System Thinking in the Organization: Tracing Flows of Power, Information and Influence

As we’ve covered here and elsewhere, the mental models we hold of the organization help to shape our thinking, if not our behaviors. Models are deeply woven with the culture of our workplace, not to mention the personal mindset we bring to work. Models tell us what works, and who we are. As an organization, do we value open communication, or adhere to strict communication conduits up/down the chain? Is it ok to try and fail, or must we play it safe? Are we expansion/growth oriented, or defensive? Our mental images shape what we think about our organization, and fundamentally shape our view of our place in it. In short, they define the workplace as a container.

But what about the critical flow of resources and information inside that container? Are there models to help us understand how and why things happen internally?

The short answer, of course, is yes.

System Thinking offers numerous models that describe how critical resources flow in, out and through the workplace. Resources such as power, influence and rewards .. not to mention information itself .. move through organizations in interesting and important ways.

System Thinking, like Complexity Thinking, is a new way to look at how things work. It’s a move away from simplified, piece-meal, cause-and-effect models where one solution fixes one problem. Most systems are inherently complex. So work in the complexity space looks at a much broader set of interactions that are inevitably in play: environmental variables, resource constraints, inter-dependencies, feedback loops, and the very important impact of delayed feedback. Factors like these are usually left out of reductionist models, where problems happen in a hypothetical vacuum. Intuitively, a complex systems view can move us closer to reality than simplistic formulaic constructs.

At #orgdna for 2Q16 (April-May-June), in our monthly 90-minute Twitter Chat, we are going to tackle Systems Thinking. As we do, we will start to see why some organizations thrive while others fail, often while having similar structure, resources, and leadership methods.

To get started, let’s tee up a few of Systems Thinking’s foundational elements, taken from Meadows and other readings.  This will give us a toolkit for subsequent #orgdna chats.

  • Q1. Key #systemthinking concepts include stocks, flows, and feedback loops; how can these improve our understanding of the org? 
  • Q2. Helpful #systemthinking metaphors: (a.) bathtub (b.) checking account (c.) thermostat. Which are most useful in #orgdev?
  • Q3. Let’s explore #systemthinking archetypes for orgs:  (a.) escalation (b.) tragedy of the commons (c.) diminishing returns. Where to focus?
  • Q4. Can we isolate (a.) element inventory (b.) relationships or (c.) purpose/function as a primary #orgdev focus? #systemthinking
  • Q5. What are limitations/challenges for #systemthinking in the practice of #21stcorg and #orgdev in general?

I hope you will join us MON 4/18 at 10pm ET, as we take on these important and exciting topics.  Much to learn, and much to discuss.

For the best, most interactive experience, log-on with Twitter using TweetDeck or a similar app, and follow hashtag #orgdna.  We’ll see you online!

Chris aka @sourcepov

Further reading:

 


Transformation: Putting Stakes in the Ground for Lasting Change

Most of us have been part of transformational change at some point in our careers. Sometimes we were part of the change, and sometimes it happened to us. But no matter the scenario, one thing is clear:  high-stakes change can be traumatic and painful.

The back story of course is rooted deeply in human nature, where major change is in conflict with our instinctual goals of survival.

Reference Maslow or Kotter, and you’ll see the same answer: people don’t like change. Large groups of people .. like any modern organization .. will fight you to the death to prevent it.

21st century factors emphasize new dynamics, of course. We must be more fluid in our processes, nimble in our reaction to the market, more open when it comes to new ideas that don’t line up with our own. Change is an every day thing. Major change will come at us more often.

What’s a leader to do?

Let’s discuss some of the major factors that contribute to lasting transformative change.

  • Q1. Transformation often elicts fear of survival. How should this be addressed?
  • Q2. Can high-order needs like belonging sustain engagement when lower-level needs like security are threatened?
  • Q3. Pace of change is both enemy and ally. What dynamics shed light on the optimal target momentum?
  • Q4. What anchors are most effective when it comes to solidifying gains?
  • Q5. Can leaders ensure change will last, or is out of their control?

We hope you’ll join us MON 3/28 at 10pm EDT, as we take on these interesting and important topics. As always, we plan for a lively conversation. See you there!

Chris aka @sourcepov

 


Would You Recognize a Transformational Leader?

While the literature on leadership is both broad and deep, the special requirements of transformational change raise the bar. As the 2nd of three entries in our series on Transformation, we wanted to build on a few of the takeaways (transcript) from our January series kick-off (framing). We introduced the fundamentals, with many references to the role of leaders.

Typical business case studies include merger & acquisitions, downsizings, and adopting of new products or services. But on broader public and political scales, these demands are evident as well. Both Canadian and U.S. elections have demonstrated what traits are demanded from leaders, with evaluations being rendered in the form of popular elections.

I’ve found with transformational change it isn’t enough simply to listen or engage:

Beyond familiar keywords are significant interpersonal and motivational challenges that are daunting for anyone under pressure. Providing strong leadership during high stakes change is profoundly difficult.

So what are the traits or characteristics we’d want to see? How will we know a transformational leader when we see one?

Here are a few questions designed to explore this critical, if not timely, topic.

  • Q1. How does a leader’s integrity and character enable or block transformation?
  • Q2. Building trust is crucial in any relationship; why is it so much more important during times of change?
  • Q3. Letting go of control requires trust in team and enough humility to let go; is this possible when all eyes (BOD, Wall St., voters) are watching? How?
  • Q4. Being adaptable often loses out to consistency in the calculus of profits and Wall St. and social platforms. How do risk taking (in the form of flexibility) enable transformation?
  • Q5. Last time, we discussed ‘owning the end state;’ clear accountability is critical and often shared in successful organizations; how can a leader keep this in focus?

We hope you’ll join the conversation. We meet every 3rd Monday from 10-11 p.m. ET, though we often start early and finish late to accommodate time zones. We use hashtag #orgdna, but will often tap related tags when we’re discussing relevant topics, e.g., #leadership (this month!), #orgchange, #leadchange and #workforce.

Looking forward to what’s almost always a lively conversation!

Chris aka @sourcepov, Charlotte NC


Unpacking Transformation: What are the Critical Building Blocks?

Everybody knows. The only constant in today’s world .. and in today’s organization .. is change. More and more, however, it is transformative change. Not the gradual, barely visible, frog-in-boiling-water variety. It’s gut-wrenching change, change that that leaves you in a completely different place than when you began.

Like the farm house carried from Kansas to Oz, transformation is about a fundamentally new perspective.

Transformation is the stuff of paradigm shifts.

Organizations are complex, highly integrated things, and they’re generally quite strong when it comes to survival. But that strength makes them resistant to new rules. So transformation is always difficult .. whether the mission is to restructure the workforce, enter new markets, redefine a brand, or successfully merge existing companies.

What does transformation require? Each of the above examples begs the question. Fundamentally, at the highest level, there must be people who are focused and committed to getting the hard work of change done, in spite of predictable .. and quite logical .. reservations. So we need to unpack the necessary drivers. What are the motivators? What must leaders do?

We’ve used the metaphor of building blocks in the past to take apart complex topics, so let’s use it here. What are the building blocks of Transformation?

  • Q1. Open & Pervasive Communication. How much is enough?
  • Q2. Leaders Who Care. When does supervision transition to coaching and/or serving as mentor?
  • Q3. Trust in Those Leaders. Can we know when it’s safe?
  • Q4. Owning the End State. Is it possible for an entire organization to find common ground?
  • Q5. Freedom to Take Risks. So often, risk in business is against the grain. How do achieve something that is so often preached against?
  • Q6. Willingness to Learn. How does an entire organization learn?
  • Q7. Time. Do we have the necessary patience?

Please plan to jump in. We’re still finalizing the frame, and we’d love your input.

Also, we’ll plan to post additional Transformation-related topics and sources here, as a reference point, to energize & further inform our discussions:

For 2016, the #orgdna community is launching a quarterly theme framework, so that 3 successive chats can be used to build perspectives in one specific area of organizational dynamics. We have added a new #orgdna agenda page as the preliminary guideline for the year .. think of it as our editorial calendar .. but expect it to change, as we learn more together.

We hope you will join the conversation every 3rd Monday at 10pm ET, 7pm PT. Simply use the #orgdna hashtag to connect with participants, inquire on the topic, or participate in the chat itself at the appointed hour. It’s always a lively exchange. We hope you will join us!

Chris aka @sourcepov     Charlotte NC


Now Playing in the 21st Century Organization: Creativity, and Dialog at the Edge

Those who champion change and innovation know that open dialog is essential to spawn new thinking, deeper insights, and stakeholder buy-in. Dialog is often the spark that creates the energy needed to make things happen.

What about dialog at the edge?

By this, I’m thinking about discussions that take people and teams out of their comfort zones, into areas that aren’t traditionally aligned with their usual subject matter. Of course, we could hang this thought on the peg of “getting outside the box” and move on. But I think there’s more to it. I believe thinking at the edge unlocks creativity in the organization, the place from which true change can emerge.

A common problem of group conversations among like-minded thinkers is group-think. Everyone is biased toward agreement. Comfort is derived for sameness. Change never gets a chance. More cutting edge facilitators take those same thinkers and collaborators into less familiar waters. It might be a conversation based on improv. Or a field trip to unusual places. Anything to force a change of thinking, to bring new insights to significant problems.

Let’s take a look at some basic ideas of how edge thinking might work in practice, and explore both challenges and enablers of creativity in the modern organization:

  • Q1. Edge Thinking. Are there clear connections between creativity and thinking at the edge?
  • Q2. Boundary Keeping. Some say facilitation of boundary crossing adds value. Do we need traffic cops? Will edge explorers listen?
  • Q3. Trust. What role does trust play in orgs, as creatives seek to take risks?
  • Q4. Digression, or No? Many struggle with edge dialog’s many perceived rabbit trails. How do we know when to follow a thread?
  • Q5. ROI of Edges. It is difficult to stray from the comfortable. Can we quantify value when creative solutions are defining new baselines?
  • Q6. Design Thinking. Does it thrive on edges? How so?

Bring your ideas on creativity and edges, and we’ll work them in. When we’re in the zone, which is often of late, our discussion evolves with group input.

More? Some edge thinkers worth noting: Michelle James and Cathryn Hrudicka (creativity), John Hagel (edge strategies) and new arrival, prof. Eugene Gendlin (philosophy of edge thinking).

The #orgdna community meets every 3rd Monday from 9:30 to 11:00pm ET. We discuss challenges of leading and learning in the 21st century organization. We promise a lively dialog and a place to expand both your thinking, and your thinking network.

Chris (aka @sourcepov)


Foundations for 21st Century Leaders: Learning to Navigate Culture Change

Let’s face it. People are hard to influence. We are complex creatures, difficult to predict and downright impossible to control.

Large groups of such people only serve to compound things. Insightful leaders know this, or at least sense the immensity of the challenge. It can take years to achieve significant organizational change, if it ever happens.

New on this front is the topic of social complexity. It’s an appreciation for the many variables in play that hi-jack simple “cause and effect” strategies. As an example, say we decide to give a cash bonus to everyone who behaves in a certain way. Some will play. Many will not. But leaders will often rehash the carrot (or stick) strategy in efforts to change the organization’s behavior.

Eventually leaders tire or the bonus money runs out, and they move on to other battles. Or other organizations.

True change in an organization requires a deep appreciation of the complexity dynamic. We must setaside cause and effect thinking, to instead look at what can be accomplished when we view the organization as a network of social connections, people interacting, seeking to be accepted, seeking to learn and to grow, often in spite of the odds. Let’s attack the important topic of leadership in the context of culture change from a fresh angle. We’ll take the complexity view, and see what we uncover.

We teed this up initially 10/19, but let’s keep the focus here, as we dig deeper. Our chat on MON 10/26 from 9:30-11pm ET will use this frame:

  • Q1. Connections. Does thinking of a #21cOrg as a network of social interactions help us understand the #complexity forces at work?
  • Q2. Environment. How do initial conditions in the #workplace influence the opportunity for #orgchange to take hold?
  • Q3. Fundamental Rules. Can we identify a few specific, simple groundrules that leaders can embrace to #leadchange?
  • Q4. Edges. Does change at the edge provide new thinking on how leaders might look at #21cOrg change strategies?

I find culture change to be both fascinating, and in the right conditions, possible. No doubt it is a difficult journey. But leaders must understand people and social dynamics to drive change.

Carrots and sticks? Leave them for building snowmen.

The #orgdna community generally meets every 3rd MON 9:30-11pm ET. We use the #orgdna hashtag to compare notes and ideas, and we’ll publish a transcript right here on this post afterwards. Join the conversation. It’s a lively crowd, perched on a corner of the internet that’s prone to providing insights .. a great place to learn about learning.

Join us !! Hope to see you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov, Charlotte NC US.


The Fallacies of Control & the Quick Fix: On Culture and the Complexity of Organizations

Anyone seeking to change an organization has known the pitfalls of trying to control behavior and motivation. Setting goals and expectations is not so hard. One-off wins tied to an event or a compelling speech can move the needle. But execution over the long-term .. including any lasting, sustainable change in thinking .. is another matter.

Ask Lou Gerstner, the man who moved IBM from hardware to services in the 1990’s, who said:

Culture is not just one aspect of the game, it IS the game.

I’ve always seen this as a fundamental breakthrough, a wake-up call for change the modern organization. Yet leaders will routinely, if not obsessively, plod through short-term ideas for long-term results, without ever seeing the fallacy. What’s missing is an understanding of how people in groups behave, and the implications that complexity has on an organization.

I won’t try to unpack all that here.  Frankly, it’s enough to fill a book (or two), and the subject of some in-depth posts. But for the sake of discussion, let’s establish a premise:  people in organizations are driven more by a need for belonging and conformity with group aspirations, and less by draconian measures to direct, incentivize or otherwise control it’s members. In this light, culture can be defined (if loosely) as a set of groundrules for survival, based on what has worked in the past.  New leaders and programs come and go.  But the memory of groups runs long and deep.

Try changing the minds of an organization on how things work. Ask Lou Gerstner.

For our #orgdna chat on MON 9/21/15 from 9:30 to 11:00pm ET, let’s tee up the conversation like this:

  • Q1. If we can’t control behavior or results, what CAN we influence? Does environment play a key role?
  • Q2. Why do organic ways of thinking (forests, ecosystems, viruses) provide rich metaphors for understanding people in groups, and org culture in general? 
  • Q3. What can leaders try to do in the near-term to impact the long-term?
  • Q4. Can a culture be changed?

The #cdna community of thinkers became the #orgdna community last month, to better describe and focus our dialog.  I think we’re off to a great start. Evidence?  When one chat among a few of us creates enough ideas for 2-3 more chats, imagine what can happen if we keep going, learning as we go, even as we expand and diversify our group?

Please join us. The conversation gets more lively with more ideas in play. And lord knows we enjoy a lively conversation.

As always, thanks for stopping in.

Chris (aka @sourcepov)