Transforming systems : Old habits die hard

transforming systems

“We have been trained to think of patterns, with the exception of music, as fixed affairs. It is easier that way but, of course, all nonsense. The right way… to think about the pattern which connects is to think of it as… a dance of interacting parts…”

Gregory Bateson

Do you remember when you first learnt something new, when it seemed shiny and novel, yet hard and disciplined at the same time? There is the constant thrill of oscillating between doing small things well, celebrating and then becoming overwhelmed by the bigger picture. A lot of transformation initiatives and change makers follow this path. We put together a plan, are inspired by the overall vision and then dive into the quick wins, buzzing from being able to ‘act’ so quickly and deliver results. However, once we have got over the busyness and satisfaction of delivering things quickly and seeing tangible results, we struggle to return to the bigger picture and often feel intimidated by the complicated stakeholder networks, processes and systems that we must navigate. This is because the parts are constantly evolving and we are always trying to ‘fix’ them, figure them out and put them into a rigid structure that we can control. Maybe we should think of it more as a dance that evolves as opposed to a system that needs continuously recalibrating. Indeed, to shift underlying patterns, we first need to be able to see them.

Different patterns, different results

I am sure we all have an anecdote or can think of the last time we said ‘yes, that’s just the way I am’ or ‘yes, he/she always does that, it’s just the way they are’. We are describing habitual behavioural patterns, conscious or unconscious, that keep us and our systems exactly where they are. Patterns are by their very nature linear at first glance. Any process – be it a floor plan, a knitting pattern or a technological code – is binary, clear and rational on the surface. However, if we probe deeper into the human pattern, it is not linear at all, but rather an intricate web of tangled habits, thoughts and emotions that make us show up in the way we do and make the system work in the way it does. These cannot be viewed in isolation, which is why taking a step back and observing your own behavioural patterns, as well as those around you, can provide a wealth of information about where to start and where to question assumptions.

Often when we come up against our safety mechanisms, our instinct kicks in and we shrink back. We embark on a period of expansion and creativity, and then the minute we hit our safety mechanisms, the old pattern we recognise – our comfort zone – comes to the fore, designed as it is to keep us the way we’ve always been. Consequently, we retreat and convince ourselves that it’s not the right way to proceed. We carry on trying to fit into the system to create other things and execute our deliverables as opposed to trying to disrupt it. Because when you’re planning all that in your head, you’re on the side lines, like you’re commentating on a rugby match and telling us what they should and shouldn’t be doing and narrating possible outcomes of doing or not doing in this hypothetical space. It is however exactly that, hypothetical, when in order to be impactful it needs to be experiential and ‘in the arena’. In other words, you need to have skin in the game, which is scary and vulnerable, but exciting and exhilarating if you create the conditions to constantly question and break patterns to keep the momentum going. Imagine what could happen if we intentionally decided to stay at the whiteboard and look beyond these habitual patterns, challenge the status quo of the system and look for ideas that are different to the way things are done today.

Systems currency: relationships

Relationships are the currency of organisations and the human systems within them, but like the examples above of constantly zooming in and out of different perspectives and layers in the ecosystem, depth and mastery require patience and come from small beginnings. My mantra for transformation has always been ‘start small’, but the no man’s land between the small things and the bigger ambition can sometimes be full of quicksand and hard to pull yourself out of.

I always remember being fascinated by and in awe of people who did immensely detailed work – carving, making jewellery, surgery, embroidery – and who had the patience to deal with every single detail and understand how it all fitted together before creating the bigger picture. I remember wanting the process to go faster and bypassing parts of it to get to my goal more quickly – a bad habit as it happens! I had to unlearn and relearn this habit to make it more fit for the future and fit for purpose in terms of the systemic change work I wanted to do in organisations.

James Clear tells us in his book, Atomic Habits, to forget about goals and focus on systems. Systems are a way of reaching your goals: if you fix the input, then the outcomes will fix themselves. This applies equally to organisational systems. We often hear ‘trust the process’, which is good advice, but we should also be intentional about observing the patterns and what they produce, both inside and outside this process. Starting small doesn’t mean that we cannot have a big impact and cannot achieve bigger goals, but we have to couple it with the discipline of continually putting the small wins and observations back into the bigger systems picture. This allows us not only to check our assumptions, but also to see where we may be missing perspective. 

Your role in the system

‘It’s all about people’ is the age-old adage, and it’s true, but more particularly it’s about the relationships, behavioural patterns and different perspectives that people bring with them. What got us to where we are today won’t necessarily get us to where we need to be tomorrow, and as workplace systems evolve, so too will our roles and how we influence the system. Think about when you first joined your current work environment and how you perceived and defined your relationship to the system. Now, even if it is only a matter of months, the definitions and relationships will have evolved.

Holistic systems thinking is one of the most important skills when working in ecosystems, and with that understanding comes interpersonal adaptability – being able to understand the perspectives of others and change yours accordingly, both figuratively and physically. Adaptability, and what underpins such an approach, is key for success both as an individual part of a system and as a system as a whole.

This is different from the more tangible and arguably somewhat easier aspects of change, such as changes in processes, governance, tools and systems. The more adaptive and harder aspects of change, such as changes in behaviour, mindset, attitude, and ways of working and thinking, are far more deep-rooted and therefore more difficult to change unless we make an explicit effort to do so.

Digital transformation and innovation are very often viewed as technical challenges in terms of the legacy IT systems to deal with, etc. But what about the legacy human systems? In fact, the biggest waste of resources in digital transformation programmes is trying to use technical tools to solve adaptive problems, akin to trying to push water uphill! People are not engaged or onboarded. With this in mind, what are your levers for influencing your transformation objectives? What is stopping you from moving forward?

A change in a system, an organisation or a behaviour requires a change to a person’s role within the system. I very much like Joan Lurie’s concept of an organisational ecology, which deals with the relations in and between ecosystems, focusing on ‘me and the system’ and not ‘me in the system’ (listen to the podcast here). Metaphorically speaking, this approach entails climbing up onto the balcony, overlooking the system and observing what is happening, which requires a completely different skill set and stance. Only then can we observe the patterns and look at what they mean for us and for the system.

Creating this space to truly understand the different interactions and look at building our relationships differently, building organisational empathy and essentially co-creating an environment where we can thrive and adapt as the system and ways of working evolve, is the fundamental way forward. 

 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 :

Suzie Lewis

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