Systems thinking: dances with Wolves

We’re approaching the end of a project I’ve been observing we’ve been doing in the North West. It has been an excellent example of peer work at it’s best – with council people helping out other council people. This post is a brief reminder of what we did and some reflections of what this whole “systems thinking” business is based on 3 days on-site.

What we did

We began with a brief run-through of the theory. This was based on a small number of important things we returned to again-and-again:

  • things are organised into systems, and the only way to understand things is in the context of how they have been organised by people.
  • we have different levels of thinking and understanding – Dan Argyris and his single / double-loop learning featured heavily and almost exclusively as a “theory”
  • it’s OK not to know – trying, learning and adapting is a perfectly acceptable way to approach the world. Even in the office.

We became learners

All the way through our sessions we stopped every few hours. We would (as  group) set down what we’d done, why we’d done it and (were we to do it again) how we might have done it better. The first time this happened it freaked people out, but quite quickly it became both a natural thing to do and the source of several “lightbulb” moments.

I knew the theory of reflective practice, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen it in action. It takes a strong leader to help the group get over their English reserve and, on occasion, judicious use of the truth to help things sink in.

Our first task was to agree what we thought the work was about. This step was necessary because the purpose of the work needed to be explicit and the baseline against which all our subsequent actions were based. We moved quite quickly from the kneejerk “we determine planning applications” and “we prevent awfulness” to something quite like “We help make good development happen.” This is our purpose.

We then started work (real work !)

Without any project plans, gantt charts, or a schedule of deliverables in sight we picked up a planning application as early in the process as we could. And we did everything we could to it, by ourselves.

What we found

Immediately we ran into problems. The people in our team were unable to use the ICT system because they didn’t have the relevant permissions. This deep compartmentalisation was a by-product of the thinking implicit in the way the service was configured. As we followed the multitude of hand-offs and transfers it was eye-opening how many times the work was picked up or put down and how rarely was any of this for the customer’s benefit. Several times I had to be censured because I had fallen back into self-service target culture. Note to self: it’s our job to help make good development happen not to hit an 8 week target.

However, once we’d adapted and got into a groove in our small team we found out some very good things. Much of the work is very simple, and once hand-offs were removed could be complete in moments. Our team, able to take decisions immediately, could reduce the total work required because we didn’t require the standardised approach baked into the system. We had the confidence to do the correct amount of work required (and no more). And we gave ourselves the freedom to talk to the customer directly.

So, systems thinking worked ?

Well, um, kind of. The tools and techniques applied with real expertise by our leader in our willing team delivered some fantastic results. Not just marginal improvements and squeezing of timetables but radically different. People getting a (pretty clear) “yes” the day after putting in an application.

So, what is the magic in the systems thinking box ? Well, that’s the interesting point. I saw principles applied that (to me) have been called many different things in different contexts:

Probably most important of all was that we adopted a growth mindset. Applied in a team environment it was a really powerful approach that (mostly) avoided the need to conflict or even consensus. To go on a site visit for this case ? Usually there would be an argument with a winner and loser. Instead we agreed to do so and then reflect. Making mistakes is OK because it is followed swiftly by learning. I saw planners practising their craft. It was great.

These examples, taken from computer science and education theory, illustrate that systems thinking is (in my view) thinking above all. Thoughtful people applying themselves in a supportive environment can do things better / quicker / cheaper – who knew ?

What next

It is perhaps unsurprising that a small team of well motivated people, when allowed and encouraged to act like craftsmen, behave like the free and skilled people they always were. The challenge, for the next stage of this project, is to work out whether (and how) these ideas might be implemented for all the work. Put bluntly, are all the other people in that council’s planning department going to be able to unleash their inner craftsman ? Will they be able to cope with this level of autonomy ?

And, given that councils are lumpy bumpy places where people sometimes attack and sometimes need defence, is the organisation robust and confident enough to allow this much self-direction ?