Friday, 15 June 2012

Understanding the World , Organizations,Transformations , Leadership and Life in terms of Systems

When you enter the forest , what do you see?Do you see trees one after the other  coming your way? Or do you see the system called forest , with biodiversity , wildlife and an Eco- system?The former is a reductionist way of thinking while the latter is a systems way of thinking .Systems view is a broad overview and enables us to integrate things together.It is not possible to be a change agent(or a change leader)  without learning to think in systems.A system is more than the sum of its  its parts.System behavior reveals itself  as a series of events  over time.System structure is the source of system behavior.But  the word  system  has been used very loosely , and means different things to different people .It is very useful to understand systems and their dynamics in making correct decisions in work  as well as in  personal and community life .Between thinking in terms of persons and events(details) , and thinking in terms of systems(integration) , which one is the correct way ?"I do not think that the systems way of seeing is better than the reductionist way of thinking .I think , it's complementary, and therefore revealing", says Donella.                                                                 
                   Literature on change management makes a mention of   systems and subsystems.When we see an organization as a system  and  have a vision to transform it , its subsystems like its organizational structure  design subsystem, its Human Resource (HR) subsystem , its Information Flow subsystem and Strategic Planning Process subsystem  need to be studied and aligned with its vision for transformation.HR system comprises performance evaluation/appraisal subsystem ,compensation decision subsystem,promotion decision subsystem , and recruitment and hiring subsystems.Do all these subsystems support the transformations?                                                                                                                                                                                     A change in a system may require  removal of organizational barriers(Leading Change : John P. Kotter; Harvard University Press, 1996.Page103).There are many ways  in which organizational structure acts as a barrier to improvement.Organizational structure may fragment resources and authority/responsibility in such a way that delivering well any new product is nearly impossible.Similarly , organizational arrangements may  dis-empower the people and undermine the vision .Independent silos may not communicate and thus slow everything down.Also , layers of middle level managers  may second guess and criticise the lower employees and huge staff groups at corporate head quarters are  expensive     and constantly initiate  costly procedures and  programmes.Organizational structure may be customer unfocused.All these reasons may call for a change in the design of the system or organization .
                          "Thinking in systems , A Primer"  by Donella H. Meadows (1941-2001) was published posthumously  by sustainability Institute and edited by  Diana Wright.Donella completed the draft of the book in 1993 , died in 2001, but the book was published in 2008 only.The book  expands our mind and helps us to see, understand and interact with  our complex  world and take better decisions. Donella was one of  the world's foremost systems analysts and was the lead author of  the international bestseller "Limits to Growth".I became interested in systems dynamics and  analysis after reading  "The fifth discipline" by Peter M . Senge."Thinking in Systems" is a very good book  for introducing us to the basics  systems analysis.It is different from self help books.While it can be useful in all areas of life , it can be especially useful in policy making , government , business, and ecology.Systems analysis is a subject based on mathematical equations  and  extensive use of computers to simulate systems  , but Donella has made it simple to understand."Systems thinking transcends disciplines and cultures and,when it is done right, it overreaches history as well.. . . .There is much more to systems thinking than is presented here, for you to discover if you are interested."
                                             Highly functional systems have three  characteristics of resilience,self-organization and hierarchy. The most important part of the book relates  to discovering the  leverage points of a system and  using  these  to change the systems.Leverage points are places in the system  where a small change could lead to  a large shift in behavior.Donella has identified  12 such leverage points:
1.Transcend Paradigms:
Be and remain unattached to paradigms, stay flexible and realise that no paradigm is "true".There is no need to cling to any paradigm.
2.Change Paradigms:
To totally transform a system , intervene into it at the level of paradigm.Challenge the  old paradigm, as recommended by Thomas Kuhn in his book" Structure of Scientific Revolutions".Keep  pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm.Build a new paradigm, a new way of seeing , a new model of the system.Keep speaking and acting, loudly and with confidence from the new paradigm.Insert people with new paradigm  in places of public visibility and power.Work with active change agents and with vast middle ground of people with open mind.
Look at the goals of the entire system as well as the goals of the parts of the system.What whole system goals are you pursuing?You may like to change the system's goal and take up a new direction and a new goal.Articulating , repeating , standing up for , insisting upon a new system goal , is one of the strongest leverage point to change the system.
4.Self organization of system's structure:
Any system that can not self-evolve, that scorns experimentation and wipes out innovation , is doomed and needs change.We can change such a system by encouraging experimentation , variability and diversity.
Rules define the scope , boundaries and degrees of freedom of a system .They are high leverage points and have power .Find out who has the power to change or write or make   the rules, who  has the power to interpret the rules. in case of laws, such power is vested in  the Legislature and Courts respectively.Incentives, punishments and constraints are also rules , though these are progressively weaker rules.To change the system , we need to pay attention to the rules as well as to rule makers.We need to restructure the rules  and imagine what the behaviour of the system would be under the restructured rules.This can result in a fundamental change in the system .
6.Information flows:
Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction.Adding, restoring  information or delivering feedback to a place where it was not going before  , can be a powerful intervention.It is important that the missing feedback be restored to the right place and in compelling form.Missing feedback loops ensure accountability of decision makers.
7.Reinforcing feedback loops:
Reinforcing feedback loop is self-reinforcing.If allowed to go unchecked, a reinforcing loop drives system behavior in one direction and ultimately destroys itself if it runs its course.
Like soil will erode away to bedrock.Sooner or later , bed rock will crumble into new soil.This is a self-correcting balancing loop.An alternative is to have an intervention to reduce the self multiplying power of a reinforcing loop- slowing its growth.This  is a more powerful leverage point than strengthening  the balancing loops and far more preferable  than letting the reinforcing loop run, like people stop overgrazing, put up check dams, plant trees and stop the erosion .So reduce the gain around a reinforcing loop and slow the growth to change the system.
8.Balancing feedback loops:
Parts of system relating to information and control are the parts where more leverage can be found.For example, markets are the balancing feedback systems.Price is the central piece of information .To keep it accurate as per feedback power of market signals, you need anti-trust laws, truth in advertising law,the removal of perverse subsidies and other ways of levelling market playing field.This will ensure free, full unbiased flow of information.To improve a system's self- correcting abilities, we need to strengthen balancing feedback controls.For example , we need to provide protection for whistle blowers, we need to impose impact fees, pollution taxes and performance bonds to recapture the externalised public costs of private benefits.
Delay length is a high leverage point, e.g. construction time of a major project.Also growth rates are high up on leverage points.Slowing down a growth rate   is a greater leverage point  than faster technological development.Changing delays or growth rates in the right direction  can change systems in a big way.
10.Physical Structures:
Physical structure is responsible for many distortions in the system .For example , road system is responsible for  air pollution and community delays .Rebuilding of physical structures  is slowest and most expensive kind of change in a system.So it is rarely a leverage point.But when it is , leverage point is in the design.
Another leverage is in understanding the  limitations and bottlenecks  of the physical structure , using it with maximum efficiency and refraining from  straining its capacity through fluctuations and expansions.
Stocks that are big relative to their flows are called Buffer.Buffers have stabilizing power.There is leverage , sometimes magical , in changing the size of buffers.But buffers are usually physical entities.(like storage capacity of a dam) and are not easy to change.Buffers are not very high on the list of leverage points.
12.Numbers , parameters and details:
Numbers , the size of flows, annual deficits,minimum wages, budget allocations, number of employees fired and other such details take away 99 percent of our attention  but there is not a lot of leverage in them .These numbers are important in the short term and to the individual who is standing directly in the flow.But changing them rarely changes the system.But critical parameters can be  leverage points.Like system goals are parameters that can make big differences. Mostly, the numbers are not  worth the sweat  put into them , like how much rent to charge or pay on a building .Most systems have evolved  or are designed to stay far out of range of critical parameters.Thought leaders across the globe  regard the systems- thinking skills  critical for  understanding and solving the problems of 21st- century life.
                                             Some system structures  produce common patterns of problematic behavior called archetypes.Such archetypal structures need to be changed.These archetypes are system traps.Theses can be escaped by suitable actions like reformulating the goals .Donella describes eight such traps and also the way out from each of them.
                                             The author seems to have a leftist political stance when she says:"The power of big industry calls for the power of big government to hold it in check;a global economy makes global regulators necessary.One of the weaknesses of the book  seems to be  that  some of the leverage points lean heavily towards justification of  pet liberal causes.
                                                  The most important "systems wisdom" that I got from Donella is :"Defy the Disciplines".Learn from economists, chemists ,psychologists , theologians  , and so on .To see a systems whole , be more than "inter-disciplinary".Encourage the representatives from  different disciplines to be more committed to solving the problem  at hand than to being academically correct.They should be willing to be taught by each other and by the system."It can be done.It's very exciting when it happens."
                                              "One of my purposes is to make you interested (in systems thinking)", says Donella. As far as I am concerned , Donella has fully succeeded in achieving her purpose.You need to read this book , and I have a reason to believe that you will agree .