Opportunity knocks: connecting people and the system

“Don’t wait for the right opportunity: create it.” George Bernard Shaw

In today’s world, we spend so much time thinking and working in our bubbles – whether that bubble is a team, a silo, a site, a family – that this construct is cutting off the diversity from outside these system boundaries. The zoom in / zoom out allows us to act like a kaleidoscope and continuously take into account all elements and therefore more perspectives and possibilities.

It reminds me of when I visited the gardens by the bay in Singapore at night: not only was I in awe of what I saw by day, but the unexpected mix at night was even more impressive – the trees and the electric lights would not naturally co-exist. So many dots, so many possibilities for connection, so many “light bulb” moments, yet so little time – even more reason to be intentional about creating these connections and engineering a space for opportunity.

 I like to think of the analogy with our bodies. I remember the first time I learnt about the muscles and how they work in symbiotic pairs, or the neural labyrinth of miracles that is our brain and how everything is essentially connected to everything else. This creates a ‘dynamic’ of patterns, and systems are just that: ‘dynamic’ and evolving constantly. They are forever interacting and are interconnected mazes, as new connections, new relationships and new sub-systems emerge.

Through all my work on inclusion, it always comes back to different perspectives and understanding two things: how our thinking creates our reality and how distance from our own mental models can turn paradigms on their head.

It is always worth buddying up to try to get a different perspective and to break your own patterns and self-limiting beliefs. Whenever I get stuck in my own narrative and can’t find my way out into a bigger, healthier mental space, I grab the phone and reach out to one of my peers/colleagues or friends to give me a helping hand and also a helping brain! I always remember struggling with a situation where I felt personally impacted, and I couldn’t understand why this hadn’t worked. I was ruminating and wanted to move on. In fact, I tried incessantly to “figure out” how to, but to no avail. It took a firm, uncomfortable and challenging discussion with a trusted peer who suggested that I should try and get curious about the issue. This was clearly the last thing I felt like doing – I was defensive, emotional, and quite frankly peeved! My ego was in overdrive. But this was exactly when I most needed to step back, notice what I noticed, and get curious about the space and the opportunities it could hold…

Today is about constantly moving from one to the other and being comfortable doing so. We need to be able to think as systems and connect the dots. This need has never been more pressing, fuelling as it does the networked organisations phase. The decentralisation of power, knowledge and information means that we need to equip leaders with what I call a “kaleidoscope skill set“.

Zooming in/zooming out

 The analogy with organisations and informal power politics is almost immediate: how much time do we spend ruminating, figuring out, and then deciding how to get back into the arena, and wearing which mask? Changing perception is hard, particularly when we’re under pressure.

We need to constantly move between perspectives and models, from complicated to complex sensemaking – today we are formatted to understand, manage and frame the complicated, not the complex. Often we don’t have or take the time to connect the dots – or we don’t communicate it.

Christian Busch tells us in his book on connecting the dots that “the most inspiring, purpose-driven people seem to have something in common, which is that they intuitively cultivate serendipity, they intuitively see a little bit more in the unexpected, and then connect the dots and turn them into positive outcomes” (listen to the podcast here). Christian frames the process for deliberately creating curiosity and consciously cultivating serendipity and then applies it to organisations.

This is not just about noticing the opportunities, but also about connecting the dots and making it happen. It was through this deliberate process that I came up with my mantra, which has served me well, of “don’t tell me it’s impossible when it’s not”. There is always someone to tell you how unattainable something is, or how it will never work, or how no-one will take your idea seriously, but follow your intuition and use the ‘yes and’ principle of design thinking – again, a mindset and a different cognitive process. Have you ever asked your team when they’re stuck to go quickly around the table using ‘yes and’ instead of ‘yes but’? It sounds simple, and it is simple to say, but hard to do – a fundamental leadership skill. It allows you to reframe, reinterpret, question and ultimately reinvent the way you think, act and interact – pivotal for managing uncertainty.

An Agile space where two cultures can thrive?

Agile lends itself very well to both uncertainty and serendipity if you take on not only the principles, but also the mindset. As Steve Jobs tells us, “innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat”. We must look to have these two essentially antagonistic cultures – continuous improvement and innovation – co-exist. This is made more difficult by the fact that they are also plagued by system antibodies and the ‘not invented here’ policy. Furthermore, differing as they do in terms of governance and structure, decision-making, leadership style and the place of hierarchy, how can we create a different space using the hooks described in the science of serendipity?

We tap into the collective memory of an organisational system when we build communities of practice and change in organisations. How often do we come up with great ideas and end up keeping them under the radar until they fit into the ‘way we do things around here’ enough to get a look in from the decision-makers higher up the food chain?

These processes also help us step out of our normal mental models and experience something different, which is key to change. How many times have we heard that ‘we need to fail fast’ and ‘learn how to fail’, or rather as I see it, relearn how to use failure differently, and as a lever for learning. Culturally, this is not the case in most organisations.

 We all need to remember that everyone has unconscious bias, and that the system also has bias. In fact, we all react from a place of negative bias because that is the way the brain is wired. Edgar Schein’s cultural model tells us that to understand culture is to understand the unwritten codes – the basic implicit assumptions of a culture. This can be as simple as what you wear, what car you drive, or who you go for lunch with. We are again back to assumptions, which are by their very nature implicit, unless we make them explicit deliberately.

 One of the easiest ways of doing this is by creating a dialogue within the system and a different space for this to happen. There are numerous team building and team-based activities which touch on this issue but often don’t get down to the uncomfortable core of what assumptions are there, either individually or collectively. We don’t listen to the system. Do you see teams skirting around questions and leaving things unsaid, leading to toxic behaviour? Do you see people looking at the more innovative parts of the organisation and coining it as ‘not proper work’?

Let’s not underestimate the power of standing back from our mental patterns and stepping into a place of uncertainty that is full of opportunities. In the words of Paulo Coelho, “that’s not having to think about how much can be missed, simply because we were afraid of missing it”.

 Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course : https://bit.ly/HSP_TFV

Suzie Lewis

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