A good leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be. – Rosalynn Carter
Of all of you reading this right now – have any of you been running a change program these past few months?
Implemented a new system, service or capability?
Run a new process based on systems or design thinking?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, I’d like to shake your hand (or tap your elbow). Either that or tell you off for lying.
The truth is that in amongst the struggle and sadness of what has been a difficult year, it has been even harder to deliberately and intentionally focus on driving change and thinking about systems-led design.
It’s true that embedding systems-led thinking can be hard work, so I understand the temptation to shelve it as a worthwhile but difficult project to be left for a rainy day.
Unfortunately, this is the worst thing we can do.
In fact, the seismic shifts we’re seeing in the economy, society, and the world of work show that now is the crucial time to make the most of what systems-led design has to offer. We’ve been forced to upend some of the tried and tested truisms of working life, and while this has no doubt caused disruption and difficulty, it also offers us a unique chance to change things for the better.
If you’re a leader, it’s up to you to capitalise on the opportunities that are now arising and make the most of this momentum, so you can do the work that’s necessary to make systemic change. If you really want to drive transformation, leaders have to work hard to support and enable that change. It’s your job to create the environment in which staff are empowered and motivated to implement systems-led thinking at all levels of your organisation.
That’s why today I’m sharing my five top tips for leading in a systems world. Because for many of us, there has never been a better time to make real, impactful, systemic change – and we need to be ready to stand and deliver.
1. Embrace order and disorder
Everyone, in their daily lives, experiences enormous amounts of disorder and confusion. The human brain is designed to process and make sense of hundreds of bits of information every second, from temperature to light to the vibrations in the air that make up sound. We do that by latching on to the patterns and sequences that give the world order: meal times, seasons, stories that go from beginning to middle to end. We navigate our lives with this kind of interplay of disorder and order.
A good systems leader supports the people around them by providing tools and techniques that that help make sense of that interplay. A practical example of this is systems mapping – the process of visually representing the various factors at play in a system and the way they interact.
A systems map simultaneously represents both the disorder we experience in the world, and the way we make order out of it – reflecting the constant balance we must achieve.
Our overwhelming temptation is to ignore the disorder; to pretend it’s not there, narrow our perspective, and press boldly on. Doing so ignores a fundamental part of the human experience, and leaves our systems open to rudimentary flaws. Creating systems that don’t just allow for disorder but build it into the heart of the design is a crucial part of being an effective systems leader.
2. Build connection, not consensus
Systems-led design is all about effectively bringing together seemingly disparate elements into a productive, outcomes-focused whole. This means that we need to build the skills and capabilities that help our people engage a diversity of perspectives and build a shared understanding.
What’s important to note, however, is that a shared understanding is not the same as consensus.
In fact, consensus – when everyone agrees and diversity of thought disappears – is the enemy of an effective system.
What is more important than consensus is building connections between wildly different forms of knowledge and understanding, so they can function side-by-side within the system.
As a systems leader, your role is to build these connections by creating a culture where your staff can authentically engage with and incorporate into their work a range of different ideas and concepts. You need to inspire those you lead to be open to disagreement and diversity of thought, and focus making connections across that divide. It’s about moving away from antagonism, and allowing for conversations that connect a diversity of positions, knowledge and understandings.
3. Prioritise opportunities, not outcomes
When you give people prescriptive outcomes that you want them to meet, you might find that they end up meeting those targets at the expense of the overall health of the system.
The classic example is the call centre – you tell staff you want shorter call times so your customers have shorter wait times, but then you end up with a bigger problem when complaints rise because you’re not taking the time necessary to resolve each call properly. A more sinister example is when aggressive targets incentivise poor behaviour, like the 2016 Wells Fargo case that saw over 5,000 employees fired for creating sham accounts to meet their sales targets.
A better way of doing things for a systems leader is to give a “vector target”.
With a “vector target” you let your people know the direction and speed of change you’re expecting, as well as the intensity of effort – rather than a specific number or statistic as an unchangeable end goal. By focusing on how you want staff to think, rather than what you want them to achieve, you empower them to use their talent and resources to explore different ways of improving the overall health of the system.
Setting vector targets also helps avoid trade-offs between multiple outcome-based targets, each of which can only ever capture one element of the system. It’s a much more holistic way of thinking, which in turn fosters the feedback loops and integration that allows us to learn how the system functions and adjust it as we need to.
4. Balance continuity and change
When it comes to looking at systems, we’re usually pretty good at noticing the changes and disruptors that stand out. But we forget that complex systems are characterised by both continuity and change. It’s one of the things that’s most difficult about systems thinking – understanding what’s part of a system’s normal steady state, what represents a disruption, and what factors affect each of these things.
The complication with systems of course, is that they often have more than one natural state, because they are interdependent on so many social and economic factors that are constantly in flux.
What looks like a change might in fact be the natural adaptiveness of the system.
Take something as simple as the changing of the seasons – the temperature cooling and rainfall rising that we’re seeing now as winter hits is a normal part of our ecosystem at work. Climate change, however, represents a threat to that ecosystem – and understanding the difference between those two types of change is crucial to protecting the overall health of our ecological environment.
Systems leaders understand that balance between continuity and change, and use the knowledge to help their teams achieve goals within that context.
5. Shift patterns of thinking, not just methods used
Systems leadership isn’t just about providing new tools, it’s also about working closely with people to shift their understanding and the way they think. We know from systems practice that our mental models matter, because they shape how we act and how we see the world.
The best way you can do that with your team is to approach it consciously. Help your team to build mental models that prioritise system thinking, while also giving them the flexibility to optimise and adapt a range of tools to their situation.
Changing our mental models and ways of thinking goes hand-in-hand with changing our methods – when we change how we do things, we need to change our thinking for it to be truly effective.
But of course, it’s not as simple as switching out a piece of software.
How we think is tied up with our experience of how we do things now, and how we’ve always done things. To see it in practice, just switch your phone to the other side of the desk – and count how many times you reach the wrong way when it rings.
That’s why it’s so important to look at both sides of the method-mindset equation in tandem, and make sure you are supporting your team to make the most of the methods you have in place. Doing so enables teams to be flexible in how they optimise and adapt a range of tools to their situation.
Over to you: having the courage to make change
None of these are easy things to do. They require time, effort, commitment and, most of all, the courage to be the one to stand up and make the case for change.
But there has never been a better time to do so. It’s time for leaders to step up, and bring our whole authentic selves to the task of making systemic change. Just like a system works when we embrace all the elements – the disorder and the order, the continuity and the change – the most effective leaders bring their whole selves to the job. By doing so we can improve our systems and create meaningful change.