Tag Archives: systems thinking

Listen carefully, it’s the System talking.

I’ve been interested in conversations, relationships and working together. How can we relate better at work and home. How is our behaviour affected by those around us, hierarchy, and our willingness to do emotional work – managing feelings and expressions to help a situation progress.

We often react to people  instinctively, pairing our response to their behaviour. Sometimes we choose to break a pattern of conversation, either with empathy for the other persons condition at the time, or to sabotage ourselves and the situation.

Barry Oshry has developed an incredibly useful model to discuss these situations, allowing us to see beyond the people, and to see the system talking. Of course all models are wrong , but some are useful (quote from George Box), and we’ve found Barry’s Seeing Systems model provides brilliant insights. There is a great introduction written by Barry, called Total Power Systems. Ignore the red cover and the words “total” and “power”. It’s not like that.

I worked with colleagues to develop and run workshops, asking ” could you work better with colleagues who had taken this workshop” and ” could you work better with colleagues who have not taken this workshop”. Responses are 100% positive for working better with others who have done the workshop. It seems to resonate.

Barry Oshry’s Seeing Systems Model

Barry’s Model has four conditions that we find ourselves in, in conversations and relationships

  • The conditions change regularly
  • They affect how we behave
  • They affect how others relate to us
  • The conditions are not roles, and do not imply hierarchy
  • But hierarchy is an ever preset overlay

None of the conditions is better or worse. They just are. And they are

  • Topoften overburdened and held accountable
    • Can create a system that thrives, where members are knowledgeable about the system and can use their full potential working in the system
    • When we are TOPS we often sabotage the situation by keeping responsibility to ourselves, away from others including BOTTOMS who can help
  • BottomHard done to
    • Are uniquely placed to see the problems that occur, and to identify and help correct issues
    • When we are BOTTOMS we sabotage the situation when we see problems we hold tops responsible. We don’t feedback suggestions. End of Story.
  • Middle stretched or torn 
    • Able to function as the organisations web, connecting parts and co-coordinating
    • We sabotage ourselves as MIDDLES by connecting primarily with one side or the other to the detriment  the relationship
  • Customerusually righteously screwed
    • Are in the best position to evaluate the delivery process and quality
    • We sabotage ourselves as CUSTOMERS when we hold delivery system solely responsible for delivery. We take no responsibility.

Each condition has two types of behaviour, we’ve called these balcony and basement. Balcony behaviours are positive, appropriate and “Using Yours Powers For Good”. Whereas, basement is the stuff we don’t like in others:  disruptive, argumentative, disengaged.

We move between the conditions often in conversations, and employ balcony or basement responses, usually re-actively without thinking. I’ll give examples later.

We do not act alone

The way we choose to communicate affects how people communicate with us. Hierarchy at work affects this, but we are not our role. Our unthinking reaction – called the “dance of the blind reflex” by Barry, is reinforced by  hierarchy.

  • Anyone who is responsible in a situation is a TOP in interactions
  • Anyone tasked with doing something is a BOTTOM in interactions
  • Negotiating between TOPs and BOTTOMS we are MIDDLES
  • Anyone getting something done for them is in the CUSTOMER condition

We can move between roles in the course of a conversation, meeting or day, often when walking down the corridor between conversations. The model helps us to have empathy for others in their condition. We can choose how to respond. It won’t always be easy or appropriate to respond with balcony response when we choose.


Example Situations

A tidy room.

As a parent you’d like your young child’s room tidying. You’re got hierarchy here. You can approach the conversation a number of ways.

You can tidy the room yourself. Your child is a CUSTOMER. If engaged to be a BALCONY CUSTOMER they could help, and tell you where everything goes, so all the toys are in the right place. You’re kind of both happy, but as a parent you’ve created yourself a job. If they’re not engaged, parental hierarchy may mean they don’t give you feedback, they could just wait until you’re finished, and then constantly ask where things are. If they can’t find anything, it’s your fault. Forever.

At worst, basement TOP behaviour, with hierarchy may have induced BASEMENT customer. At best it created work.

You can ask your child to tidy the room, giving instructions and guidance as the room gets tidier. You’re CUSTOMER/TOP, child is BOTTOM. They ask where things should go, and you’re there to tell them. You tell them what to keep, what to throw away and everything. They may learn after a few times to tidy the way you like it, assuming there is not too much new stuff. If anything changes they expect you to tell then what to do. Years later they may still expect to be told how to tidy their room.

By giving detailed instructions you’ve not created an autonomous system for keeping the room clean. You’ve helped  create a dependent basement BOTTOM behaviour.

As CUSTOMER/TOP you could create a system for keeping the room clean. You could encourage your child to be a BALCONY BOTTOM, by letting them tell you how the room works. What gets used the most, what they don’t like, and letting them work out how to tidy it all up, what to throw away etc. You’d need to check together  that everything looks OK, and check whats thrown out, but this feedback builds a better system, for example they learn they can’t throw out Christmas presents from Dad, no matter how uncool they are.

 


Example Holiday Advice from a Travel Agent

You want to go on holiday. Booking through an all inclusive agent you’re the CUSTOMER. You could walk in and just say “Here’s £1000. We want a family holiday where we’re all happy. Over to you. It better be good, or I’ll give you a terrible online review.” This sounds like basement CUSTOMER behaviour.

Or you could have a list of what your family like, for travel options, activities, temperature, food. You could work with the travel agent to get what you want. This may take more time, but you’ll probably get a better holiday.

From the travel agents perspective, they could behave as a basement TOP, and hold onto responsibility, or build a system that gets people the best holidays.

The travel agent may specialise in holidays for the over 50’s. When a group of young adults come in to book a wild holiday they could hold onto responsibility, and start figuring putting something together from scratch that they’re not familiar with. After all, they’re TOP and responsible. Or they could refer the group next door to the Student Travel Center. If the Student Travel Center refers groups of over 50’s back, then they’ve just created a system to get people the best holidays.

Interestingly, once on holiday, the agent is often a MIDDLE. Customers may complain about the standard of the food and accommodation. Hotels may complain about the lager louts that the travel agency send to the hotel, and the Travel agent is torn between the needs of both. Basement behaviour of reflexively siding with one or the other may not be good long term business sense. Balcony behaviour is a balance.

 


Example of Chief X Officer, working at boardroom level

A CxO is not always a TOP, despite being far up a companies hierarchical structure. For example the part of the organisation the CxO heads will provide service to the rest of the organisation. In meetings with the rest of the organisation, there could be two strategies.

When in meetings responsible for the delivery of their part of the organisation, a CxO would be BOTTOM. They need to deliver, and there is a choice of BALCONY or BASEMENT BOTTOM behaviour, that would have a different strategic outcome.

They can just do as they are told, and hold the next level up to be responsible for the outcome. This behaviour may be induced to be reflexive.

Or they may accept they are in the best place to recognise, diagnose, and get the resources to tackle the issues and work to rectify them using the knowledge and insights they have. If they are allowed. This behaviour is coupled with those in the TOP condition.

The CxO would soon leave the BOTTOM condition when making things happen, but may regularly be MIDDLE or CUSTOMER as well as TOP.


Example of calls to IT Service Desk

IT service desks staff receive calls from CUSTOMERS who often need things fixing. In the initial discussion they are TOPS responsible to the CUSTOMER. They can encourage BALCONY customer behavior where the CUSTOMER helps get their problem fixed, by providing information, feeding back on progress and being involved in the solution where required.

The service desk staff, in the TOP condition can hold responsibility for fixing the issue to themselves, when they need to involve others in the resolution. Involving others may involve moving into the MIDDLE condition to talk to others to get the problematic situation fixed, and be between the CUSTOMER, and the new BOTTOM.

The situation gets interesting if it turns out a 3rd party is involved. After being involved in a complicated problem, isn’t it just great when you can give the lot to someone else and say ‘you just fix this’. We’re in the basement CUSTOMER role here holding the 3rd party to be responsible, end of story. We’d act as MIDDLES between the Service Desk customer and the 3rd party. This is understandable, but maybe not helpful for getting the real customers problems fixed.

Silo Working

The above Service Desk shows an extreme example of Silo working – When we pass things between organisation silos we’re in the CUSTOMER condition, and it’s easy to fall into the basement. It’s often expected to behave as a basement CUSTOMER and hold the delivery system totally responsible. Helping them is not a good use of our limited time.

However we’ve all worked closely with others, times when we’ve temporarily removed barriers and worked together, as balcony CUSTOMERS, working with balcony TOPS, MIDDLES and BOTTOMS. It’s how we get important things done.


This is the goal of Barry Oshrys lifetime work, to help people understand how they relate to each other, and how their reactions can be conscious choices to work in a way that has the potential to induce positive behaviour in the people they are working with.

When we talk to other we should listen carefully, it’s often the system talking.


What can this help us with? When we hear “culture must come from the top”, we can understand “top” to mean hierarchy. ANY of the conditions that people at the hierarchical top of an organisation find themselves in, will be the basis of induced behaviour – effectively setting culture.

In this sense culture does come from the top. HOWEVER, if we apply Barry’s model to itself we find that if someone in the TOP condition and top in the hierarchy sets a direction, and “has the answer” then they may induce the basement BOTTOM behaviour of “I’ll just do what you say – and you’re responsible for the results.”

Any cultural change ideas, applied from the top/TOP down in a basement way are not likely to produce the desired change.

This induced behaviour has echos in the Theory X / Theory Y management styles. Barry Oshry’s work shows how we may induce Theory X behaviour reflexively when we may be wanting to develop relationships and create systems that utilise the resources and intelligence of the people in the system.

Systems Thinkers need a Posse

 

obeyAndre the Giant has a posse. Public Enemy have the S1Ws. Radicals throughout history had a crew, an entourage, a crew. The Misfit Economy by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips details types of people who did things differently, from pirates to gangsters and hackers. And they all had a posse.

It’s hard to stand on your own, against the grain. People carry hammers to knock in any nails that dare to stick up. Sometime this is just a put down, a career blip. Maybe what you say means you can’t walk the streets without watching your back.

Clay and Phillips don’t mention systems thinkers in their book, but they are out there, from a voice in a dysfunctional organisation, to revealing the structural racism inherent in a dysfunctional society.

Some run towards the danger, up for a fight. Others see the danger and wait or give up. Seeing systems can be a hard, lonely place full of compromise and disillusionment. We need friendly people to talk to, who have been there, who can see the patterns that may be too close for us to focus on.

For a group who are arguably all about they way things connect, the systems community are a fractured bunch. Academia values novel research. Just connecting other people works doesn’t carry much weight. What should be a strong backbone of theory is a silo factory. Consultancy is as bad. There are people who attack others work as a way of promoting their own. Of course they need to pay the rent. The problem is structural as much as human.

We need a community, for support when it goes wrong, to build ideas, to talk, laugh and develop. Ideas are free, but alone I’m useless. I need to talk, how else do I know what I think? And sharing means more ideas, not spending my time defending what I have. We need safe spaces to think, grow and change. Safe from attack and ridicule, and safe from being used as a step to make someone feel taller.

What would a systems thinking community value, and how would our current interactions compare to an ideal that we can all theorize about, but we sometimes work to destroy.

Are we too fractured to have an identity?

Why are people replacing robots?

Mercedes-Benz is replacing some of the robots in their factories with people.

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/26/mercedes-benz-robots-people-assembly-lines

3127953038There had to be some passionate conversations between factory managers, and executives at Mercedes-Benz with this one. Replacing some robots with people has caused all sort of problems. If the factories are quite new, and were built for automation they probably don’t have many toilets near the factory floor. Or a large car park, or canteen. Robots don’t drive to work, and need to eat. Factory managers will take personal and professional pride in running efficient operations and automation has made cars affordable, reliable and available.

What is going on when the factories start employing people to replace robots? Wearing an efficiency hat this doesn’t make sense. Robotic factories have been the only future imaginable for years.  What has changed? Does the factory rulebook need to be rewritten?

Increasing pace of change and complexity 

From the Guardian article:

The robots cannot handle the pace of change and the complexity of the key customisation options available for the company’s S-Class saloon at the 101-year-old Sindelfingen plant, which produces 400, 000 vehicles a year from 1,500 tons of steel a day.

We need to be flexible. The variety is too much to take on for the machines. They can’t work with all the different options and keep pace with changes.”

Robots can’t currently mange the complexity of the customisation options. People are currently able to outperform robots at tasks requiring variety, at least until the robot manufacturers catch up.

Managing Variety 1: Making something you can sell

To find where this variety has come from, we can start in sales. Mercedes is in business to sell cars to customers. To do the sales folk need to offer what the customer environment wants, a…

… dizzying number of options for the cars – from heated or cooled cup holders, various wheels, carbon-fibre trims and decals, and even four types of caps for tire valves –

There may be customer demand for these, or marketing could have created the demand. Either way, with a lean, efficient production line, the sales folk are selling something the robotic factories can’t make.

Variety 2: Selling something you can make

Mercedes need to reduce the variety their customers demand to a level their factories can cope with. Balancing this equation is essential. Of course the ultimate offer would be a custom Mercedes for each customer, but this is not possible for the cost of a Mercedes.

To do this marketing and production have to work together to design and market cars that they can make in their factories. Mercedes-Benz are a luxury brand, so cost efficiency is not the sole purpose of the factory.

Marketing has to create and manage demand for the sort of customisation that their factories, restructured with people and robots, can produce. People can cope with the operational variety that robots, or people behaving like robots can’t.

Using robots, machines or computers increases efficiency, but reduces the ability of the system, in this case a factory, to cope with variety in an fast changing environment.

At every level we must ensure that the variety equations balance. If a car dealer can’t supply what the customer is asking for, they will buy elsewhere. If the factory can’t make what the car dealer is selling then the business won’t last long.

 

 

 

Systems thinking in one cartoon

Systems thinking is daunting. There is a lot to learn, and there is always someone to cheerfully point out when you’ve missed a bit.

Bill Watterson

I first saw this cartoon in 1992, and I cut it out and stuck it to a picture frame that followed me about for the next 15 years. It reminded me to make sure that I understood why I was choosing to do things and to look for other perspectives.

It’s all about your purpose and seeing the big picture. Bill Watterson is a genius for making it simple and funny.

Analysis:

Breaking the problem down into manageable chunks is a boundary decision. Hobbs sees it as classic reductionism and sets up the punchline, with Calvin is asking “Is this problem within the boundary of what I care about or not”. So he’s not solving the problem, but dissolving the problem by thinking about the bigger picture, from the perspective of a 6-year-old.

Taking a problem that looks impossible and reimagining it from different perspectives, ideally so the impossible part goes away is a common systems thinking approach.

Unlike Calvin, I spend most of my spare time reading entire chapters of books.