Tag Archives | Systems Thinking

Three Business Terms I Promise Not to Use


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Call me a heretic, especially considering my line of work, but I’m about to share three terms that make my eyes roll back in my head:

Mission Critical

Critical Success Factors

Key Performance Indicators (and its evil acronym, “KPIs”)

Don’t get me wrong. The ideas behind these terms are valuable. But they are overused, and unfortunately (too often) used to impress people and protect sacred cows.

Mission Critical

What does it mean? It’s pretty self-explanatory: Something is critical to the success of your mission. Ah, but one should never use a word in its own definition. According to Wikipedia, it is “any factor of a system (equipment, process, procedure, software, etc.) whose failure will result in the failure of business operations.” The label lends an immediate air of importance to whatever it has been applied.

And, in my experience, it is too frequently used just to make something sound important; it is applied to things without any justification; and too often (in my humble opinion) organizations focus on projects and objectives that have been deemed Mission Critical without either articulating that Mission or involving their people with the Mission.

I recently was Followed on Twitter by an impressive leadership consultant and coach. I followed him back, but almost revoked it when I saw “mission-critical” in his web-page’s About section. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt when I saw that his most recent blog post was about passion.

Critical Success Factors

Again, that’s a pretty self-explanatory term: Critical Success Factors are things (people, processes, accomplishments, etc.,) that are critical to the success of your Mission Critical thing. Or, as Wikipedia says, “Critical success factors are those few things that must go well to ensure success for a manager or an organization.”

Again, this is an important label. Pronouncing something a Critical Success Factor says that without this person, process, accomplishment, etc., our seriously important thing is Doomed to Failure.

The real danger is not the snooze-factor that comes from over-use of this term. The real danger is its dialogue-stopping, investigation-stopping power. This Critical Success Factor is too important to question. We must protect it because it is, well, critical.

Key Performance Indicators

This is a relatively innocuous term that, like the others, simply means what it says on the surface: A Key Performance Indicator is a measurement (item on a report) that tells us how we’re doing. Not only in general but, because it’s a Key Performance Indicator, it must be about one of our Mission Critical, Critical Success Factors.

Wikipedia differentiates between Critical Success Factors and Key Performance Indicators in this way: “Critical success factors are elements that are vital for a strategy to be successful” whereas “KPIs, on the other hand, are measures that quantify management objectives and enable the measurement of strategic performance.”

Here, too, there is a danger that comes with the aura of Super-Importance conferred by the term itself. This measurement is a Key Performance Indicator and so we must give special attention to collecting the data around it and make decisions based upon what it tells us. Too often, though, other important signposts are overlooked.

This term, like the first two, is too often used by managers and consultants alike to confer importance on not only the items under discussion but on themselves as well.

For example, I was once telling a colleague about a process I was planning to help a client identify the skills that had the biggest impact on team members’ ability to do their jobs and which of those skills should be focused on for training or coaching.

“Oh, you mean the KPI’s,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you should say that, then,” she said. “Otherwise your clients won’t respect you.”

Seriously?

Common language can be valuable, and…

Having common language can be very valuable. I encourage everyone, however, to be curious the next time you hear or read one of these terms, and ask a lot of questions:

What IS our mission?

Are we all on the same page with that?

How do we know?

Is this “mission critical” process, achievement, or (fill in the blank) really vital to that mission?

How do we know?

What are the things (people, processes, attitudes, perceptions, accomplishments, etc.) that are vital to that mission?

Are they measurable? How?

How will we define success?

What have we overlooked?

These are just some examples. There are many more that can (and should) be asked, and the asking, the curiosity, is the important part.

Here is an exercise for you

The next time you hear the term “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” or “Key Performance Indicator,” see if you can find another way to say it. Then ask whether that term applies to the thing in question.

Powerful Language

The terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” and “Key Performance Indicator” seem like powerful language, but they are not. At least, not the power I choose.

I choose powerful language that makes people sit up and say, “Yeah!” “I can’t wait to find out!” “I want to know! So we can build something important!”

Do the terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor” and “Key Performance Indicator” do that for you?

If I’m talking with a client who manages an auto-body shop, or a salon, or a law firm, do you think he or she wants me to impress them with fancy words and jargon? No, I suspect not. So far they have responded enthusiastically to plain English.

My Promise

I promise never to use the terms “Mission Critical,” “Critical Success Factor,” or “Key Performance Indicator.” If I do, you have my permission snore very loudly. And then drive me crazy with questions.

What do you think? Please leave a comment!

Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Stop Making Sense


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Have you ever been stymied by logic that you know must be flawed but it successfully keeps the status quo in place? By getting to the hidden beliefs behind that logic, we can begin to make a difference.

Here are two true stories that can help demonstrate this. Consider the following:

Story #1

Once upon a time there was a social services agency in a famous city. This city was very proud of its image but, despite its image and beloved status, it had – and has – a very real Skid Row area. The agency served the Skid Row population, and it was located in a down and dirty neighborhood that was, among other things, strewn with litter.

One day, someone noticed that there were no trash receptacles on the street in this neighborhood. A delegation from the agency was sent to the city to ask that garbage cans be installed on street corners in the neighborhood.

The city, in its infinite wisdom, said “No.” The reason was, “If we put out garbage cans, people will just put garbage in them.”

? ? ?

Story #2

Once upon a time, there was a large company that prided itself on its quality customer service and the strength of its customer relationships. This company, despite its image, did occasionally have unhappy customers. Those customers occasionally reached out to the company have their complaints addressed.

The company had a toll-free number specifically for complaint calls, but that number was unpublished. It wasn’t in any of the company’s printed materials, nor was it on the company’s website. Because it was difficult to find, it was not unusual for otherwise calm and reasonable people with reasonable concerns to be frustrated and even furious by the time they got to someone who could address their issue.

It was proposed to The Powers That Be that the “hotline” number and email address should be made available on the company’s website.

The Powers That Be, in their infinite wisdom, said “No.” The reason was, “If we publish that number, people will call.”

? ? ?

What the…?

Those two scenarios are head-scratchers – each seems like a simple, common-sense solution that is illogically rejected.

Yet, the reasoning behind each rejection has a certain logic to it. On the surface, at least, it is about resources.

If the city had strategically placed trash receptacles around the neighborhood, it would have had to spend money to not only purchase the trash cans but also provide pick-up service – an additional labor expense. That wasn’t in the budget.

If the company had published its toll-free number and customer service email address, it might have had to hire another person to handle the increased volume of calls. That wasn’t in the budget, whereas the hidden costs of people routing calls was spread across various budgets.

In both cases, the seemingly simple logic trumps any arguments to the contrary. And so the status quo is maintained. Such improvements rarely make it into the budget for next year, however. Why? Because of the unexamined beliefs that surround them.

It is these beliefs that provide the structural support for the tunnel vision that keeps the status quo in place. What might those beliefs be?

  • This is Eden! We don’t have garbage here. (Denial.)
  • People who litter are moral degenerates who create their own problems.
  • People who create their own problems have to live with the consequences.
  • We, therefore, only need to do the minimum necessary to protect ourselves (from rats, from disease, from bad publicity).

So let’s look at the possible belief system for our second scenario:

  • We don’t have complaints; our customers love us. (Denial.)
  • People who complain are crackpots who have created their own problems.
  • People who create their own problems deserve what they get.
  • We, therefore, only need to do the minimum necessary to protect ourselves (from lawsuits, from bad publicity).

There is a certain logic to this belief system, even if that logic is flawed. But one thing I remember from my first college philosophy course was this: If one premise in an argument is flawed, then the conclusion cannot be true. In the scenarios above, the first premise is certainly not true, and the second premise is, at the very least, debatable.

But here’s an important consideration: I can speculate all day long, but if I don’t get verification of those beliefs, then I am only acting on my own beliefs and not on sound and current data. It is essential to respectfully investigate the real beliefs that underlie a system or decision or I may also be operating on flawed logic.

Stop Making Sense

Only if one looks for and examines the underlying belief system that supports a decision can one begin to understand why the situation never changes. Change will always be resisted until the underlying beliefs are addressed.

So, what to do? When faced with such logic and belief systems, there are three primary options:

  • Accept the situation as it is and collude with the system.
  • Accept the situation only long enough to leave.
  • Pay attention to the underlying beliefs and act accordingly. This option has two sub-options:
    • Keep a low profile, do not rock the boat, but handle individual situations according to a different belief system and make a difference for individuals. This is the path of Corrective Actions.
    • Hold those beliefs up and expose them to the light of day. Sunlight is, after all, the best disinfectant. This is the path of Root Cause Analysis and Preventive Actions.

The last option takes energy and it can make you unpopular if not done with Patience, Persistence and, most importantly, Compassion.

Patience, Persistence and Compassion

The patience, persistence and compassion are very important: We must remember that the people who buy into these belief systems aren’t trying to be difficult, and they aren’t trying to hurt others. It would be easy to say they are dumb, or bigoted, or lazy. But often they are really trying to do a good job – to protect the organization, to save money, to be efficient. Those positive intentions should be honored. But they cannot be accepted at face value without colluding with the system.

Effective Organization Development can help. OD is about improving human systems, which is best done by strengthening the human processes through which people get their work done. (Check out this Definition of OD at the Center for Human Systems for more about that.) These human processes are driven by beliefs that often are not expressly stated, so part of the work of the effective OD practitioner (and of anyone who is trying to improve human systems) is to uncover the beliefs that drive the human processes. In other words, negative, dysfunctional beliefs must be uncovered so that the human processes can truly be improved.

The $64,000 Question

Here is my question for you: How do you shine sunlight on underlying beliefs without everyone involved getting sunburned?

Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos


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The other day I was talking to a friend who loves jazz, and it got me thinking.

One of the many things we touched on is how, unlike classical music, which is played pretty much as written on the page, jazz is by nature improvisational. This means that players weave an ever-changing tapestry around a single theme. It is a group discussion, where participants take turns talking. Like a group discussion, it works best when all of the participants listen to each other and respect each other’s turns.

I was reminded of how I recently saw a foursome comprised of McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Francisco Mela, and how I was struck by how smoothly they managed the transitions between full-on playing by the group and solos supported by the others. The solos were long and far-ranging, sometimes played with clear intention and sometimes with wild abandon. The four clearly listened to each other playing, they played to support the others when it was not their solo, and they watched for signals about the transitions.

Jazz musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom but, like freedom in other contexts, it works best when that freedom is exercised with awareness of and respect for the other members of the group and for the group itself.

And within that context, magic can happen.

It occurred to me as we were talking that jazz requires systems thinking. It requires awareness of the system, and awareness of how changes affect that system.

It requires agreement from the participants to support the system and each other.

When participants don’t support each other and the system and they focus only on themselves, indulging in tunnel vision, the result is noise. Chaos.

And yet – jazz also requires living at the edge of chaos.

How aware are you of the systems of which you are a part? Whether the system is a work group, an organization, a committee, your family, or a sports team, how well does that system work if the members don’t think beyond themselves? At the same time, how flexible are those systems? Do they support creativity, innovation, improvisation?

Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking


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Yes, Systems Thinking. Disguised as chess.

One of the great challenges that faces small business people – and big business people – is tunnel vision. Ever wondered how it can be dangerous, and how you can overcome it? Consider the following…

I’m reading “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.” No, I’m not a brainiac. I’m just a person who has taken up chess again after more than 30 years and I’m tired of getting my pants beaten off. So my chess partner recommended this book, and after a few more humiliating defeats I went out and bought it.

I go to bed with Bobby Fischer. I ride the train with Bobby Fischer. And I have to say, this is a great book. It’s very simple, consisting of picture after picture of scenarios where you’re asked to identify whether or how one side could either checkmate the other or escape checkmate. You’re given the answer on the next page.

Like I said, very simple. My six year old niece could probably absorb this very quickly and then she could beat my pants off, too.

Well, I’ve been reading the book, and one of the key lessons that are being pounded into my head is to remember to Watch The Entire Board. Brilliant strategies fail miserably when you overlook the one thing in that corner over there and a Bishop zooms in and takes your Queen. Ouch!

I was struck by another important lesson the other day. Bobby and I were taking the train into the city, and I was getting a lot of the answers right – more than half, anyway. There was one scenario where I was pretty sure the answer was, “No, White can not checkmate” Black in this scenario. I turned the page and…. Doh! Wrong again! What? Surely not! Oh. Again I was looking at the board with tunnel vision, thinking about the possibilities only in certain ways, and I completely forgot that a Queen can move diagonally as well as forward and backward. Doh! That’s pretty basic.

And so I would have missed an opportunity to solve a situation quickly because I forgot about the capabilities of one of my pieces.

Which made me think: How often do we in organizations fail to utilize all of the talents of the people on our teams because we overlook their ability to move diagonally as well as up and down? How often do we limit ourselves by forgetting our own capabilities? How often do we miss opportunities because we don’t even see the opening in that corner? Or we see it, but think, “Oh, I can’t do that” or “I don’t know anyone who can help.”

If you’re feeling stuck or at a loss for ideas, I highly recommend that you spend $7.99 on “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” – and that you read it. Not so you can obliterate your opponent, or even avoid getting shellacked by your opponent. But it may change the way you look at situations and people – including yourself.

And you’ll look like a brainiac on the train.

What Spiders Can Teach Us About Building a Great Team


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I know, you’re thinking, “But spiders are solitary creatures. What can they teach us about building a great team?”

About 15 years ago I rented an 18-foot truck, my sister and I loaded it up with the contents of my storage locker, and we set out to drive it from Seattle to Minneapolis. Yep, two chicks on cross-country trip. (In a truck, no less.) Although there were no guns and no convertibles, the comparisons to Thelma and Louise were endless.

Well, we had been on the road for a short while and I was behind the wheel, happily driving along, when one of us turned on the air conditioning.

And a bunch of spiders blew out at us.

I hate spiders. They are the only thing I know of that will make me scream. So you can imagine what happened: I immediately screamed and started brushing away spiders.

While I was driving.

Luckily for me, my sister is not afraid of spiders and never has been. In fact, she was My Protector growing up, as she was the one who would capture the wolf spiders that inhabited our old house and release them outside. (Of course, I think she’s also the reason I’m afraid of spiders, since she put a daddy-long-legs on my neck when we were playing Truth or Dare or something when I was very little.)

Anyway. My sister could have grabbed the wheel, but instead she very calmly (at least in comparison) said, “You drive, I’ll take care of the spiders.” And I did. And she did. We still laugh about that sometimes (and I get the heebie-jeebies).

“But what,” you might ask, “does that have to do with building a great team?”

Well, think about it. My sister and I are a great team, and we were an especially great team at that moment, because we had different strengths. I was able to remain (relatively) calm and keep driving even with the heebie-jeebies, and she was able to restrain what would have been a natural impulse to grab the wheel and instead dealt with the spiders. Imagine the consequences if neither one of us was able to deal with the spiders, or if I was not able to maintain my composure and keep driving, or if she had tried to grab control. Great teams are composed of people with complementary skills. Even members of teams that appear to all do the same thing, say, the Rockettes, have different responsibilities. After all, someone has to be the pivot person on the end, right? (Never having been a Rockette, I’m just guessing. But you get my point.)

The great challenge in building a team with complementary skills isn’t just that, however.

The First Great Challenge of Building a Great Team: Avoid the temptation to hire people just like you.

The Second Great Challenge of Building a Great Team: Anticipate the surprise scenarios and plan for them by putting in place the people who can handle them.

My sister and I didn’t plan to have a nest of spiders come blowing out into our laps, of course. (Seriously, I would have asked for a different truck, thank you very much.) You can’t plan for everything. But knowing you have people on your team with a variety of skills and personalities that can cover a lot of possibilities not only makes your team stronger, it also makes life a lot more interesting.

Do you agree?

March Madness, or How the Final Four Made Me Think About Systems Thinking


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Disclaimer: I know very little about sports like basketball and baseball, and I am likely to show more about what I don’t know than what I do know. But here goes.

Recently I was watching my favorite news show (Charlie Rose, who is a big basketball fan), and the first topic was an analysis of the Final Four. Which teams had the best players, the best coaches, the best strategies, the best teamwork. And it occurred to me that basketball is really about Systems Thinking.

There are a lot of skills that are required in basketball, including the individual skills like shooting, dribbling, jumping, rebounding, and so on. There are a lot of interpersonal skills, whether offensive, like passing, or defensive, like guarding. But what really makes a team work is teamwork. Systems Thinking.

Thinking about things like, Where are the other players on my team at every given moment? Where are the players on the other team? Where are they likely to go next? Oh, and Where is the ball in relationship to all of those people? What are the possibilities if we can get the ball positioned over here instead of over there? What are the possibilities if the other team moves it this way rather than that way?

It isn’t just about “How do I get the ball?” or “What do I do once I’ve got the ball in order to get the shot?” It’s about “Where do I need to be whether I’ve got the ball or not?” and “What series of moves do we need to make together even it if means somebody else takes the shot?” and “How do we close the gap so the other team can’t take the shot?”

Systems Thinking.

Baseball is a little different, because there isn’t the constant opportunity for turning over from defense to offense and back again at any given moment. An entire team is on defense and one person on offense has the opportunity to hit the ball. The defensive players just have to be ready to catch the ball and get it to the right place to throw the runner out. (I know, I just ignored the crucial role of the pitcher in keeping the batter from hitting the ball in the first place.) This becomes increasingly complex, however, when the offensive team has runners on base. The pitcher has to anticipate who might try to steal, and the other defensive players have to be ready if the ball comes to them and choose the most important position to get the ball to in order to throw a runner out. It’s even harder when there is a series of actions that need to happen – in the right order – and this is why a triple play is so exciting.

Systems Thinking.

Do you find yourself standing in the outfield, terrified you’ll drop the fly-ball? Or even more terrified you’ll catch it and have to decide where to throw it next? Are you a player who only thinks about rushing the ball to the basket and taking the shot? Do you, as a manager, have a team that runs smoothly, passing the ball and being able to effectively assess where it needs to go next based on constantly changing scenarios? Or is your team so mired in process that they can’t respond quickly to changing conditions? Are they all individual contributors, some always taking the ball, some never even thinking about where the ball came from or where it goes once they pass it? Are they terrified if it comes to them?

A player who lacks individual competence and confidence will likely only think systemically in order to protect him or herself, whereas a player who has individual competence and confidence may not think about the rest of the system at all.

Systems Thinking. It requires a level of individual competence and confidence from each of the players, and it also requires thinking about the other parts of the system and the ability to think forward in time.

How good is your team at it?

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