John Wenger concludes his circumspect view of organisational development.
It's an interesting paradox that every manager will be subject to the forces that act upon and within the system they operate, while at the same time, systems thinking suggests that the job of a manager is to manage that very same system. To borrow from Homer Simpson: "Ah, the system. The cause of and solution to all of our problems." This is especially challenging because, just as a system cannot observe itself, it is hard for a manager who is within the system to get a good big picture view of it. It is also hard for a manager who lives the effects of the system to extricate him or herself from it.
For example, in a business where people struggle to keep to deadlines, senior managers will often struggle with the same thing. In a system characterised by crossed lines and miscommunication, managers will similarly experience the same frustrations as everyone else while at the same time causing said frustration in others, sometimes failing to see themselves behaving in the same way. If the senior leaders cannot see this dynamic, it will continue to be a blind spot and, unseen, will remain unaddressed.
"By taking up the role of steward, I believe leaders will be much better placed to take the bigger picture view that is required in order to effect the transformation of the system."
When Deming said that "the prevailing style of management must undergo transformation," I believe he was pointing the way to a sea change in what managers believe their jobs to be: from "Doer-in-Chief" to "Steward of the Culture" or "System Steward". By taking up the role of steward, I believe leaders will be much better placed to take the bigger picture view that is required in order to effect the transformation of the system. The place to exert influence is not at the level of what people do (their tasks and function), but at the level of values and mindsets.
A leader who sees themselves as Chief Doer will orient their management practice more to what people do. If they take up the role of steward instead, they will diagnose the working of the whole, not viewing the business as a bunch of bits, some of which appear to be working well and some which appear to be dysfunctional. One particular manager who I believe to be a really effective system steward would say that without his big picture perspective, the appearance of a well-functioning "part" may only be smoke and mirrors.
Not for nothing do they say that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is the thing out of which emerge the results, so the systems leader will focus their attention on the cause and not try to manage the results. No amount of intense planning can mitigate for the cultural, or systemic, phenomena which impact far more on what gets done and how it gets done. Once again, the point of leverage is not at the "doing" level; it's at the culture level. One of the challenges of a systems steward is to identify the most likely drivers for real change from a bigger picture perspective and to develop and nurture organisational processes and patterns that support a healthy and effective culture. An overly deterministic and linear results-based management style will not achieve this.
Establishing a set of guiding principles and values, formulating and communicating a vision and direction, promoting ongoing learning and setting rough boundaries within which the business will operate are the way ahead if a manager wishes to behave as a systems steward. I'm watching that manager I just mentioned doing these things and it gives me heart.
"Don't underestimate the amount of attention that should be put into positive working relationships throughout the system. And once established, they also need to be maintained."
A systems steward attempts to overcome systems blindness, that inability to see what we are currently mired in. One of the symptoms of systems blindness is that people within a business fail to see or misinterpret key relationships within the business. In other words, staff begin to mistrust senior management, senior management begin to mistrust middle management, sales staff begin to mistrust administrative support staff and so on. This occurs because when afflicted with systems blindness people lose sight of one of the key binding agents: relationships. Don't underestimate the amount of attention that should be put into positive working relationships throughout the system. And once established, they also need to be maintained. Always.
A leader who acts as systems steward will also aim to assist the system in reconnecting with itself, help it understand itself better. This can be facilitated by ensuring that processes related to feedback, information sharing and knowledge management are in place and functioning well. These things lie at the heart of transformation and ongoing renewal. If relationships are the connective tissue of a business, information and knowledge are its nutrients.
Are you a systems steward type of leader?
John Wenger is a director at Quantum Shift. This article first appeared on John's blog, which you can access here