A big issue

John Bird presents a stirring case for tackling poverty.  ‘To me the really big thing in the world today that needs to be done is that we have to stop seeing things as ‘things in themselves’. We have to stop being separators of life into categories. That if you want to solve poverty, which I am rantingly struggling to do, you can’t separate poverty out into separate things. You have to hit poverty square in the eye. You have to give a cocktail of solutions to it, like you might zap a cancer. Yet the world is always dividing poverty up into different parts: literacy, housing, work, wellbeing, health … the world of thinking, of society, of government, always breaks things up into things’.

This ‘thingifyíng’ of issues – trying to tackle them separately rather than interdependently, collaboratively and/or as complex problems is a big issue – because people in organisations I work with ‘get’ interdependence in theory and understand that linear and cause/effect thinking won’t address re-ordering the tangle of variables that constitute the ‘design’ of the organisation.  Yet they are unable to work with this in practice and continuously retreat to the organisation chart as the way to solve many organisational issues.  (See a Q5 Partners short video Forget Personality: a thinkpiece of restructuring teams, that warns against an ‘org chart first’ approach, and goes down well when I’ve shown it).

I’ve had several different conversations during the past week on interdependence and the tendency to ‘thingify’.   Various possibilities were put forward for the inability of organisational leaders to engage with complex, interdependent and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments.  Among the reasons we discussed for the tendency to reach for the organisation chart, three came up in all the conversations:

1.  The ‘tyranny of metrics’ (see my blog on this)  that is performance targets that attempt to measure elements of a system’s performance, rather than the outcome of the performance.  This frequently leads to gaming behaviour as organisational members try to reach the target rather than the intended outcome.  An example of this is described in Max Moulin’s article Flawed targets and the ambulance service – is there a happy ending? which leads to questioning, ‘traditional assumptions about measurement, impact, and relationships’.  There’s also a recent report that looks at flawed performance targets in the public sector A Whole New World — Funding and Commissioning in Complexity.

2.  Believing that organisation design work is complicated rather than complex.  David Snowden, explains the difference: ‘In a complicated context, at least one right answer exists. In a complex context, however, right answers can’t be ferreted out. It’s like the difference between, say, a Ferrari and the Brazilian rainforest. Ferraris are complicated machines, but an expert mechanic can take one apart and reassemble it without changing a thing. The car is static, and the whole is the sum of its parts. The rainforest, on the other hand, is in constant flux—a species becomes extinct, weather patterns change, an agricultural project reroutes a water source—and the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of “unknown unknowns,” and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.’  Organisations are complex.  Trying to redesign them as if they are complicated doesn’t work.

3.  The almost impossibility of changing the infrastructure, systems and processes that have been set up over decades to reflect a mechanistic/deterministic view of an organisational universe.  As Professor Karen Carr  states: ‘The challenge is to implement a systems world view from within organisations that have evolved from deterministic world views. … making it difficult to take a systems approach. Issues such as health, training, leadership and information management are addressed within different partitions …. Finding a way to get these different areas to interact in an organic manner is in itself a problem, given the [organisational] political, social and economic contexts.

Other reasons we discussed for the lack of systems thinking included: power dynamics (‘my bit is ok, why should I worry about yours?’), financial/resource constraints leading to prioritising some parts over others without thinking through the consequences, and short-term thinking – ‘let’s fix this fast and now’, and not knowing how to apply systems thinking.

Going back to the issue of tackling poverty, John Bird tells us, ‘We cannot simply carry on in this brainless, unconverging bit here and bit there’, and it’s the same for organisational issues.  How do we then create the conditions for systems and complexity thinking to become a natural part of the way we look at problems?

Answering this question as if it were a complicated problem yields a bits and bobs answer for example, send leaders and managers on systems thinking programmes (look at the Open University’s courses Systems Thinking in Practice,  or discuss and then pin up the poster Habits of a Systems Thinker,  show David Snowden’s video ‘How to organise a children’s party’ that shows ‘the promise of complexity theory for organizations and government alike’.

Answering the question as if it were a complex problem yields other responses.  Donella Meadows offers some thinking on how to do this in ‘Dancing with Systems’ (warning:  this is not written in standard management speak)  and in another Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Perhaps the most useful response to the question ‘how do we encourage organisational leaders to engage with complex and problematic organisational design situations and address them systemically or holistically, rather than individually and in compartments?’  is to do so in both a complicated and a complex way.  Maybe then we would see system thinkers emerging and a big issue would be resolved.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Systems thinking 101

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