With our Strategic Advisor and Transformation Consultant Ian Buckingham
Systems thinking has been around since the 40s/50s but only really came into its own in the post Senge Fifth Discipline world, and even then has not always found favour with the hearts, flowers and feelings proponents within HR.
Why? Well, largely because it views all organisations as systems, with mutually dependable parts, including the people processes and systems, all elements that can be influenced and managed. And let’s face it, there’s a bit about the psyche of certain people professionals that likes to think it takes more than just a pinch of magic dust to be great at doing the “people stuff”, an ingredient that, conveniently at times, can’t be identified let alone quantified.
Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In nature we look at ecosystems in which various elements such as air, earth, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to impact environment and co-dependents. In organisations, systems consist of people, behaviours, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation “healthy” or “unhealthy”, provided we’re enlightened enough to measure in the right way.
As with all sciences, there’s room for magic, flair, charisma, the maverick and hard to explain elements of the system. But most of it can be predicted, tracked/monitored and continuously improved and, indeed, has to be to be truly sustainable and scalable and repeatable, qualities very important when scaling up, growing, globalising, shifting to blended working or acquiring.
The typical components of an OD or Organisation Development strategy, the traditional systems domain within HR or the people disciplines can and should, as a minimum, include most of these components:
- HR systems (IT)
- Planning, processes, measurement and legals
- Culture development
- Employee engagement
- Recruitment and hiring
- Performance management, reward and recognition
- Leadership development
- Learning and development
- Coaching, mentoring and service delivery
Ideally, these components will be operationalised as important working elements within the people strategy. There should be KPIs and goals in place for them all and they will be monitored and managed, so they work in synchronicity. Oddly, however, that seldom happens as each component often falls under an individual’s sphere of influence and is, therefore, subject to the ultimate in “magic dust”, the unpredictability of human discretion.
Of primary importance in this list, especially during times of great turbulence, uncertainty, and change, is the culture development aspect. It’s vital that there is a clearly articulated picture of:
- the desired and future-fit organisation culture necessary to deliver the vision, mission and goals in a 3-5 year horizon
- the current culture, thereby depicting the gap between ideal and real.
The rest of the system relies heavily upon these two profiles to steer the milestones governing their own rollout and effectiveness. Without clarity here, the human influence has too few guidelines, checks and balances and often wanders widely from the path of the main transformation journey.
For example, what’s the point of a performance management system that reinforces the current culture and doesn’t include goals, L&D and traits, values, and competencies necessary to bring to life the required culture? These goals and milestones coordinate, steer and guide the leaders developing the core components of the system. Without them, well- meaning chaos often looms.
Interestingly, however, a quantitative or even qualitative picture of what good looks like from a future perspective seldom exists in many HR systems. This could be overcome by decent mentoring and/or coaching at all influential levels. But where it exists, leadership coaching is often confined to the very top team. Here it has less immediate operational impact than including line managers. It is often delivered by training or L&D departments too, who are often part of the problem/challenge.
As I said in the recent Leaky Bucket article, an OD system will continue to drain goodwill, morale, and money when you apply pressure and plug a hole in the system to attend to one deficiency if you don’t take a comprehensive, system-based approach to any major transformation, change or HR improvement drive. It will also fall short if you don’t upskill your leadership teams to become passionate advocates, ambassadors, and role models for the change you want to see.
Coaching, especially in high pressure situations filled with the uncertainty of rolling change, can be hugely valuable. But it is fraught with pitfalls:
- focusing solely on the senior leaders fails to recognise the impact that first line managers especially have on the culture
- in-house coaches struggle to envisage and inspire the desired future as they’re tied to and a product of the current culture
- independent supervision and cross-sector best practices are really important. Without an external influence, organisations fail to learn from the mistakes and hard-earned successes of others
Coaching in a vacuum without that desired future culture and clear goals can cause more problems than it cures by pushing leaders so far ahead of the operational curve that their approaches are rejected or swallowed up by the core current culture.
Sure, it’s perfectly possible to employ people-centric consultants to help coach your leaders as part of a transformation process. It happens all the time with lots of quick wins amongst the top team. But no matter how highly skilled they are, change will struggle to stick if your OD system isn’t comprehensive and in balance with the zeal of the top team coaching.
Senge talks about three components of system’s thinking:
1.A consistent and strong commitment to learning
2.A willingness to challenge your own mental model – accepting your own role in problems and being open to different ways of seeing and doing
3.Always including multiple perspectives when looking at a phenomenon – e.g. “triangulating” theperspectives of customers, line-staff, experts, etc.
A great coach will be a great business partner and will provide both support and challenge in equal measure, not just on an individual coaching level but in terms of the components of the OD system. So, when choosing the ideal partner, do make a point of progressing conversations with those who get this and at least insist that someone has the components of the system covered, somewhere and can ideally share successful case studies to illustrate their point.
We would be delighted to continue the conversation…