Do OD: Exploring patterns that connect

Gareth Evans

30 / 3 / 2016 Midnight

Gareth Evans is the senior organisational development officer at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Gareth’s OD work is characterised by the use of systems thinking and dialogical models of change and improvement.  Gareth encourages those he works with to seek out multiple perspectives and believes that this way of working will be increasingly needed if the NHS and wider services are to become truly joined up, values-based and person-centred.  

So you’re well on your way to mastering this thing called organisational development.

You know your diagnostics from your dialogic, your 7S from your Weisbord, your structures from your processes and your culture from your Kotter. And just as the dust is settling and you can double-loop your learning, it seems like everyone is now into systems thinking. You hear names like Seddon, Ackoff, Deming and Senge and arcane talk of loops, archetypes, and icebergs. 

Fear not, for you are already a systems thinker and you can go the ball (or at least catch up on the Do OD systems thinking event/ball).  

Whenever you work with managers, leaders, and clinicians to understand the connection between employee engagement, effective appraisal, team working and staff development you are engaging in systems thinking.  You are connecting the parts, seeing the bigger picture and appreciating the whole. 

Donella Meadows, an early pioneer in the field, describes a system as, ‘a set of things – people, cells, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time’.  

From this we can see that systems have aims and organise themselves to achieve these.  Systems function on feedback – circular patterns of information that loop and connect. They have delays built into them so potential unintended consequences of interventions may only appear in time.

In systems, understanding emerges when you take the time to see underneath events, notice the patterns and trends and examine how these parts interact as dynamic structures, illuminating the mental models that become cultural habits of practice and thought.

All this is yours to discover as you continue developing the qualities needed of systems thinkers - curiosity, playfulness, a desire to keep asking questions.  Be mindful that your working model of what’s going on is just an approximation of the system seeking the wisdom of multiple perspectives, views and narratives to add further depth.

An example of systems thinking in practice

You’re meeting a newly appointed manager to explore team dynamics. The manager mentions a staff member she ‘inherited’ from her predecessor and goes on to mention the different ways in which this person has been previously ‘managed’.  

Together you explore the quick-fix solutions that, despite some initial improvements, have all failed to address symptomatic behaviour.

  • ‘We tried relocating her to a different part of the office’.
  • ‘We gave her an audit project to complete away from the team’.
  • ‘We offered a secondment opportunity’.  

When you examine this pattern you identify that no-one has been willing to address the fundamental issues around behaviour, attitude and performance management. As time has passed it has become harder and harder to do something meaningful, you notice the tendency to keep applying symptomatic solutions. 

Then you discover you have been working with a common pattern that crystallises in organisations – a ‘system archetype’ named shifting the burden.  

You can map out this pattern (as illustrated here) and help the manager explore how to slow down the cycle of quick-fixes and strengthen their courage and ability to do the hard stuff – addressing the fundamental issues.

  Apply Symptomatic solution graphic

This is where systems thinking really comes into its own, increasing knowledge and your understanding of what is going on in teams, services and organisations. Once you have this information then knowing how, when, where and with whom to seek the conditions for transformation.  

So go seek the bigger picture, explore the patterns, look underneath events for those structures and mental models, and remember, ‘wisdom only arises in the intelligence of the system as a whole’ (Gregory Bateson).  

Gareth was a key speaker at the Do OD Knowing systems thinking event, download his presentation and access all the learning from the event on out Do OD web pages.

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