Systems thinking v org chart

I still haven't cracked the issue that when managers talk about organisation design or structure, for the most part, what they have in mind is a traditional organisation chart. They want to know who will report to whom in their 'territory' and they want to know that in the next couple of days.

The trouble with this request is that it doesn't factor in anything about organisations as a complex system with multiple interactions, feedback loops, and components which affect and are affected by the behaviour of others. In this form of systems thinking the structure might 'include the hierarchy and process flows, but it also includes attitudes and perceptions, the quality of products, the ways in which decisions are made, and hundreds of other factors.' These 'systemic structures' are not, as authors of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook point out, necessarily built consciously. They are also built unconsciously out of the choices people make over time.

I'm trying various ways of tackling this perception that the 'chart' is the structure (design). Some of them are personal, some of them are with colleagues in my team, some of them are with experimentation in the work we are doing.

Personal: What I'm doing is revisiting my knowledge of systems theory including re-reading the books I have on it: The Fifth Discipline and the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook I mentioned are two. I'm trying to work out how I can help clients understand, for example, 6 precepts they need to bear in mind as they re-design. (Again from the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook): There are no right answers, they won't be able to divide their elephant in half, cause and effect will not be closely related in time and space, they can have their cake and it eat too – but not all at once, the easiest way out will lead back in, behaviour will grow worse before it grows better.

I've just completed the futurelearn course on Global systems science and policy which has reminded me of systems dynamics and the various archetypes that we frequently meet in organisation design work. One that I'm working with now is the accidental adversaries.

Working with my team to develop a common understanding of systems theory and how we can apply it into our organisation design work without being theoretical or too zany, and simultaneously delivering something that the client values even if it is not an immediate organisation chart. We've been recommended the Systems Thinking Playbook. This combined with systems theory articles for discussion in our about-to -start study group makes me think we're going to learn and have fun.

We are experimenting in adapting and applying some of the agile techniques into our design work. We've just have an involving process of 'discovery' taking a systems approach and have done a 'test and learn' exercise with some colleagues in a specific and evolving job role. These iterative approaches start to encourage people into collectively discussing the systemic issues. We're also seeing if we can jog discussion by putting up posters and inviting responses. One example is the habits of a systems thinker that I have in my book on Organisational Health (in the chapter on systems and processes) and another is from Delta 7 change.

How do you work to help clients see beyond the organisation chart into the whole system and design it from there? Let me know.