It’s the system


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“It is poorly designed systems, not incompetent or unmotivated individuals that cause most organisational problems.” Peter Senge

So what do you do when you have a senior team who walk out of an all-day strategy meeting, brimming with enthusiasm for the new ship you are steering and diaries now full of actions to undertake, only to come back three weeks later having completed none of them? What do you make of their excuses that they just didn’t have the time; that they were too busy with the day-to-day stuff to devote any time to the big picture strategy stuff? How do you get them to spend less time and energy doing operational stuff and more on crafting a culture that will support and guide others to do that? Do you find yourself wondering how they got to leadership position in the first place? I’ll tell you how. The system put them there and it’s the system that also gets in their way. It’s the system. What gets in the way of them doing these things they say they are utterly committed to, but never manage to do? It’s the system. As Senge suggests, it’s likely not down to their incompetence or their lack of motivation. The difficulty lies in not being able to see the source of the obstructions clearly; and if we cannot see the origins of our dysfunction, how can we possibly correct them? More importantly, perhaps, is the question, “Why would you bother trying?” because without this vital ‘big picture’ understanding of your system, it will continue to subvert your efforts and you will end up in a crumpled, exhausted heap feeling yourselves failures.

We are so infected by the culture of our organisations that we lose awareness of it. Ask a fish what they think of the water and they will say, “What water?” In the same way that a fish is unaware of water, we are largely unaware of the influence the systems in which we live exert upon us. Deming said, “A system cannot understand itself….transformation requires a view from outside.” Too true. So these senior executives with years of experience, bright and enthusiastic individuals all of them, are behaving like they do because of the context in which they exist. So how can we create something different? How can we create a culture where the guy or gal at the top doesn’t get to the point of blaming inaction on people’s incompetence? I would suggest that it comes when the underlying structures, the system itself, are reformed and when authority and accountability rest throughout the whole of an organisation, not via a clunky hierarchy.

In a previous article, I suggest that so-called “leaderless” organisations are actually leader-full. This is no idealistic fantasy-land, but a deep and significant shift to a systemic view of the world that emphasises networks, relationships and interconnectedness over the hierarchies of an outdated mechanistic world view. If we can shift our mindset from one of job descriptions, hierarchies, rigid policies and procedures and consequences for “bad behaviour”, we will see a whole new world open up before our eyes. However, as Gary Hamel wrote so eloquently in his Harvard Business Review article, “First, Let’s Fire all the Managers,” we are prisoners of the familiar. I can recall the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before that electric November night, it was almost inconceivable that it would come down, let alone overnight and as a result of people power. Similarly, we find it a little hard to imagine a world of new possibilities where organisations are driven by self-management principles and hierarchies are redundant. I’m talking about possibilities of full and active engagement in the work of the business; possibilities of power and authority being exercised by individuals and teams throughout businesses and not just those at the top of some clunky chain of command; possibilities of creativity and initiative being unleashed in all corners of the business.

I will leave you to read Hamel’s article for he writes so articulately that I wouldn’t presume to replicate him here. All I wish to press home is the point that Senge, Hamel and many others too numerous to mention, but no less visionary, make: we have come to a point in our history when we need to radically shift our ways of organising ourselves. However, we haven’t got to the promised land yet, so we sometimes struggle to imagine what it will be like and how we’ll get there; it does almost seem out of our reach.

If we take Senge’s observation about poorly designed systems on board, then it follows that we must devote ourselves primarily and totally to crafting systems which are fit for purpose if we wish to have successful businesses. Many of our businesses adhere to outdated structures of authority and accountability that are no longer fit for purpose, however, it is hard to know how to start re-organising when we haven’t even arrived at this new world yet. What are these new structures meant to look like? There is a glimpse within Hamel’s article, so I urge you to read it in its entirety.

He uses Morning Star as a case study of how to build a business that ensures consistently high performance driven by the full and voluntary engagement of everyone who works there. Success comes not only from their excellence in product and service, but perhaps most importantly from the way they actually run their business. If you land on the homepage of their website, the only hint that you are looking at something ground-breaking is perhaps in the words “world’s leading tomato ingredient processor”. This is an understatement, for not only do they supply 40% of the US tomato paste and diced tomato markets, they are pioneers of how to run a leader-full business where everyone carries out the functions of management and leadership. Peer behind their bland looking “About Us” page and look in detail at their Organisational Vision and Colleague Principles. Here you have no humdrum list of platitudes and corporate-speak that nobody gave much thought to when writing and everyone gives even less devotion to when at work. This is actually how they run their business.

For many businesses, the road to this new land of mutual accountability and responsibility may be long and bumpy. Two essential items to pack for this journey towards Self-ManagementLand are intentionality and commitment. The good people at Morning Star didn’t get there by accident; it was intentional. Because our current paradigm is so prevalent, we have to apply ourselves with great intent to thinking and behaving differently. We must remain awake to the fact that old structures will reinforce old thinking and draw us back to old behaviours. For more diffuse authority and accountability to come about, we must re-create our structures root-and-branch. We can’t simply rely on an annual leadership off-site event or some new worker consultation committees to catalyse the change, leaving the pre-existing structure in tact; this is merely tinkering around the edges. In the end, the hierarchy and its watchdog, bureaucracy, will stifle initiative and creativity, and reverse any changes that were attempted because, in the end, these changes could only ever be half-hearted without deep structural change. While I wouldn’t suggest that any company throw out its entire structure overnight and start to build one based on self-management principles from scratch, I am saying that genuine, conscious and consistent efforts must be made to shift the locus of control from a top-down hierarchy and place greater authority and accountability in the hands of all staffers. Hamel gives four concrete suggestions as to how this might be done in his HBR article.

Margaret Wheatley, in “Leadership and the New Science” says, “In a quantum world, everything depends on context, on the unique relationships available in the moment. Since relationships are different from place to place and moment to moment, why would we expect that solutions developed in one context would work the same in another?” Surely, in this quantum world, with everything depending on context, a new paradigm of organisational leadership is required. Rigid hierarchies and the stultifying bureaucracies that prop them up are no match for real-time relationships and feedback loops, peer accountability and continuous education.

The way to get there has already been signposted; look at Morning Star.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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