The most unlikely consulting contract I have ever embarked on started with nearly a shouting match between me and the Board of Directors. They had asked me to review the situation, and make a proposal to work with them to solve their crises. Essentially, half the Board had decided they had enough grievances against the CEO that they were ready to firm him tomorrow. The other half felt long term loyalty to him because he had built the organization from scratch and almost single handily had made it into the large successful institution it was today. After reviewing many parts of the situation, I suggested to them that the root of the problems they were facing had very little to do with the CEO, and much more to do with the system and processes they created to lead the organization. I pointed to a stage of organizational life where the systems and processes of operating the company must go through significant changes. I shocked them when I pointed out that any other individual placed in the senior leader’s position who tried to lead things the way they had set things up would end with the same result. After an hour and a half of high voices, to my total surprise, they unanimously decided to sign the contract on the spot!
System and process thinking, while very common today, had a slow start in the United States, and did not get its momentum until Deming’s work in Japan caused American corporations to lose badly in competition with Japanese car makers, and until Peter Senge’s work became very popular in the book: “the 5th Discipline”. It is better understood today that an organization is more than the sum of its parts. The people along with processes in organize their joint work and become interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time – which becomes a system of workflow. When external or internal forces cause a response from the system, is seldom simple, and often complex in nature. In working with businesses, making detailed diagrams of the processes of the system allows leader to see the whole dynamic at once, not just individual parts. This tool has been utilized in my consulting practice to help leaders write job descriptions for new employees depending on what the whole system needs, reveal the true Differentiating Value of the whole organization, identify the true nature of the problems at hand, and even framed what acquisitions would fit within the complexity of the corporation. Most of the principles behind system thinking have been observed in natural systems found in living things. In fact one of the most resilient and magnificent examples of complex systems is our own bodies which are examples of integrated, interconnected, self-maintaining, complex organisms.
Which brings me to the question for today? How has taking a systems approach to issues in organizations you are a part of helped the success of the business? Adaptability, performance, growth, better alignment of work?