Category Archives: Change Management

All Systems Go! – Systemic Thinking for Understanding and Insights

This is the next posting in the Thinking Styles series: See Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking for an introduction to the series.

If you have a scientific background (and probably even if you don’t) you are likely to pride yourself on being able to think systematically. But, can you think systemically?

Systems Thinking

Systematic thinking with its logical, sequential and linear approach is very important and contributes to most of the thinking styles covered in this series. Systemic or Systems Thinking is much less prevalent but potentially even more important.

The approach looks at systems [dynamic entities with interactive elements that act as purposeful units] and their relationship to their environment [everything outside the system]. The concepts build on the ideas of Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and latterly, Peter Senge amongst many others.

Systems thinking starts with some relatively straightforward concepts and can provide insights into the most complex of natural and man-made entities.

Systems thinking encourages you to:

  • understand the system as a whole
  • to examine the interactions between parts
  • to see how the system interacts with its environment.

Getting Started

A great starting point to understand the subject is Gene Bellinger’s Website

There are also some excellent learning resources on the Open University Systems Websites:

Systems Thinking and Practice  and

Systems Thinking and Practice: Diagramming

Diagrams and Facilitation

The diagramming ideas are incredibly useful for helping you getting to grips with complex situations and can be particularly helpful to encourage dialogue, build shared understanding and tease out different perspectives from groups facing seemingly intractable problems. They should be part of any facilitator’s toolkit. [The Fifth Discipline Field Book by Peter Senge et al is also a very useful resource for facilitation techniques and I’ll return to this in a future posting]

Influence diagrams are fairly easy to produce and very useful for facilitating discussion. Producing the diagram encourages effective dialogue and this can be as, if not more valuable, than the diagram itself.Simplified Influence Diagram

Simplified Influence diagram for Selling Services

Influence diagrams highlight the interconnections between the various issues. By adding information on the direction of influence these can be developed into multiple cause diagrams  which can help you to identify reinforcing and self-sustaining loops.

Reinforcing loops, also known as virtuous or vicious circles (depending on whether they are positive) are often buried in the depths of real life issues. Self-sustaining loops tend to bring systems back to equilibrium and can sometimes explain why it appears to be impossible to effect change.

Peter Senge suggested a set of frequently recurring structures resulting from various combinations of Reinforcing and Balancing structures. These are often called archtypes: no doubt you will recognise these elements in some of the situations you come across.

Simplified Example for Coaching

The very simplified graphic below shows how two reinforcing loops [empowering and depowering circles] limit individual performance with a self-sustaining element of the notion of self-worth. This is an example of the “limits to success” archtype.

Empowering and De-powering circles in equilibrium To shift the balance between the two circles, the individual needs to develop a different perception of their own self-worth. The situation is naturally much more complicated than this as the causal loops (circles) are much more complex and the notion of “Self-worth” is itself part of a complex set of interactions. Nevertheless, this simplification can be of great help in coaching situations and can shift the focus from performance to beliefs, which can then be worked on.

Next Steps

This brief introduction has not even scratched the surface of the subject and if you would like to be pointed towards some additional sources of information on Systems and Systems Thinking, please let me know at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Let us know if you’d like some help with systems thinking, facilitation or problem solving – call us today

Creative Thinking – get ahead by thinking differently

This is a follow-up post to: Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

In some ways, creative thinking is the most critical of all of the thinking styles – if you don’t come up with something different from your competition, you’ll always be following in their footsteps. Creative thinking is about getting beyond the obvious,  seeing possibilities and generating options for success. As we have said elsewhere – however good the idea, it will only bear fruit if it is implemented so you do need to be able to switch into different thinking modes. [See Turning good ideas into effective action]

Creative thinking is a bit like that too, it is about selecting the right thinking mode at the right stage in the process as we will see later.

The term “creative” has been much misused and applied very narrowly: we are all creative, creative thinking can be applied to any industry and we all know [or once knew how to do it]. If you have ever seen children turning a few simple items into [imaginary] space ships, houses or fortresses  you will know what I mean. Somehow, it is educated out of us by the school and business systems [see Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk if you need any further evidence]

Creativity has a structure and you can apply processes and techniques to make it easier for you to generate new ideas. it needs effort and it needs to be taken seriously, it may be your only real competitive advantage. Most people jump to the obvious conclusion without really examining the issue they are trying to address [see the catalogue of stupid ideas and inane suggestions developed by candidates on the Apprentice for instance!]

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

I like to think of the problem solving process as a cycle which leads to better and better ideas and a better and better understanding of the issues the more times you go round the loop. It is usually better to have several “quick and dirty” cycles at the beginning rather than doing a lot of analysis. This also builds momentum and gets people involved.

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

Exploration

To stand any chance of solving any problem [if it is indeed solvable] you need to understand it thoroughly. That’s why you start with an exploration stage.

It would be a complete waste of time to come up with a fantastic solution to the wrong problem.

This means understanding the nature of the problem, its context and the standpoints of everyone who is involved. [Incidentally, some people feel that it is better to think of challenges rather than problems. If that works for them fine – I prefer to think that it is just a mindset issue and you might as well call it a “George”. The approach works just as well whatever you call your problem / issue / challenge …]

Generation

The next stage is to come up with some ideas – there are lots of techniques for this with brainstorming probably being the best known. The important issue here is to build on each other’s suggestions – “Yes and …” rather than “Yes but …”. You need to come up with as many and varied ideas as possible – quantity breeds quality. It is crucial that there is no judgement of the ideas at this stage as a seemingly unworkable approach could spark a better, more workable idea from one of the other participants.

Evaluation

Having generated lots of ideas, you will need to organise, cluster  and evaluate them to determine which are worthy of further development. Again, there are many techniques and approaches you can use. It can also be useful at this stage to return to the generation phase as the clustered, collated and reviewed ideas may well spark new thoughts.

Implementation

In early cycles, you are unlikely to actually put anything into action but it is a good idea to consider how you would put the ideas into practice. This will involve steps such as:

  • Stakeholder analysis – who supports, who is against, what are their views, what are they looking for.
  • Building a robust proposal – have you got the scope right, does it need extending or reducing, how will you market your ideas
  • Implementation planning – how will you move forward to take effective action, what are the steps …

Each of these steps has the potential of generating improved insights about the issues being addressed and may encourage further cycles through the process.

Current best solution

It is important to recognise that for most real life problems, there will never be an ideal solution, so what you leave the process with is the current best solution but at some point you need to take action.

There are two important implications of this:

  1. you may not be entirely satisfied with the outcome and
  2. someone may come up with an even better suggestion at a later date.

As we will discuss later in the Project Thinking stream, the desired outcome is the best solution by the required date – so don’t beat yourself up about it.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking Styles

An underlying theme here is that both divergent and convergent thinking styles are appropriate at different points in the cycle. Few people are equally adept at each style  and this should encourage you to get different people with different approaches, experiences and outlooks involved. Don’t worry if this leads to conflict and clashes, you need differences of opinion. The bigger risk is that everyone will think the same.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Appropriate thinking styles for each phase

Way forward

The creative thinking muscle needs exercise and the most important first step is to recognise when you are taking decisions without trying to find alternatives.

If you have only one option – you might as well be a robot: if you have two options, you have a dilemma: if you have more options, you have flexibility.

You need to find ways to get a more diverse group of people involved and it can be helpful to develop a toolkit of simple techniques to get you started – you can find more sophisticated approaches later if you need them.

Creative Problem Solving Toolkit

Creative Problem Solving Toolkit

If you would like a copy of my recommended basic toolkit and links to useful sources of information, please drop me an email at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

How flexible is your consulting style?

Reflecting on a successful presentation of “Company Watching” to a group of consultants / interim professionals earlier in the week, I noted that they had been most interested in how an understanding of corporate culture could help them fine tune their style to suit the personality of their clients and potential clients. They recognised that this will help them pitch more effectively and work more effectively once engaged.

The importance of this was brought home to me last night when I watched Peter Jones’s [of Dragons Den] documentary on entrepreneurs “How we made our millions” – BBC 2 [9th November 2011]. It was striking how different the cultures of the two businesses were and the extent to which they reflected the character and style of their owners – Michelle Mone [Ultimo] and Richard Reed [Innocent].

Imagine the challenge of pitching for work to either of them if you were unaware of their respective approaches.

Are you sufficiently flexible to be able to appear credible to both of these companies?

If not, can you become more flexible?

Do you need to qualify your target customers to improve your chances of success?

Either way, you will need to be good at recognising the clues on their corporate culture – “Company Watching” will help you do this.

I’ll be increasing the focus on these issues in future talks and workshops on the subject.

Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

When you are faced with a critical decision in your business, you probably recognise that you will need to give it some thought but how often do you think about how you need to think about the issues involved?

That’s right! Do you think about how you need to think?

In his seminal work, Six Thinking Hats, Dr Edward de Bono highlighted the need for different modes of thinking at different points in the process and in particular the need for everyone involved to be thinking in the same way at the same time.

I’d like to build on that idea by suggesting eight key thinking styles that you should apply to any critical decision you need to make – I call this Pivotal Thinking. The key themes are outlined below and each will be explored in detail in subsequent postings.

The thinking styles are:

  1. Critical
  2. Strategic
  3. Creative
  4. Systemic
  5. Project
  6. Lateral
  7. Process
  8. Reflective

Critical Thinking

This style is particularly useful for examining information and testing assumptions. It is exemplified by the approach of Henry Fonda’s character [Juror #8] in “12 Angry Men”, probing, challenging and taking nothing for granted.

Strategic Thinking

This approach is crucial for looking at the big picture and long term. It means standing back from the detail and looking at aims, objectives, trends and capabilities. It also means looking at opportunities, threats and options from the perspective of all stakeholders.

Creative Thinking

To get ahead of your competition, avoid getting into a rut and find better answers to the challenges you face, you need to think creatively. Contrary to popular opinion, this can be helped by a structured approach which balances and sequences divergent and convergent thinking, selecting appropriate tools and techniques at each stage.

Systemic Thinking

You probably learned to think systematically at school / university but sometimes there is a need to think about the system as a whole, the interactions between the various parts and the causes and consequences of particular options. This style goes hand in glove with both strategic and creative thinking.

Project Thinking

Managing projects needs a different style of thinking to most management situations. Project thinking requires you to pay attention to the sequence of events, the flow of information and the interactions between events. It is highly relevant to the implementation of strategy and requires focus on objectives, roles and resources.

Lateral Thinking

Your closest competitors are likely to come up with similar strategies and solutions to those you arrive at through logical analysis, so it can be useful to use lateral thinking to arrive at better, non-intuitive solutions. This thinking style, invented by Dr Edward de Bono, encourages you to arrive at better solutions by attacking the issue from completely different perspectives and often through an intermediate unworkable solution.

Process Thinking

In many cases, it can be very useful to use these thinking styles in combination or in appropriate sequences. This is where process thinking comes in – a bit like the Blue Hat in Six Thinking Hats, it will help you select the right thinking style for the situation and decided on the order in which to apply them [and recycle if necessary]

Reflective Thinking

To help you learn and benefit from previous experience, it can be useful to adopt a reflective thinking style. This will allow you to look at what you have done in the past and the results you have got. If you combine it with a critical approach, you may get to the real causes of past failures and successes and develop much improved approaches.

So the next time you think you need to think about something – think first about how you need to think.

Think about it!

One small step – from good idea to effective action

You’ve a burning idea to improve your business, you would like to move it forward but it’s still a bit fuzzy. You are not sure how to get going or even how to describe it to others. Perhaps that’s stopping you from doing anything but it is critical that you take that first step as the classic quote says.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Here’s a suggestion on how to get things moving in a positive direction.

Rudyard Kipling’s famous quotation is a great way to start structuring your ideas.

“I keep six honest serving men: They taught me all I knew:

Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who”

At early stages you should concentrate on:

What you are trying to achieve

How things will be different

Why it is a good idea

Who you ought to involve

The most important issues are to put some structure on your idea, test its validity and generate some support – if you don’t it won’t go any further.

You can focus on the details of what precisely you are going to do and how you are going to do it later. You will probably find that the people you engage with will have different and better ideas about the details – you can’t plan the journey until you know where you are going!  They are also likely to have some good suggestions of other people to get on board.

Critical Stage

Many projects and change initiatives go wrong at this stage because the participants end up doing the wrong project [and sometimes they all end up doing different projects!], so it is vital that you explore the issues and potentials fully at an early stage. This should be an expansive stage, gathering ideas from everyone who has an angle, don’t discount anything at this stage [you can’t generate ideas and evaluate them at the same time], even the seemingly crazy ideas may lead to something really useful.

Value Differences

Surround yourself with different types of people, if they all see things in the same way and bring the same skills, knowledge and experience to the table, you are very unlikely to get any radical ideas. You need to encourage everyone to speak their mind, table their ideas and explain their understanding.

Faciliate the process

To get effective dialogue you will need someone to facilitate the process, so you need to either develop the skills or preferably bring in someone who is skilled, experienced and independent.

If you don’t get into effective dialogue at this stage, then you will find out later than what you deliver is different to what someone was expecting – even if it is possible to put it right later, it will cost a lot more.

See my earlier blog post That’s not what I thought I was getting! for more details.

Key Issues

So at this stage, three things are important:

  1. That everyone is agreed on the destination
  2. That everyone is happy that they’ve had their say
  3. That you take the first step.

Focus on

Focus your attention on three types of reaction to proposals:

  1. One group or individual is keen to have a particular feature and others don’t see the value of.
  2. Ideas which are dismissed without any effective debate
  3. Ideas which are accepted without any effective debate

The first may well mean that there is a lack of shared understanding between the groups / individuals and the others may indicate that whilst everyone is using the same words, they actually mean different things. You need to facilitate the debate and make sure that the aims and objectives of the proposal are understood by all.

If you don’t do this now, you’ll regret it later!

Me, myself and I – understanding stakeholder perspectives

If you have read any of my earlier posts, you will know that I do my best to avoid “management speak” and jargon. I make no apologies, however, for using the term “stakeholders”. It means anyone who has an interest in, can affect or be affected by the business. I find it particularly useful to consider stakeholders in planning and implementing change programmes. Effective consideration of stakeholders and their needs, desires and motivations can go a long way to helping you sell your ideas, gain support and minimise resistance – but you have to do it carefully and put some effort in.

Standard Stakeholder Map

Standard Stakeholder Map

The figure above shows a typical “first pass” mapping of potential stakeholders – this is a useful start but may not be adequate for your needs. In many cases, you will need to break these top-level groups down into smaller subgroups. For example:

Customers: Do they all have the same needs?

Managers: Are specific individuals or functions affected in different ways?

Employees: Are all groups affected equally, are some better organised than others etc?

You will need to break the stakeholders down into smaller sub-groups and possibly consider some people on an individual basis.

Multiple perspectives

It is also worth noting that in today’s more complex environment, some people will fall into several stakeholder groups and that will affect their overall perception. For example, an employee may also be:

  • A shareholder
  • A neighbour
  • An investor – through pension funds etc.
  • A customer

    An individual's perspective

    An individual's perspective

So, their view of any proposed change can be quite complex.

Also bear in mind that the various stakeholder groups are likely to interact with each other.

Mini Case Study

I was discussing this issue with a client who is a third-generation director in a successful family run business [SME]. He said that on any given topic, he can have several different views and that the balance between these might change through the day. So he can have different thoughts about the issue as:

  1. A functional director
  2. As an owner of the business
  3. As a member of the extended family
  4. As Husband / Father in his own family
  5. Himself!

    Case Study

    Case Study

For him to be happy with any decision or change, it has to be right [or at least bearable] from each perspective! No wonder it can be so difficult to get support for your ideas!

What does this mean for you?

Thinking any idea through from stakeholder perspectives will help you to:

  • Sell your ideas by giving you a better understanding of each group / individuals
    • Needs
    • Desires
    • Motivations and
    • Fears
  • You will be in a stronger position to gain support by fine tuning your proposal
  • You will be better able to anticipate and respond to any resistance and
  • You will be much better prepared to engage in a sensible dialogue with any of the interested parties and that could lead to an even better idea!

Don’t do that, do this!

Sometimes we forget the simple ideas which we know work and can make a real difference! So it is good to be reminded from time to time.

I recently attended a  Business Scene talk by Lara Morgan who sold her business Pacific Direct  for £20 million a couple of years back. In the course of her candid, energetic and insightful presentation, Lara commented that the use of Pareto’s Law [80:20] rule had been instrumental in her approach, allowing her to focus on what really mattered in her business.

I’ve known about the rule for many years but Lara’s comments got me thinking and reminded me of something I’d worked out some time ago!

If 80% of the value of what you do comes from 20% of what you do then:

The time spent on your most valuable efforts is worth 16 times that spent on the least valuable activities!

How does that change your attitude to:

  • Delegation?
  • Developing your team?
  • Focusing your efforts?
  • Outsourcing?

So what are you going to cut out or pass on to others next week?

[Human] Nature abhors a [Communication] Vacuum!

A conversation about change reminded me of a [relatively] painful lesson I learned a few years ago.

I was a director [VP] in a medium-sized Professional Services Organisation and we needed to move to a new office. We scoured the area for suitable premises which met our criteria for:

  • Location
  • Public transport links
  • Parking
  • Style and Substance
  • Working conditions etc

Having visited just about every potential location in the area, we turned our thoughts towards building our own offices.

What we didn’t do was to keep the rest of the company advised of our progress!

The rumours circulating the office suggested that we had found somewhere but it was so bad on one or more of these attributes that we didn’t dare tell anyone until the deal was done. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Fortunately, someone thought I was sufficiently approachable and brought it to my attention.  I was able [with some difficulty] to get an update out to the workforce and allay their fears.

The lesson is that you can’t not communicate and whatever fills the communication vacuum will be much worse than the reality. Saying nothing sends its own message.

So unless you are bound by confidentiality or there is a good business reason for keeping quiet, you must give out all of the relevant information – even if it is to say that you are not making any progress!  If there are good reasons for not making a disclosure – you can communicate that fact too! “We are making progress but don’t want to jeopardise negotiations”, “We can’t comment on this because of … but we will let you know as soon as we can”  etc]. Your team is smart enough to know that not everything can be made public but don’t appreciate being kept in the dark unnecessarily.

It can also be helpful to publicise the criteria you are working to and seek suggestions.

Silence is definitely not golden!

5½ Ways to predict the future!

Quite a few years back, I listened to a recording of a Tom Peters seminar where he quoted one of the development team of the Apple Newton [without which we may well have never got smart phones, i-pads and related tablets] as saying “The future was predictable but no one predicted it”.

Future can’t be predicted at the level of knowing the next winning set of lottery numbers but you can tip the balance in your favour – if you think about the future and look at what is going on in the world!

Here are my tips on how to do it:

1. Expand your horizons

Spend some of your time thinking about the future on a longer time frame than you do now. Ideally, you should be thinking about what is likely to happen in the next 5-10 years not next week.

2. Look at what is going on in the world

I use a framework I called ASPIRE & INSPIRE – which looks at

  • Social
  • Political
  • Innovation
  • Regulatory and
  • Economic

drivers of change.

You’ve probably seen similar ones and may even have used them before. The key to success however is not to do what most people do – work out from your business because your view will be coloured by who and what you are. You need to work from the outside in, asking:

How each driver could affect your industry or sector, does it affect you disproportionately and how well placed are you to respond.

3. Listen to your customers – especially the awkward ones

Look at what your most demanding customers are doing – are any of them using your products and services in unusual ways, are they asking for features which others aren’t. Then ask yourself whether these are likely to become trends.

4. Scenario Plan

Often, there are relatively few options on the way an issue will pan out – you can plan for all of these. If you can plan for an outcome which your competitors have ignored and that’s what happens;  you will have an advantage over them. Most businesses don’t plan for change so you stand a pretty good chance of being ahead of the game whatever the outcome.

5. Make your own future

The late, great management thinker Peter Drucker said that the best way to predict the future was to create it. So put some effort into being different, creative and innovative – can you produce interesting and exciting products and services before the competition have realised the need?

and finally

If you are not doing any of these then you are predicting your own future – you will be overtaken by events or the competition and go the way of famous names like, Woolworths, Slazenger and  TWA – don’t forget that even Marks and Spencer and Harley Davidson both nearly got caught out by taking their eye off the ball.

But

None of this will be any use unless you take action – so get on with it!

Don’t just sit there!

In the Open University Business School MBA module I tutor [“Making a difference”], the students are expected to undertake an evidence based initiative in their own organisation. As they move through the process, we suggest that they use a mnemonic “CATUR” to assess the:

  • Complexities
  • Ambiguities
  • Tensions
  • Uncertainties and
  • Risks

associated with their proposals. As you might expect, there is quite a range in the skill with which these elements are applied.

There does however seem to be one reasonably consistent theme, which also echoes my experience with consultancy customers. Most students and businesses are very good at identifying the risks associated with the actions they are proposing. Sometimes, they even do some formal quantified risk assessments taking account of the probability and potential impact of a wide range of events.

Most, however, fail to consider the risks of not taking action and rarely weigh them against the possible benefits of doing something.

In the current uncertain times, it can seem appealing to take the low profile option and keep ones head down. This might seem the safest way to protect your job but it will hardly get you noticed either. There is always the danger that the company’s position will get worse without an intervention. The best policy may be to try something adventurous, be seen to be doing ones best and perhaps coming out with an enhanced profile in the business and beyond.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment… If it doesn’t turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.

Doing nothing might seem to be the easy option but it may not be the safest.

Don’t forget that it is often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission [Grace Hopper], particularly if it is demonstrably in the business’s best interests.

What can you do to make a difference in your business?

What is stopping you from making a start?