System Transformation Happens Now – Yesterday’s Future

“When you separate the mind from the structure where it is immanent – as a human relationship, human society or the ecosystem – is committed, I believe, a fundamental error, which will surely suffer in the long run.” G. Bateson

This quote reminds me of the fundamental flaws inherent in the underlying myopia of system transformation efforts. I believe some authors (John Kotter comes to mind) who publish in the domain of organization change success and failure criteria etcetera, are examining proximate causes and not root cause or causes lying in waiting that are also part of the web of complexity associated with organizations. Unfortunately this approach feeds directly into near-term pragmatism and accountability-seeking that exerts tyranny over many stakeholders and governors of systems. It forces reductionism and near-term-thinking at the expense of longer-term opportunity quite possibility because safe-to-fail experimentaiton is risky. Apply a complicated fix to a complex phenomena (read: best/better practice when emergent practice is the order of the day) and don’t be surprised when you find yourself dealing with symptoms of underlying structures that were always there anyway. The diatribe in today’s Forbes article is more of the same old same old, so when will we learn?

Health care system transformation is a case in point and we all have a stake in that game. It’s really our own fault that we get what we get since our focus is so myopic. In Canada, Flaherty’s recent announcement regarding transfer payments is a sad example of a well-intended effort. He said on the CBC news yesterday that we need a viable health care system 10-15 years from now. Really? Seriously, Jimbo? I appreciate the courage demonstrated in light of global factors and events impacting dynamic global complexity, but to look at sustainable health care as a function of simple transaction and transition into a 10-15 year window is to minimize the epic complexity underlying the myriad interdependences leading to the provision of care. We need a better wellness effort, not care effort such that care becomes a post hoc concern primarily. But that means creating pain for us and for the perpetrators of proximate events (tobacco, alcohol, food but to name a few). Now who among us is really willing to stop the cause of the wound (problem in waiting) rather than the Band-Aid of funding (proximate cause). You? Me? Whom? Not likely – and that’s the issue. Need to connect values to leading through complexity? Try courage on for size.

Transforming organizations through problem solving produces a better past, in my mind, but not a better future. To produce a better future is to produce a better now, for the future, they say, never comes. There is only now and a memory of the past. What we dreamt of only becomes coherent with hindsight.

To create a better now, the lens of complexity offered by Snowden and Kurtz suggests we probe our systems with various catalysts, sense what patterns emerge and become meaningful in retrospect, then amplify or dampen the coherence that emerges. Are we up for that, Mr. Flaherty? Are you? I am and risk mitigation and not downloading is the only real thing I am concerned about.

Increasing our individual and collective tolerance for ambiguity does us great favor in preparing for unknown emergent patterns recognizable only in hindsight.  So try something new – don’t focus on making a better past. Increase your capacity to deal with emergence and you’ll be far more nimble and adaptable – NOW. The ability to overcome fear and anxiety related to uncertainty is one of the most highly desirable attributes we can possess when dealing with complexity.

As a coach once said to me: “What are you waiting for? Do you always need to know the outcome before you choose to act? Where is the creativity in that?”

We are a part of our complicated and complex systems, never separate from them, so conditions for transformation will seldom be better than they are now – which was yesterday’s future.


My Network Works

You know, I was thinking of Snowden’s notion of different types of systems (shocker, I know). In particular, I was wondering if my network of colleague practitioners was Ordered (either simple or complicated), Chaotic, or Complex. Snowden says we can look at them like this:

Ordered: system constrains agents, reductionism and rules, deterministic observer independence; 

Chaotic: agents unconstrained, and independent from each other; and/or

Complex: System lightly constrains its agents, agents modify the system by their interaction with it and each other. They irreversibly co-evolve.

What came to mind? Right: complex. In my network of colleagues that I draw upon or otherwise rely upon for one form of support or another, there are no real constraints or too many rules, and I, as an observer am clearly not independent from my network. Chaos – well maybe – (lol). But closer to the truth of the matter, we have a few unstated norms, I think, that help keep the network alive and dynamic, co-evolving with other forces and one another.

Sound ethereal? Consider the following unstated principles of how we have light constraints on our network and how we co-evolve with our interactions:

  1. Speak highly of one another and trust the inherent capacity each of us brings. It’s why we are in the same game and in the same room. If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be here so let’s move on with it;
  2. Don’t steal clients – it’s an NLM (Network Limiting Move);
  3. Make the principal agent as successful as he or she can be – they may do the same for you one day;
  4. Do the best you can as if my client was your client – they may well be if the scope changes and I would be happy to refer – I do it regularly;
  5. Work for whatever your colleagues can afford to pay; trust is inherent in the relationship, we all need to run our practices, and no one will be taken advantage of;
  6. Reciprocate if you can – it keeps the faith;
  7. Be honest with your capacity and share credit where it is due. Nothing puts me off more than someone saying, “I built that” or “I did that” when I know damned well it’s not the case. Don’t be greedy with that BS or you’ll be gone – we rarely do anything without the help and support of others; and
  8. Be open-minded to the style and approach of each network agent or principal. Follow their lead and speak truth to power; the diversity makes us stronger.

I have noticed that the 6th principle above is often the one I am most frustrated with. I have hired close to 100 colleagues to pinch hit or contribute in the past 14 years and I am sure that is likely conservative. I can count on one hand the number of times where this has been reciprocated. I take it as a sign of the type of projects I have been involved with that are more systemic in nature and less likely to be content-exclusive. But still, I rely on my network to make me more effective, more robust and more successful. So thanks, folks. I hope I have the opportunity to contribute to your success in the near future in the same way you have contributed to mine.

So that’s about it for now. Colleagues, if you have something to add, please comment.

System of System Lenses – Five lenses to help bring clarity to systems conversations.

Any discussion of complex issues requires moving beyond the assumption that we are all talking about the same issue at hand and into pristine clarity about what the system up for conversation really is. In my years consulting with organizations and in teaching in the Master of Arts in Leadership at Royal Roads University, I have observed that system conversations can generally sort into five categories:

  • Ideology and Beliefs Lens – The sum total of the beliefs, assumptions, mental models, values and shared meaning underpinning a situation;
  • Rational and Irrational Decision Making Lens – The rational and irrational ways we obtain, information, apply reasoning and make decisions;
  • Interpersonal and Social Dynamics Lens – The patterns, habits, personal and interpersonal relationships among individuals and groups all make up this lens;
  • Process and Value Creation Lens– Any time we are seeing someone or something moving through a process in such a way as to be affected by the process, we are looking through this lens; and
  • ContexLens Elements of a scenario that are external to it, but that give rise to it or otherwise apply pressure on it such that is experienced in a certain way (yes this is paradoxical but it helps form a boundary).
So give it a try. When you are discussing a complex scenario, get clear about which lens you are looking through. See what new possibilities open up for you and for others. Post to let us know what you see and what your experiences are.

Why now?

Here we go. Like anyone starting a blog it seems there is some underlying tension (good or bad) or other impetus for wanting to put something out to the world. Mine are several fold:

  1. Personally speaking, for years now, I have been rather shocked at how hard-working consultants, trainers and facilitators tend to be treated by clients and participants alike. Sometimes absolutely fantastic, and other times not so much. Trite statements like “you can always say no” or “set boundaries with your clients” minimize the inherent risk associated with living into your values. If I did that, believe me, I would be out of work more often than not. Many times we need to set higher-order values and, frankly, get over our selves in order to get the job done. Having said this, the merits in setting clear boundaries on major engagements cannot be understated. Many times I have thanked clients and participants alike for the amazing support, professionalism, humanity and openness they bring to our engagements. I’ll share some of those, too.
  2. I’ve got something to say and some may find my insights helpful and, hopefully, amusing at some level. Others will not be interested at all and perhaps offended. That’s OK if people create that feeling for themselves. I read lots, I study, teach, and create my own thoughts. I will share them here.
  3. I want social media proponents to understand that I decide how, when and from where I use and otherwise engage in social media use. Sure it will have consequences if I do X or Y and I am responsible for that. Please do not tell me how I should or should not use my social media connections and that I am missing something if I don’t tweet this or check-in here or there on foursquare, or post to facebook. Frankly, in my professional work it is of very little use and a massive time sucker with little monetization or conversion compared to the other activities I do. So, social media, you are not my priority. You are my whim. I have done my homework and I know how social media is generally used, or not, as the case may be, in my client worlds so I choose how I engage in that. The assertions made by many strategists in the field are, to me, off-putting. If my opinions and experiences about this change, then so will my practices. For now, this is the way that I see it.
  4. Lastly, sometimes I want dialogue from people I don’t know. If that happens to be you, great – I appreciate the time you are spending here. If you find something I write useful, please pass it on to others who might offer an insight as well.

Stay tuned. Why do I have the feeling I am about to get myself into some serious trouble?