Change Implementation Techniques for Creating a Sense of Urgency

Technique 2.52 Systems Thinking

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. Systems thinking is about understanding the ways things work from the broadest perspective. For example, when analysing problems in a production line all participants, including suppliers and staff who work on the production line should be involved in the process.

. There are at least 5 forms of systems thinking that are relevant to organisational change and can help create a sense of urgency to encourage adoption of the necessary change. They are

i. Open systems (seeing the world through flows and constraints)

ii. Social systems (seeing the world through human interaction)

iii. System dynamics (seeing the world through interrelated and self-organising activities)

iv. Process systems (seeing the world through information flow)

v. Living systems (seeing the world through the interaction of its self-creating entities)

. Systems are defined by the fact that the elements have a common purpose and behave in common ways, precisely because they are directed towards that purpose.

1 Open systems

These are based on the concept that the whole of a system is more than the sum of its parts. Any human organisation is a life form and this means that an organisation is a thing that transforms its inputs. To change an open system, one must learn to understand and influence the things that it takes in, and its relationship with its environment. The open system's researchers seek out the unconscious strategies by which the system maintains its integrity.

Some questions pertinent to understanding open systems

  1. What are the boundaries of the system? Is it just your team? Is it your department? Are you concerned only with one particular process or product line? Your company as a whole? Or your industry?
  2. What inputs (goods, capital, labour, information) come in from outside? What transformations do these go through? What outputs (reports, products, services, numbers, waste) does the system generate? How does the world outside respond to those outputs, and how does that response affect the next round of the inputs?
  3. Extend your analysis by extending your systems or boundaries one level? What external people ‐ critical stakeholders, customers, suppliers, or policy makers ‐ are part of your system?
  4. In the system as it currently stands, who is aware of the picture you have created? Typically, most flows are privileged information. Purchasing understands the flow of raw materials and tools; finance understands capital costs; and HR understands the input of knowledge and capabilities. Sales, marketing, distribution, and product services handle different aspects of output.
  5. Is the organisation's attention focused disproportionately on one type of input (finance, materials, etc) when attention to another type of input (human and knowledge) could yield more leverage?

2 Social systems

Relationships are everywhere, when you consider the world as a social system, eg family, organization, community, etc. There are 3 key places to look for social systems:

1. The social groups in your organisation, and the directions with them and among them.

2. The perceptions people hold of the forces that shape their social interaction: either tangible forces, such as laws, roles and rewards systems, or intangible forces such as power, pride and attention to detail.

3. The purpose and goals of the system ‐ whether they are understood and shared by everybody. The implicit goal ‐ how does it influence people's conversations, interactions and willingness to belong to the system?

Also involved are the disabilities inherent in most of our social systems, ie relational blindness

‐ the inability to see oneself in relation to others. For example, the elite leading lives differently from middle and lower ranks on the organisation.

Some questions which are relevant to social systems:

1. Define the system that you care about.

2. Identify the different groups who belong. Who are the leaders? The followers? The customers (demanding results from the system)? List the members of each category by name or by group.

3. Would they agree that they belong to that particular category? What responsibilities and privileges do they believe they have? Do they believe they have a voice in the system as a whole?

4. How do the groups see each other? Do they have misconceptions about one another? Do they see one another more accurately than they see themselves?

5. What impacts do those perceptions of themselves and each other have on each group's efficacy?

3 System dynamics

This approach represents interrelationships that are difficult to describe in the context: non-sequential, non-linear relationships that interact any time, complete with delays and mental models. The interplay is between reinforcing and limiting processes, and the strategic options available in dealing with them.

The limits of growth approach is an example of system dynamics. Nothing can grow in a self-sustaining way unless there are reinforcing processes underlying its growth.

To achieve any sustainable progress, one needs to understand where the apparent limits are coming from. Limits generally don't become visible until they are provoked, but by that stage it maybe too late to deal with them. Therefore, the highest leverage comes from anticipating them, rather than reacting to them.

Some questions with which to address system dynamics

  1. What do we know from experience? Try to learn about other pilot groups in your organisation, or other organisations, that have tried similar initiatives. Did they succeed? What forces did they run up against, and how did they deal with them? Even failed initiatives of the past may offer valuable lessons because they maybe cases where people under-estimated the force of resistance, or the length of time it would take to build capability.
  2. If we succeed at first, what challenges will trouble us the most? Which are likely to be the toughest when they arise? Which are going to appear first? Which will only appear after long delays?
  3. How long will it take us to prepare for the challenges? Building some capacity may be relatively easy, but others may be difficult. For example, one may anticipate the challenge of strategy and purpose, and thus plan a new environmental initiative. On the other hand, it could take years to build the capabilities for trusting and working with competitors, community leaders and regulators.

4 Process systems

Information flow is fluid and can be easily rearranged, ie re-engineering (future) and process mapping (current) gathers a cross-section of people together to chart the flow of work. Good process design depends on accurate, informal information.

Some useful questions to ask:

1. Can you define a process in your organisation that requires redesign ‐ one with perennial problems?

2. What is the purpose of this process? How does it add value? What would be the purpose of this redesign? What results should the new system achieve (that it does not achieve now)?

3. With sticky notes and coloured markers, construct a flow chart of your ideal processes, from start to finish. Do this with a blank sheet of paper, plotting the flow of activity from one step to the next, moving from left to right across the diagram you build.

4. Using a different coloured marker, plot the flow of information for each step. When a step is complete, who needs to know about it? What kinds of conversations need to happen on an irregular, informal basis?

5. Is the process robust? If there are critical bottlenecks or crises, does it crash? Or does it recover? (It will recover more easily if there are parallel processes, alternative paths for information to flow.)

6. Is the process simple and transparent? Can people grasp what the organisation is asking them to do? Is it clear to them how to offer their own comments and knowledge?

7. Is the new process responsive? For example, when someone notifies the next station in a process about change, do they receive a confirmation that the next station got their message?

8. Is the process elegant? Does one task accomplish as many goals as possible?

9. Whose inputs would be valuable in designing this system? How can you involve them in the next stage of redesign?

5 Living systems

These involve a constantly pulsing, changing, interconnected world of rapidly interacting relationships, in which order emerges naturally from chaos without being controlled. It assumes that human groups, processes and activities are self-organising, just like ecological niches. As a result, the flow of information is not controllable: information flows rapidly through the organisation in its own natural patterns. If the right people are involved in diverse, frequent interactions, with a variety of patterns to those interactions, a beneficial reframing will emerge on its own. Instead of looking for particular leverage points, one needs to listen for and increase people's overall awareness of "where the system wants to go".

Some questions that help to develop an understanding of living systems:

1. What is your organisation's "genetic code"? What aspects of the organisation stay constant amid the flux of people, information and work? What values, ways of acting, or habitual beliefs reinforce your identity as "us"? (Customers, vendors and people outside the system can help to bring this into focus.)

2. Who belongs? Which people truly belong in the system? Do they know they belong? Have they chosen to belong? Some members of the system may not work for the organisation.

3. What is the purpose? What "wants to happen" in this organisation? Is it the desirable future?

4. How aware is the organisation of itself and its environment? Living systems naturally adapt if their perceptions are unlocked. Why assume that people need to be told what to do? Why not just give them access to the information they need and the authority to adapt? Does everyone in the organisation know how well it is doing in the marketplace? Does everyone recognize the signals of impending trouble? When surprising signals emerge, are they talked about or are they discounted? (You think we are threatened? You must be mistaken!)

Generally people have a preference for one systems approach or another. Engineers are more comfortable with system dynamics; computer people with information flow; biologists with living systems; organisation development people with social systems. While each has its own value in practice, they complement each other.

(sources: Charlotte Roberts et al, 1999 Mike Hanley, 2005)

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