Are Our Systems Really Broken?

In my twenty years of consulting practice the idea that our systems are broken and need to be fixed has been ever-present. This was/is true of healthcare, finance, the environment and more. This has never been more true in my life time than right now when the question maybe is not about whether systems are broken but whether they are dying. Dying as part of normal, natural cycles of birth, growth, decay and death, including the last desperate gasps.

In the work I have been involved with over the last two decades (change management, systems thinking, strategic direction and culture shift), there has always been a curiosity and, more accurately, a fear about whether systems need to collapse entirely before something new emerges. We constantly want to fix things – systems, organizations and even (maybe especially) people.

Yet we know in times of crisis normal patterns of relationship can be interrupted; rules, policies, procedures and ways of working circumvented and results achieved faster than in normal, day to day circumstances where, even if the pace is fast, things do not seem to be accomplished quickly. These are conditions that consultants and organizations all over keep trying to replicate without crisis with varying degrees of success and more often failure.

Jerry Nagel and I often remind our clients that systems are perfectly designed to get the results they are getting and cultures are self-perpetuating. So, technically, the systems aren’t broken, but many are no longer delivering results we hope for or are satisfied with. Brexit, the US election, are perfect examples.

What happens, might happen, in total collapse? What ground would we stand on? How would we pick up the pieces and move forward? What if the collapse is so great there are almost no pieces to pick up – like the scenarios in the popular genre of dystopian novels and movies? In most works of fiction, no matter how desperate the aftermath of catastrophe, there are always some pieces to pick up.

Lately we have been using the 2 Loops of Systems Change, offered by Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze of the Berkana Institute, with our clients and there is an immediate resonance with the concepts and roles described.

Systems work in cycles – just like life itself. The length of time of the cycles may vary from a few years to decades to centuries and maybe even eons. There is a time of birth, growth, maturity, decay and eventually death. Think, for example, of farming. Originally it was hunter/gather, then people began to deliberately plant crops and farming in the form of small farms existed for a long time. It grew into industrial farming where it is almost impossible to sustain smaller farms. And we are back to a point where people want to track their food from farm to table, plant community gardens and eat organic.

New life is already being brought forth long before death, during the maturity or peak phase of a system. The seeds of the new already exist within the structures of the old. slide1

Innovators, trail blazers and pioneers are always playing around with new ideas. Some of those new ideas seem completely off the wall to many who are still reveling in the old system and do not yet see the need for the new or innovation. Think energy. During the oil crisis back in the 1970s and 80s, there was speculation that oil had peaked. During that time, there were people and small companies experimenting with other forms of energy – solar, wind, water. It was slow going for decades, some of the experimentation was expensive and there was not a lot of support for ideas that seemed crazy or impossible to some, especially to those attached to the old system. Forty years later, many of these forms of energy are now more cost effective and environmentally friendly than oil. It was not easy to see or believe in this possible future at the time.

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Embodying the 2 Loops of Systems Change

Innovators are often alone in their quests and many of their ideas fail. Since no idea is offered in complete isolation – others are also conceiving of ideas to address the same or similar challenges – a first step is in naming the innovators and beginning to connect them in networks. In this way they begin to learn with and from each other. They learn together through both success and failure and they are no longer in it alone.

As the need for innovation becomes more apparent and urgent, there are people within the mature or peak system who take notice and work within the current system to steward or champion the new ideas and the people who generate them to provide protection so this work can continue to advance. Sometimes the role is as a toxic handler – to keep the dysfunctionality of a system that is moving past its prime from interfering in the development of the new.

At the same time, one of the greatest roles in the mature system as it declines is in hospicing the old so it doesn’t completely collapse into chaos and so that that good is not thrown out with what no longer works. The biggest challenge in these days is who are the protectors, the stewards, the hospice workers? Will they/we be able to do this work or will the burden be too great, the rate of collapse now so swift that it will be a deep move into chaos?

As the tentative new innovations and ideas gain more strength and more form, as they begin to coalesce into new networks and communities of practice, it is critical to nurture the emerging life force that will influence and shape the new system. As momentum grows, this grows into a system of influence where choices become clear. Illuminating the choice between the old and the new gives curious and reluctant adopters of the new the opportunity to make this choice and as more and more people choose the new, the new system takes hold.

While I carry some anxieties in these early days of 2017 about our systems and our future, I also carry hope although I am not sure what it will take to release the old and gravitate toward the new. I do know 2017 is calling on us loud and clear to not be silent, to not just watch, but to stand up and be involved in the new systems that will call forth and support our humanity.

The pressing question in the days ahead is who are the innovators and trailblazers? How do we keep connecting people, ideas and networks in ways to build strength, momentum and opportunity? How can the old systems of influence, and people grasping for power, be prevented from crushing the new? And how do we create the stories of the new in ways that brings more people on board.

Are our systems failing us? The answer would appear to be yes. But not because they are broken, because they are coming to the end of their time. Will we be courageous enough to fight if necessary for what is waiting to be born?

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The Chaordic Path: The Dynamic Inter-relationship between Chaos and Order

One of the fundamental patterns used in Art of Hosting offerings – which for many of us includes our consulting practices or as practitioners in-house work environments – is the Chaordic Field or Chaordic Path. Like many of the patterns offered in AoH it is a helpful way to understand what is happening in the world, in our communities and organizations and within each of us individually. It gives us a lens through which to understand the increasing complexity in our environments and a pattern to work with to evoke collective learning and the real-time innovation necessary in a world and in times that are neither predictable nor stable and call for more flexibility as “more of the same” solutions are not addressing the challenges.

Originating with the work of Dee Hock in the development and evolution of Visa to an international network of financial institutions offering “one” credit card, Hock identified the patterns and forces of chaos, order and control that were at play in an animated process that came to the brink of failure at many points along the way.  It was clearly experienced that the greatest breakthroughs and emergent ideas came at the intersection of chaos and order, in a system that was more commonly situated in the realm of control.

Chaordic Path

Just when things seem the craziest is often when new ideas spark, bridges are built, aha’s become apparent and a way out of chaos naturally appears.  These patterns are evident in living systems, where a natural order exists, life cycles are vibrant and the greatest innovations happen at the edges.  While not static, living systems can be stable – or be in order – for long periods of time until disruption comes in some form of chaos – destructive weather patterns or fires – destabilizing the system for a time before new order emerges.

While the chaordic path is the story of our natural world – form arising out of nonlinear, complex, diverse systems – it can also be the story of how our teams, organizations and communities pay attention to human dynamics and function.   In our organizational systems, there is a tendency to want to meet chaos with control, to try to fix the situation or provide a ready made solution.  Many of us as leaders and managers have been educated, trained and promoted to do just this. But increasing complexity means control, particularly as it relates to the human dynamics of a situation, does not often enough lead to a resolution of the problem and may, in fact, exacerbate the situation. Solutions and ways forward are more likely to arise out of accessing the collective intelligence and collective wisdom of everyone, which can, at times, be a “messy” process until new insight and clarity emerges.

When facing new challenges that cannot be met with the same way we are currently working – cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them – new ways of leading and operating need to be learned and utilized to shift the shape of our experience with intentionality. It is during these times of uncertainty and increased complexity, where results cannot be predicted, that wise leaders invite others to share their collective and diverse knowledge to discover new purpose and strategy and decide a way forward.

It is in the phase of not knowing, before we reach new clarity, that the temptation to rush for certainty or grab for control is strongest. We are all called to walk this path with open minds and some confidence if we want to reach something wholly new.

“At the edge of chaos” is where life innovates — where things are not hard wired, but are flexible enough for new connections and solutions to occur.  To lead teams, organizations and communities on the chaordic path, leaders need “chaordic confidence,” to have the courage to stay in the dance of order and chaos long enough to support generative emergence that allows new, collective intelligence and wiser action to occur.

This can be a beautifully dynamic process.  To be in it with awareness and intentionality also means to take care of value judgments or beliefs often brought that one of these modes of being or operating – chaos, order or control – is  better or more valuable than the others. There is a place, a role and a time for each. A subsequent post will explore the upside and downside of each, recognizing that a flow and dynamic movement between each of these modes of being may be the leadership discernment needed for long term success.

Innovation, Responsiveness, Imagination – Lessons from Apple

A few months ago, when I needed to replace my laptop, I considered switching to a Mac but was concerned about the learning curve. I put a note out on Facebook with an enquiry.  Of 20 responses, 19 were from Mac users.  “I love my Mac,” was the essential essence of the messages.  The lone PC user said, “I’ve used a PC for 20 years and never had any problem.”  which might have been a ringing endorsement if were not for the amazingly enthusiastic responses from Mac users.  I bought a MacBook Air.  I have no regrets.

Now, I’m reading Steve Jobs biography.  It doesn’t pull any punches.  It is a straightforward account of a brilliant, demanding, tyrannical, charismatic man, often running roughshod over people to get what he wanted.  He  had a love for art and technology – a combination that allowed him to imagine possibilities others just couldn’t see.  It was brilliant for Apple and more so for Pixar. He would never win any awards for his people leadership skills but he could dream the future, imagining products we didn’t know we wanted or needed and he followed his intuition all the way to the bank.

Reading his biography, the threads that contributed to Apple’s successful innovation, responsiveness to conditions and opportunity, and the imagination that brought so much alive in techni-colour, became apparent.

Jobs was obsessive about control and when he had an idea he fell in love with, he didn’t want to let go. He wasn’t always right, and he wasn’t impervious to influence, but when he was right he changed worlds.    He revolutionized the computer industry, then the film industry, the music industry and the book industry.

He didn’t treat people well, but he knew a thing or two about the business of innovation. A few themes caught my attention as I read:

  • beauty and intuitive
  • simplicity and focus
  • integration – not just of product design but of the people and departments responsible for all aspects of a product

Apple products were designed for beauty and intuitive use.  Anybody should be able to pick an Apple product up and figure out how to use it without a manual.  And they should love the look and feel of it. This influenced the design of products.  In the development of the iPod for instance, Jobs decided users should be able to get to anything they wanted intuitively in no more than three steps.  The guiding concept: a thousand songs in your pocket.  Products were designed with the user in mind.  The few times Jobs lost sight of that, like with NeXT his company after and before Apple, he didn’t do as well.

Simplicity and focus.  Apple picked a few key projects to work on in any given year and dedicated resources to the most promising of them.  Anyone could pitch an idea – without a powerpoint because formal presentations bored Jobs.  They had to know what they were talking about well enough to free flow it, discuss it (often heatedly) and not rely on a prop like a slide.  Although something tactile, put in people’s hands worked well.

For products under development, long weekly meetings were held with all departments represented to hash out ideas.  Prototypes were developed that could be picked up, turned over and handled to determine what worked, what could be improved and to know when they nailed it.  The conversations were no holds barred – animated, lively.  It all came out in the meetings.  The people who fared best were the ones who figured out how to stand up to Jobs, when to fight, when to wait, when to back down.

Jobs would not allow dissension between departments.  If they couldn’t get along, someone lost a job.  And when decisions needed to be made about product, design, colour or other relevant factors, it didn’t go to a committee for recommendations or a market study to figure it out – decisions were made, often on the spot, without hesitation.  They might not always have been right, but the speed of decision making capability enabled Apple to be responsive, resilient and a market leader more often than not.

Beauty, simplicity, focus, end to end control, responsiveness, imagination as hallmarks of innovation. Not that I’ve done it better than Jobs or come anywhere near to his success, but I would like to think adding in a strong people culture to this great list would only enhance capacity for innovation – so long as we really understand what this means, growing leadership and decision making capacity within an organization, not diluting it.  While there are one or two things that give me pause, there is a lot to be learned from Apple and from Steve Jobs.   After all, he did shift the shape of the world as we know it.

Exceptional is not an Extension of Good

“There is a fundamental discontinuity between good and great,” was one of the assertions Ray Ivany, President and Vice-Chancellor of Acadia University, made during a talk at a recent Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette event.  He was invited to speak on the topic of being the best and his talk was an insightful blend of the human dynamics and structural components necessary for exceptional performance.

“Exceptional is not an extension of good but it’s in a completely different place,” he said as he shared the following diagram with us.  Imagine that organizational effort is represented by a helium balloon that is attached to a stake in the ground by an elastic tether.  It manages to rise to the expectations of good performance without too much effort.  And, with some effort and exertion, it can stretch into the category of great.  However, it takes sustained effort to keep it there and as soon as the pressure is taken off, the elastic tether immediately yanks that balloon back into the category of good.

Great is not on the same continuum as Good

In order to allow it to stay in the zone of great, you actually need to sever the tether that holds it in place.   If you believe that great is discontinuous from good, the organizational and human strategies needed to move to and stay in great or exceptional performance are fundamentally different.

In looking at this diagram, it occurred to me that not only is good the enemy of great, it is probably the enemy of itself as well.  As soon as we think we are onto something good, we want to institutionalize it by creating standards and policies to maintain it.  This standardization means we often prevent the organization from conceptualizing the strategies that lead to great.  On the other side, the more we insist on standardization without the ability to continually adapt, the greater the likelihood we actually unintentionally shift our organization from good to mediocre by insisting on standards that often lose their meaning and relevance over time.

From this place of mediocrity, leaders still try to aim their people for excellence without any hope of getting there and the people are often frustrated in their efforts to shift organizational thinking and performance and no one really understands why.

We only shift the shape of our organizations from good to great, and stay there, when we build in the systems and the capacity to take different risks – one of those risks being failure.

Looking at this diagram and the capacities necessary to shift into a whole new category of performance reminded me of the Chaordic Path where one of the key questions is: “what is the minimum amount of elegant structure required to enable us to act in purposeful ways that lead to wise action and meaningful results?”  This is also the amount of structure that allows an organization to stay nimble and responsive to its environment, creating the conditions for chaos to emerge into its own sense of order and cultivating the adaptive and collaborative leadership that is also a strategy for exceptional performance.

Ray’s comments were entirely consistent with many of the steams of thought that show up in the Art of Hosting community and body of knowledge, providing a beautiful avenue of reflection for me.  The next entry will focus on some of the human dynamics elements that comprised the other main thread of this thought provoking talk.

The Wisdom of Failure

This past weekend I was deeply inspired by youth leadership at Dalhousie University‘s student led Brains for Change event.  Thirty or so community resource people (me being one of them) were invited to participate in conversations with well over 100 students about big ideas that could become projects over the next few months.  Some amazing ideas to shift the shape of our city emerged – like get Halifax certified as a Fair Trade City.

I got to be in some cool conversations and one of them was about failure.  One of the risks we seem afraid of is anything that might remotely become failure.  And yet, failure is what we need in order to foster innovation, new ideas and new ways of doing things.  We put up so many barriers – risk management, liability, public response –  that we stifle creativity.

We also often respond to failure in very personal ways. We need to remember failure is an action, not an identity. It is not who we are or what we are; rather it is an event or situation, or it is related to a choice we have made – individually or collectively. Yet, most of us, at some point in our lives, have worn failure as an identity or have played the blame game around it.

In these situations, we have difficulty separating ourselves from the event or situation. It brings up all kinds of emotions: anger, guilt, regret, remorse, sadness, a sense of having let others – or ourselves – down. It can be overwhelming at times if we lose our sense of self in the failure.  We might even be  haunted by it, generating fear about participating in anything that might lead to another failure.

Personally or organizationally, in order to let it go, we need to be able to separate our sense of who we are, individually and collectively,  from the actions or choices that led to the failure.  We need to redefine success which then allows us to redefine failure. What if success was actually the learning process – what we learn from what happened – whether we see it as a success, partial success, not quite successful or dismal failure?

Let’s step back from the failure so we can get a different perspective of it.  What happened? What led to what happened? What decisions were made? Based on what information? Did we pay attention to all the information – the analytical, intellectual and the intuitive or gut reactions?  What could we do differently?  What’s the next iteration or prototype of what we were trying to do?

Failures provide valuable information – personally and organizationally. They help us know when we’re off course or when we’re not paying attention to something in our environment. Sometimes they lead us in a direction we hadn’t previously anticipated. In both business and personal circumstances “failure” has led to big breakthroughs. The classic business example is 3M’s post-it notes, now an institution in both home and office. Someone recognized the opportunity in a product “failure” (a glue that didn’t stick things together) and created a new revenue stream for 3M and a new way of drawing attention to things. What did we do before post-it notes?

Personal experiences of failure are often those points we look back on with gratitude because they shift the shape of our lives in ways we couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

Innovative businesses and communities cultivate an environment where making mistakes is not only acceptable but recognized as a valuable part of the innovation process. Mistakes only become failure when they are not learned from.

We wouldn’t be who we are today without our failure experiences. They help define us; sometimes they show us exactly what we’re made of. Bottom line is, we make the best decisions we can, with the knowledge, resources and awareness we have available to us at the time. It’s easy to see, with 20/20 hindsight, we should have done something different. The question now becomes what to do with the 20/20 hindsight to change patterns or increase your knowledge going forward so that “failure” becomes the wisdom from which you grow, innovation emerges and  success is created.

The best thing we could do for youth leaders is create environments where we grow our risk and failure muscles knowing that this is actually a route to success – sometimes beyond measure – one of the many topics we may end up exploring during the Art of Collaborative Leadership from March 16-18, 2011.

H1N1 and the Untold Stories

There is a new phenomenon in our world called H1N1.  The news stories are all around the vaccine: availability of the vaccine,  getting vaccinated, vaccination clinics, who has priority in being vaccinated, reactions to the vaccine, H1N1 assessment clinics, how many people have been hospitalized, how many have died, the cost of delivery, the pandemic nature of this flu.

There is an untold and evolving story around H1N1.  It is the story of innovation, breaking down silos, working across departments, flattening of decision making structures, team engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and doing what needs to be done regardless of job description and everyone pulling together to face down the issues created by what is being called a pandemic – at least here in Canada.

Being around a lot of health care folx because of my work and being in frequent conversations about engagement, we began to muse about the level of engagement of health care folx, in particular, in the pandemic planning and the delivery of the vaccine.  We came back to a familiar question: What is it about a crisis that brings out a sense of community, the power and clarity of a common goal, necessary resource allocation and alleviates common arguments, bickering or turf protection around role and resources?

How can we create these conditions in times when there is no crisis is often asked?  We are operating from the premise that it is possible to create the same conditions without a crisis.   During this particular conversation I began to entertain the question, what if it isn’t possible to fully recreate the conditions of crisis?  For instance, the province of Nova Scotia has made available millions of dollars for the roll out of the H1N1 vaccine.  Without the compelling argument of needing to control a pandemic outbreak of illness, as a for instance, what else other than crisis would so easily and readily garner financial and human resources.  One of the reasons there is normally turf protection is because when we don’t have crisis the experience is that we have more limited resources and people have to advocate for their share of budget.

My question changed.  Given that responding to the H1N1 crisis has temporarily transformed the relational field of how people are working together, what would it take to maintain some of the shift that has occurred and embed it in the organizational culture instead of allowing things to drift back – or spring back – to the way things have always been done – which is likely what will happen when the H1N1 pressure is off?  How do we capitalize on the shifted shape of the relational field to allow operation along this chaordic edge or chaordic path all or most of the time?

There is an interesting opportunity here.  As the pressure of crisis eases, will the lessons learned include new new ways of working together and the minimalization of structures and processes to support that?