Tag Archives: structure

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:


The Nature of Fear: Are We Paralyzed by Conformity?


Conformity in nature and human nature. Survival is at our core. Are we afraid to be different? Where has Darwin taken us?

Understanding the notion of conformity is important when we talk about culture, inside organizations and out. It’s become a key driver in our thinking. As we’ve discussed, our mindset is subtly but deeply influenced by our own vauge perceptions of things are supposed to be, consumed by a feeling that our survival may depend on our ability to fit in.

Can we actually be paralyzed by conformity?

To Margaret Wheatley, there’s no beating around the bush. She says we are. Consider these excerpts from A Simpler Way (1999):

“We have terrorized ourselves by the thought of evolution, driving ourselves into positions of paralyzing conformity, for fear of getting things wrong .. (where) extinction will follow swiftly on the heels of any mistake.”

“.. fear is the darkest of Darwinian shadows.”

Wheatley likes to cut to the chase.

Can we find examples to support her claim? I think they are plentiful, and they are all around us. Consider:

  • a consumer culture that thrives on conformist based purchasing (think: brands, trends, styles)
  • social circles that favor (or outright demand) fitting in
  • work environments that favor the status quo, resisting alternative viewpoints
  • education systems increasingly riveted to standards
  • organizations that cling to structure/hierarchy over more dynamic/collaborative modes of interaction
  • a Western busiess culture modeled upon repeatable, uniform, mechanistic models of efficiency

Much has been written (by me and others; see also a book by C.Christensen, and a great RSA animation by K.Robinson), on the downside of our mechanistic, structure-focused paradigms. It’s thinking that makes us slaves to someone else’s blueprint. Our culture and our thought processes seem literally consumed by the conformist view.

Can we break the cycle?

I say yes. If we can find ways to fundamentally change our mindset.

I’m intrigued that in the very same book, Wheatley goes on to describe patterns and rules in nature that seek to discover what works. Conformity, perhaps, is not all bad, like a tree seeking a greater share of critical sunlight, or vying to expand its rainfall catching potential. Have a need for more light and water? Grow a little taller. Sprout some more leaves.


A better, more useful frame might be: conform if it’s working, adapt if it’s not.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a balancing act. So often, we don’t see a choice. Conformity of purpose is important where precision, quality and scale are required. But when we limit our exploration of new ideas or way of doing things, we cut off our chance to learn, to innovate, and to grow.

Conformity can be a trap. And it can also be our saving grace when we frame it as a repeatable pattern, a platform for new possibilities.

Both. And.

The #cdna community hosts a periodic exploration of social learning, a deep dive into the factors that help us learn together. We seek to identify enablers that help us discover, and the barriers that tend to keep us from learning.  At our next discussion, let’s tee up these questions on conformity in the context of culture:

  • Q1. What reactions or thoughts does mention of comformity tend to trigger?
  • Q2. Can we advance metaphors for conformity that focus on upside (tree leaves) and caution of the downside (factory model)?
  • Q3. If you agree with Wheatley on the dark side of Darwin, why does conformist thinking carry a special risk?
  • Q4. Can we influence the cultural implications that conformity introduces? How?

I can help on that last one with a hint: if you’re a Peter Block fan, you’ll know the answer to “How?” is almost always “Yes!”  Our next #cdna chat is slated for Monday March 10th at 8pm ET.

Bring your ideas and an open mind. We hope to see you there.

Chris Jones (aka @sourcepov)

Crossover: The Power and Resilience of Diverse Perspectives

Do we appreciate the strength of our crossover connections?

Do we appreciate the strength of our crossover connections?

Pick up an ordinary basket and look closely at the weave.  You’ll find an ancient yet simple way of making something that’s durable, flexible, and resilient.

In fact, a basket’s weave is a great model for how we might interact and learn with others more deeply. We need durability and resilience in our relationships too .. to me, a weave is a powerful way to think about “crossover” in all our interactions, especially when we seek to collaborate.

The power of the basket weave metaphor lies in its very basic structure. The over/under aspect of a basket weave reinforces the notion of complementary, diverse elements.  One thread or strand of cane provides support from one angle, which is further supported in the other direction by another.  These are connected and supported by yet another thread or strand on the perpendicular axis, creating structure, and ultimately, strength.  The tighter the weave, the more durable the resulting creation.

Aristotle was a big fan of metaphor, and I am too. Like so much in our world, we take useful concepts (like metaphor and basket weaving) for granted. But what could we gain if we dig a bit deeper? Is there untapped power in our mental models?

To me, there are 3 areas where I think the notion of a basket weave can help our collaborative efforts:

Unlocking Creativity. Artists are well versed in the flow of possibility that occurs when raw materials begin to show their potential. How might the threads or strands come together? What patterns are possible? How might we weave something new?

Inception of Ideas (or “ideation”). Each thread of insight brings new energy and strength from a different direction, supporting the other threads but in a different way.

Design Thinking. Coming up with new ways to solve a problem (solution patterns?) is at the core of design thinking, where structure, form , function and relevance demand diverse thinking from muliple perspectives.

AMG152709b Basket Weave

Examining the basket weave. It may help to ask: what is possible?

As we bring together design elements or ideas, we are bringing together strands of raw material.  As innovators, we are like basket weavers.  As collaborators, our ideas are like threads.  Our soution may well be the resulting basket.

Here are a few questions to drive this thinking home.

Q1. What challenges do we face when we seek to weave together ideas?

Q2. Why are notion of durability and flexibility important?

Q3. Have you seen examples of ideas woven into a “solution fabric”?

Q4. Where and how else might we apply the basket weave metaphor?

We’ll discuss these topics WEDS 10/16 at 9pET using hashtag #cdna, and again in the social change context with SMCHAT cofounder & special guest moderator Kelli Schmith WEDS 10/23 at 1pET using hashtag #smchat.

I must point out that idea weaving is already in progress. Props to Angela Dunn, Shell Rummel and the crew at #ideachat who provided deep insights on “Design Thinking” that contributed to this post.  To me, the richness of the weave metaphor provides plenty of inspiration, or at the very least, some new thinking based on a very old way to make baskets.

More on metaphor? See G.Lakoff: Metaphors We Live By (1980). In The DNA of Collaboration (2012) it’s chapter 6.

Let’s compare notes on this. I’ll see you online.

Chris aka @sourcepov

It’s Your Move: Finding Balance in the Collaborative Flow (Ch.17)

In the game of chess, every move brings important decisions. Is it best to advance, and stake a claim to new ground? Or to retreat, consolidating gains? Taking the lead, or letting the person across the game board set the pace?

Collaboration is fraught with decisions like these, where we must decide how to engage, and then revisit those decisions again and again, making adjustments.

Much depends, of course on our intentions and the context of the situation at hand. Are we there to share and inform, or to learn? Ultimately, isn’t it some of both?

In the context of effective team dynamics, I believe we need a balanced strategy, finding the optimal place between extremes, sharing and learning in useful ways. It’s about letting the circumstance of your knowledge, the topic, and the chemistry of the group tap new, “emergent” possibilities.

As we continue to explore the dynamics of effective collaboration in The DNA of Collaboration, “Balanced Objectives” (Ch.17) asks us to consider the importance of a balanced approach, and to understand how to get there.

In our chat SAT Nov 17 11aET (click here to join), let’s unpack it like this:

  • Q1. Explore the shifting dynamic of teacher v. learner in a collaborative context.
  • Q2. As in chess, collaborators balance opportunities to advance v. consolidating gains. Can we switch often and be productive?
  • Q3. To achieve collaborative balance, must our roles keep shifting between leading and following?
  • Q4. Is there an optimal balance between structured process and a more open, creative flow?

Hope this helps bring the balancing act of collaboration a bit more into focus. It’s critical thinking at the micro level, making decisions in the moment. When it comes to solving problems in teams, paying attention to dynamics like these pays huge rewards.

Challenge me with your thoughts and ideas .. we’re all here to learn!  I’ll see you online!

– Chris Jones, author, aka @sourcepov

How KM opens doors to Learning About Learning (reflections on KM World 2012)

With such a great turnout and set of discussions at KM World 2012, I wanted to spend a few minutes touching on some of the key takeaways. These need to be expanded .. but let’s start the conversation here ..

  • Q1. KM is becoming more about how knowledge moves through organizations and generates value. Does this happen where you work?
  • Q2. KM helps us learn about learning. How relevant is this in your org today?
  • Q3. A key message in KM is moving from structure to flow as prevailing metaphor, reflecting how we learn. Agree?

We’ll discuss this SAT 10/20 at 11aET.

Excited that our book debuted at the conference, with a deep dive at workshop W5 on Tuesday.

Intrigued?  Reach out, let me know your thoughts.