System Transformation and Requisite Applicability

It’s amazing, isn’t it? I recall seeing a glorious on-line video that really gave me pause to think of our place and our collective arrogance. Take no offence, sensitive ones. My comment is about how inward focused we can be when there is so much going on around us. It really makes me think about the relationship between what we can do as these tiny little beings trying to manage our own capabilities the best we can in a socially constructed reality. In particular, I found myself wondering about some big questions

  • In the evolving structure of a globalized economic reality, what capabilities are required to effectively lead large-scale, systemic operations in that environment? What are the implications across multiple industries? Who can come to the party in a transnational state?
  • Does the LEADS framework hold up beyond a domestic, come international mindset into a transnational world that looks beyond internal relations into a highly complex, exceedingly networked and culturally determined world beyond our current frame of reference?
  • What elements of the LEADS framework endure, which domains and capabilities collapse and what new ones emerge as essential?

To make these questions even more outrageous and, well, quite possibly terminal, I am wondering if lessons and promises from complexity science will be the ultimate framework for critical thinking that supersedes systems thinking. Blasphemy, isn’t it? But as Einstein is oft quoted to have said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them (Albert Einstein 1879 – 1955). Maybe it’s time for a game of catch-up for today’s leaders.

The word salad of popularized systemic nomenclature has made uptake and understanding of the System Transformation domain of the LEADS framework and perhaps the “demonstrate systems/critical thinking” capability, arguably the most tenuous of the lot and frequently avoided in terms of learning opportunities to support development. But proselytizers and rhetoric abound at the senior levels. Why, I often wonder? Is it a safe premise that this domain is what captures attention and galvanizes opinion? Is it a problematic one? Or an undiscussed reality that beyond praise for simple to complicated system fixes we wait for others to go first on the bigger, riskier, high-leverage transformation efforts? You know – change is good, you go first.

Organizations are not alone in their culpability, though. Consider the notable problem in the literature and practice base that confuses some of the key terms we need to fully appreciate in order to make sense of environment and context as a mitigating variable:

  • the terms systems thinking and system dynamics are being frequently used interchangeably; and
  • the terms complicated and complex are ubiquitous and in the majority of instances, conflated.

What sometimes results is implementation of expert-driven models as a component of system transformation when sometimes emerging practices and our ability to deal with ambiguity should be the order of the day. Similarly, the more organizations attempt to pound home new models without full appreciation of cause and effect, the more probable complete rejection of best practice will be! Add to this the highly risk-averse nature of many public sector endeavours (not to mention critical private ventures as well) and safe-to-fail experimentation falls by the wayside in favour of fail-safe strategic planning.

As an example, two graduate leadership students recently made a couple of remarkable spontaneous statements in the classroom when discussing the role of cause and effect on sense-making in light of this inherent confusion in the popular culture. One commented something to the effect: “my God – our arrogance has us planning completely for success!” Another referred to their organization’s adoption of the LEAN methodology as “inherently complicated when the reality of the organization was complex.”

Great insights in both instances and they were absolutely on the mark. What this reinforces for us all is the notion of requisite applicability. That is to say we need to think differently in different contexts. System Transformation requires the introduction of a clear lexicon, clean concepts and a healthy dose of ambiguity just to confuse matters. It is our natural sense-making tendency to over-simply things or to make things more difficult than they need to be that brings us the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis.

So, it’s time to think differently, not just about different things. Time to break free … (Thanks Freddie).

Phil may be reached at either phil@clswest.com or pcady@leadslearning.com

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