Friday, 29 May 2009

Improving whole systems with creativity, commitment and complexity

Marvin Weisbord's book 'Productive Workplaces' had a huge impact upon me - not least because of his model which culminates in "everybody improves whole systems" ( This chimed with my deeply held view that the best people to improve a system are those who are part of it. The people who care, know or can do something about the system - should by rights, logic and passion - be the best people to improve things.

Out of Marvin's work came the process of 'Future Search' ( and see for a practical application). It seems to be obvious that unless you generate the conditions whereby complexity can be 'held', creativity & innovation can be fostered and commitment can be nurtured - the chances of generating a sustainable way forward into the future are severely limited. This is why I am highly suspicious of big consultancies who come and 'do' (systems) improvement 'to' an organisation / network / partnership / team.

My view is that the practice of systems improvement needs to be kept "as simple as possible but no simpler" (quote Einstein - although maybe not word for word!). If systems thinking is made to be esoteric, inaccessible and bamboozling - nobody gains and everyone loses I would contend. I believe it is therefore all of our responsibility to help design processes for improvement that are intrinsically creativity supportive, commitment generative and complexity handleable (sorry for the clunky grammar there!). These processes will then deliver stractegies not strutegies ( below) - which will blossom into sustainable positive change.

For the record, I am not wild about detailed 'as is' flow charts since I think they all to easily sap energy and creativity. I am also not wild about small project teams coming up with solutions - the whole system (including outside people such as citizens and partner agencies) needs to come up with the progressive solutions.

And I am wholly fed up with consultancies who have one fixed & rigid way of doing systems improvement 'to' their customers. If systems thinking teaches us anything - it should be that the world is complex interconnected & messy place where off the shelf solutions are never appropriate. (To reference a Myers Briggs connection - I think there is often far too much ISTJ in systems improvement and not enough ENFP! OK - small rant over!

Some questions to help

Here are some questions I have developed over the years - which I often use to help people take a different perspective on their system / process. I present them as 'solutions looking for problems' - so some of them will fit - and others will not. You will only know if you ask the question...

  • Have we agreed the stakeholder requirements?
  • Are the providers involved adequately trained?
  • Are there too many ‘handovers’
  • Is the process being done in the right order?
  • Could it be made simpler with a ‘triage’ stage?
  • Could we make better use of technology?
  • Where are the sources of rework?
  • Why does performance vary – and by how much?
  • Could some parts of the process be done at the same time?
  • Are there too many checks and controls?
  • Could we get the users / clients / etc. to do more?
  • Could we get our partners or suppliers to take action?
  • Could we create an expert system to make it work better?
  • Is there a ‘standard’ way of carrying out the process?
  • Where are the delays in the process?
  • Could different people or agencies be providing the service (or part of it)?
  • Have we made any cultural or professional assumptions that are getting in the way?
  • Are the performance measures helping?
  • Could we stop doing the process altogether?
  • Are decision making protocols getting in the way?
  • Does the process contribute to outcome goals?

My vision is that each of these questions is a lens to hold up to the process / system and see if it brings something useful into sharper view. Do let me know if you use them and find them useful. I have said in the past that these questions come with a guarantee - I promise you will find at least one if not several ways to improve your process / system if you ask them. No one has claimed a warranty yet... but who knows!

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