Times are changing: Structural Dynamics and Systems Thinking

34b1d6dTimes are changing and fast. The world is becoming an increasingly smaller place – you can now browse the net from your watch, book a restaurant in New York whilst lying in your bed in Sydney and you can find those long lost friends to ‘see’ what they are now doing with their lives – from any device you own! We tend to speak less yet communicate more. And communication is increasingly critical to everything we do.

Yet large organisations, in the main, are not renowned for moving with the times and instead tend to rely on conventional ways of thinking and communicating. After all, it’s what has made them successful, and on the whole, has served their leaders well… so far.

Deep seated trends see leaders relish opportunities to silo and batch work for economies of scale, and to automate and manage through targets and incentives. More critically, trends find leaders designing what THEY think their customers want and then cascading to their teams to implement.

As I started to become more aware of this legacy, and my own contribution to the ‘corporate way’, I found myself asking, “Where is the voice of our customer and our teams?”; “How well are we equipped to truly understand what matters to our customers and how empowered are our people to deliver this?”; “Why don’t we have a real generative dialogue when we design our products and service channels?” I was challenging my long held belief that leaders lead and teams do.

I realised that I would ask my leaders to manage compliance to process, apply quartile management, approve training as a fix and incentivise what I now know to be the wrong things. My teams rarely questioned me, nor did I invite them to, nor did I find ways of enabling them to do so. People are only as good as the system within which we put them. Surely there was a better way.

Then I was exposed to Systems Thinking – a completely different way of seeing things.

Systems Thinking showed me how to take an outside-in approach to the work we do. That means learning that people who do the work are best placed to improve the work. And to measure what matters to customers – not just to the organisation.

Contrary to the long held beliefs of the ‘management factory’, Systems Thinking does not lead to anarchy, rather quite the opposite.

As I embarked on my new challenge to redesign a major customer experience – a real sticking point for the organisation I worked for (and still do) – it became increasingly obvious to me that this wasn’t just about the work, it was also about the perspective we take as leaders; our thinking.

Talking about a new way of thinking felt like a new language. It was hard. I faced comments like “you’re part of a cult”; “you’ve swallowed the red pill”; “this will never work”.

I started to realise that not only did I need to neutralise the Systems Thinking methodology to make it more palatable for a large corporate, I needed to deliver my passion in a way that was different. I needed to read the room better and have a morally neutral way of changing what was happening around me.

I wasn’t sure a large organisation like mine would have the appetite for another methodology, and if it did, whether it would stick. Very often something new and shinier appears and everyone looks to that to fix the world. Gladly I was wrong. Synchronicity is a wonderful thing I regularly tell myself. I was introduced to Structural Dynamics over coffee by a previous coach. We both knew right away that this was right for me and for my work and after nearly 18 months of perseverance we now have a practice of twenty two developing internal Structural Dynamics practitioners.

So what is happening in the work environment? Leaders now want to know more about Structural Dynamics as they are seeing shifts in teams and the way that they are communicating. Teams are using the four player model as well as the full repertoire of the communication domains and operating systems to read their stakeholders, pitching their messages differently to get even better outcomes. The right outcomes. Faster. Meetings are shorter; we have less of them on the same topic as we are now talking a common language. Pace was never an issue for a system, which is dominated by Moves in Closed Power, yet people are now working more effectively.

More and more leaders are seeing the link between Structural Dynamics and Systems Thinking. We are helping leaders to see the broader system and how applying a new perspective will drive change. Lasting change. The difference? The journey. We are talking from a place of doing the right thing for the customers, our teams and the organisation as it’s a structural not a moral conversation. We are now starting to understand our triggers to prevent those terrible interactions and broken relationships as we now understand this is potentially a model clash or we have a story to work on. It is a work in progress.

The moral? Methodologies can work together and these two do extremely well. No matter how stuck a system may seem large organisations do want to change once you understand it’s about the way we think and how our thinking has systemic issues, which ultimately impact the performance we see. As a person high in meaning (if you hadn’t guessed that already) here comes the affect… I love this work, and the leaders and teams I work with agree that the combination of models will lead to endless possibilities for our organisation and our people.

Scott Downing

General Manager, Business Improvement & Advocacy, Telstra