Systems Thinking


Clouds at dawn

A system can paint many different outcomes.

Part 1

We should be guided by theory, not by numbers. – W.E. Deming

Many process improvement programs falter when, despite best efforts, they don’t improve the overall performance of IT. The impact of fixing individual processes can easily get lost in the weeds, the impact overtaken by the inertia of the overall systems. “Systems Thinking” is a way to view the world, including organizations, from a broad perspective that includes structures, patterns, and events, rather than simply events. “Systems Thinking” is all about the big picture. Grasping the big picture is important when approaching any change program. Grasping the big picture becomes even more critical when the environment you are changing is complex and previous attempts to change have been less than successful. The world that professional developers operate within is complex even though the goal of satisfying the project stakeholders, on the surface, seems so simple. Every element of our work is part of a larger system that visibly and invisibly shapes our individual and organizational opportunities and risks. The combination of complexity and the nagging issues that have dogged software-centric product development and maintenance suggests that real innovation will only come through “Systems Thinking.” (more…)

Clouds at dawn

Clouds are a reflection of a system.

I am revisiting a number of essays on continuous improvement.  Today a re-edited essay from 2011.

Have you ever researched, prototyped, piloted, and implemented changes to processes only to find that nothing happens? The second or third time that happens strongly suggests that optimizing steps within a system doesn’t always translate into better overall performance. The problem is that most process improvements are targeted at steps within processes rather than the system as a whole. Adjusting our point of view through Systems Thinking takes us down a more holistic path. Systems Thinking is a means of understanding systems that emphasizes the relationships of the system to the entire environment, rather than individual steps.  Systems Thinking is based on a field of study known as system dynamics.  (more…)

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SPaMCAST 471 features our essay on the top 20 transformation killers.  Each transformation killer is a big deal, but if you combine two or more you are in big trouble. That said, forewarned is forearmed . . .hopefully?

In the second spot, this week is Jeremy Berriault and the QA Corner!  Jeremy and I discussed involving testers in requirements.  The ultimate in shifting “left.”    

In the third spot, Gene Hughson completes the cast by bringing a discussion of a recent missive, Systems Thinking Complicates Things.  Rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock and more!

Re-Read Saturday News (more…)

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The Software Process and Measurement Cast 440 features our essay on two storytelling techniques: premortems and business obituaries.  Almost all work that takes more than a few days is subject to risks that are not immediately obvious without some form of structured process to focus the team’s thought process. Teams often use storytelling techniques to generate a big picture/vision to guide a project or to help people frame their thoughts. A story provides a deeper and more nuanced connection between the team and information than most lists of PowerPoint bullets or a structured requirements documents. The same storytelling skill can be used as a risk management tool. Premortums and business obituaries are structured techniques for using storytelling for risk management.

Our second column is from Jeremy Berriault. Jeremy discusses the importance of conferences for learning new ideas and for networking.  Jeremy suggests that if you are have not learned new ways to test and you are testing the same way you were last year then you are falling behind. Jeremy  blogs at https://jberria.wordpress.com/  

Jon M Quigley brings his column, The Alpha and Omega of Product Development, to the Cast. In this installment, Jon discusses mental models and their impact on how you develop and deliver value.  One of the places you can find Jon is at Value Transformation LLC.

Re-Read Saturday News

Chapter 3 of Holacracy completes Part 1 by laying out the structure needed for an organization to be able to quickly and continuously evolve how authority is distributed.  An organization’s structure needs to be conducive to the processes needed to distribute authority.  This chapter provides an alternative to the classic pyramid structure of organization design which is typically out of date, irrelevant and difficult to change.

Visit the Software Process and Measurement Cast blog to participate in this and previous re-reads.

A Call To Action

I need your help. I have observed that most podcasts and speakers at conferences over-represent people from Europe and North America.  I would like to work on changing that exposure. I would like to develop a feature featuring alternate software development voices beginning with Africa and Southeast Asia. If this feature works we will extend it to other areas.   If you can introduce me to practitioners that would be willing to share their observations (short interviews) I would be appreciative!

Next SPaMCAST

The next Software Process and Measurement Cast will feature our interview with John Le Drew.  John and I discussed the concept of safety at work and how safety, or the lack of it, affects software teams.  John is the host of the Agile Path Podcast I recommend you check out his podcast but make sure you are back here for our interview next week!

Shameless Ad for my book!

Mastering Software Project Management: Best Practices, Tools and Techniques co-authored by Murali Chematuri and myself and published by J. Ross Publishing. We have received unsolicited reviews like the following: “This book will prove that software projects should not be a tedious process, for you or your team.” Support SPaMCAST by buying the book here. Available in English and Chinese.

 

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The Software Process and Measurement Cast 436 features our essay titled, Change Fatigue, Tunnel Vision, and Watts Humphrey, in which we answer the question of whether the state and culture of the organization or team, can have a large impact on whether a Big Bang approach or an incremental approach makes sense to change.

Our second column is from Jeremy Berriault. Jeremy discusses user acceptance testing and Agile. There are lots of different ways to accomplish user acceptance testing in an Agile environment.  The only wrong way is not to do UAT in Agile.  Jeremy  blogs at https://jberria.wordpress.com/  

Jon M Quigley brings his column, The Alpha and Omega of Product Development, to the Cast. This week Jon puts all the pieces together and discusses systems thinking.  One of the places you can find Jon is at Value Transformation LLC.

Re-Read Saturday News

This week we wrap-up our re-read of Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (buy your copy and read along).  In the wrap-up, we discuss overall impressions of the book and suggest a set of exercises to reinforce your growth mindset.

The next book in the series will be Holacracy (Buy a copy today) by Brian J. Robertson. After my recent interview with Jeff Dalton on Software Process and Measurement Cast 433, I realized that I had only read extracts from Holacracy, therefore we will read the whole book together. (more…)

The big (panoramic) picture.

The big (panoramic) picture.

In Systems Thinking: Difficulties we focused on the dark side of systems thinking.  But, systems thinking is a powerful framework for change agents. There are two primary reasons systems thinking has a tremendous impact:

  • Understanding Context
  • Value Focus

(more…)

Boundaries, like fences are one potential difficulty.

Boundaries, like fences, are one potential difficulty.

Systems thinking is a powerful concept that can generate significant for value for organizations by generating more options. Dan and Chip Heath indicate that options are a precursor to better decisions in their book Decisive. Given the power of the concept and the value it can deliver, one would expect the concept to be used more. The problem is that systems thinking is not always straightforward.  The difficulties with using systems thinking fall into three categories.

  • Boundaries
  • Complexity
  • Day-to-Day Pressures

Organizational boundaries and their impact of the flow of both work and information have been a source of discussion and academic study for years.  Boundaries are a key tool for defining teams and providing a send of belonging; however, some boundaries not very porous. As noted in our articles on cognitive biases, groups tend to develop numerous psychological tools to identify and protect their members.  Systems, in most cases, cut across those organizational boundaries. In order to effectively develop an understanding of a system and then to affect a change to that system, members of each organizational unit that touches the system need to be involved (involvement can range from simple awareness to active process changes). When changes are limited due to span of control or a failure to see the big picture, they can be focused on parts of a process that, even if perfectly optimized, will not translate to the delivery of increased business value.  In a recent interview for SPaMcast, author Michael West provided examples of a large telecommunication company that implemented a drive to six sigma quality in its handsets, only to find out that pursuing the goal made the handset too expensive to succeed in the market. In this case the silos between IT, manufacturing and marketing allowed a change initiative to succeed (sort of) while harming the overall organization. (more…)

Systems thinking helps to make sure process improvement see the big picture.

Systems thinking helps to make sure process improvement see the big picture.

Why isn’t systems thinking one of the first techniques any IT change agent reaches for?  Most change professionals have not been trained in applying systems thinking techniques because it is viewed as an engineering or academic practice. It provides a framework for the introduction of lean techniques, which have become popular to deliver the maximum business value. Lean provides tool and philosophy and systems thinking provides the breadth of scope to apply those tools.  Systems thinking provides process improvement with both a scope by defining what a system is and a business related goal for improvement, to improve the delivery of business value. (more…)

Sometimes you have to seek a little harder to understand the big picture.

Sometimes you have to seek a little harder to understand the big picture.

We should be guided by theory, not by numbers. – W.E. Deming

Many process improvement programs falter when, despite our best efforts, they don’t improve the overall performance of IT. The impact of fixing individual processes can easily get lost in the weeds; the impact overtaken by the inertia of the overall systems. Systems thinking is a way to view the world, including organizations, from a broad perspective that includes structures, patterns, and events.  Systems thinking is all about the big picture. Grasping the big picture is important when approaching any change program.  It becomes even more critical when the environment you are changing is complex and previous attempts at change have been less than successful. The world that professional developers operate within is complex, even though the goal of satisfying the projects stakeholders, on the surface, seems so simple. Every element of our work is part of a larger system that visibly and invisibly shapes our individual and organizational opportunities and risks.  The combination of complexity and the nagging issues that have dogged software-centric product development and maintenance suggest that real innovation will only come through systems thinking. (more…)

 

Credit card billing systems are a useful way to explore systems thinking.

Credit card billing systems are a useful way to explore systems thinking.

The world made up of interlocking systems. At more finite level, such as a company or product, understanding systems is crucial for being effective and efficient.  For example, have you ever observed a team spend time researching, prototyping, piloting and then implementing a change to improve a product’s delivery rate, only to find that the process change yields little to no big picture impact? The second or third time you make this observation it drives the point home that optimizing steps within a system doesn’t always translate into better overall performance.  We need to think of the system as a whole.  Systems thinking pushes us to take a more holistic path.

A system is a group of interacting, interrelated, and interdependent components that form a complex and unified whole.  Russell Ackoff, the management guru, defined a system as “an entity which is composed of at least two elements and a relation that holds between each of its elements and at least one other element in the set. Each of a system’s elements is connected to every other element, directly or indirectly. Furthermore, no subset of elements is unrelated to any other subset.”  A critical core to these definitions is that a system is a number of related components that interact.  I add that the core of most (if not all) systems operate within a larger systems ecology that they interact with and which provide feedback and guidance. (more…)

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