The Agile movement was built on a premise that skilled, motivated individuals working on teams could self-organize and self-manage in order to deliver value and make their customers happy. Acceptance of this premise means that leaders, who are generally already successful, need to change how they make decisions on a day-to-day basis. Changing how successful leaders and managers work is hard.  Some organizations and leaders have been able to change how they worked and embraced a systems-thinking view of their organization. This change has shifted significant levels of decision making from middle management into the team. The change in the approach to thinking and decision-making Agile is based on several criteria: (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…)

carrying-a-basket-on-his-head

Efficiency a measure of how much wasted effort there is in a process or system. A high efficiency process has less waste. In mechanical terms the simplest definition of efficiency is the ratio of the amount of energy used compared to the amount of work done to create an output. When applied to IT projects, efficiency measures how staffing levels effect how much work can be done. The problem is that while a simple concept, it is difficult because it requires a systems-thinking view of software development processes.  As a result it is difficult to measure directly. (more…)