, and as a result, we used a rich mix of questions on multi-cultural holiday traditions and Calgary.
  • For many years, I felt that “groundrules” for meetings felt too parental. Jo Nelson (@JoFacilitator), a global hall of fame facilitator with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, instead uses “Working Assumptions” which I have adopted. This way of beginning meetings feels much more respectful and collaborative.
  • As an INTJ, I know that I am more process and closure oriented than many of my clients. As a MBTI practitioner for over 25 years, I understand the different types of work preferences but sometimes I forget and default to what is natural to me. This year, I became aware that there are times where it is necessary and good to leave things a bit messy and organic, as that is where innovative ideas can germinate.

These are some of my “Because it was 2015” learnings. 2016 will be a new palate. Thank you for reading my blog, and best wishes for the New Year.

Avoiding the Training Trap

I am surprised how often training is identified as the “go-to” solution for people performance issues. Although I started my career as a corporate trainer, it did not take long to realize there are many other factors besides “know-how” that affect performance.

Robert Mager in his popular book, Analyzing Performance Problems, or You Really Oughta Wanna – How to Figure Out Why People Aren’t Doing What They Should Be, and What to Do About It  (How’s that for a title?) was adamant that training was rarely the best or most economical way to address performance issues.

One of the most helpful models I found for addressing performance issues is Human Performance Technology (HPT)  from the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). The HPT model has three main steps:

  1. Determine the performance gap at the organizational, team or individual level.
  2. Determine the cause of the gap.
  3. Select and implement the appropriate solution.

Step One requires data gathering to identify the gap between current and required performance.

Step Two requires detective work to determine why the performance gap exists. Possible causes could be a lack of:

  • Consequences, incentives or rewards
  • Data, information or feedback
  • Support, resources or tools
  • Individual capacity
  • Motivation and expectations
  • Skills and knowledge

Step Three is the art of matching an appropriate solution to address the cause. If the cause is a lack of consequences, incentives or rewards, the solution may involve changes to the performance management system; for a lack of data, information or feedback, changes to communications processes may be required; for a lack of individual capacity, staffing and work design could be effective solutions, etc.

Training has its place to address skills and knowledge gaps along with other interventions such as coaching and mentoring. But training has been overused as a “sheep-dip” solution for issues that require systemic process and/or policy solutions.

Beware defaulting to “training is the solution”. As the adage goes, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Powerful Questions to Drive Change

Over a decade ago, I saw an advertisement for a workshop on Powerful Questions. That’s an odd topic, I thought. Now with hindsight, I realize the topic was ahead of its time.

What is a powerful question? Reos Partners in their Change Lab methodology use powerful questions as the catalyst for significant social innovation. A powerful question is one to which there is no answer yet. A technical question, in contrast, is one to which we do not know the answer but the answer exists. In other words, when faced with a technical question, research can provide the answer. When faced with a powerful question, we must turn to one another and engage in dialogue and discovery, through which new intelligence emerges.

Examples of powerful questions being explored now using Reos Partners’ methodology are:

  • “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” being explored by The United Way in Calgary and Area’s community change initiative, Thrive by 5
  • “What will it take for Canadians to succeed in creating a good future?” explored by the Possible Canadas Project 

Powerful questions are challenging because they focus on complex, systemic issues. Often the questions are about “wicked problems”.   The Austin Center for Design defines a wicked problem as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems”.

Forming a powerful question takes a lot of trial and error to ensure it is a “real” question, not technical, that will inspire and engage others in the search for change. However, be inspired by this wonderful quote from Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

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