Intervening in a complex system: 5 Ps
Art of Harvesting, Art of Hosting, Complexity, Conversation, Design, Emergence, Evaluation, Featured, Leadership, Stories
When I was up in Whitehorse last week I got to spend time with folks from the Public Service Commission discussing a project that would see us looking at discriminations in the workplace from a complexity angle. Using Cynefin and SenseMaker(tm), we hope to understand the ways in which the landscape of discrimination shifts and changes over time so that the PSC can make wiser decisions about the kinds of initiatives it sculpts. One of the problems with diversity initiatives in the public service (in any large public organization really) is the feeling that they need to be broad based and rolled out to everyone. This usually results in a single initiative that spreads across the whole organization, but except for a little awareness raising, does little to address specific instances of discrimination. Everything from awareness raising “cultural competency training” to zero tolerance accountability measures have limited effect because a) discriminatory behaviour is highly context and situation dependant and b) the public service has a permeable boundary to the outside world, meaning ideas, behaviours and people move between the two contexts all the time. The larger your organization, the more like the real world you have to be.
At any rate, I took a bit of time to do a mini-Cynefin teaching to explain how strategy works in the complex domain. and my friend Pawa Haiyupis and I added two Ps to my concentric circles of intervention in a complex system. So to review:
- Patterns: Study the patterns in a complex setting using narrative capture and sense-making. This can be done with the SenseMaker(tm) software, and it can also be done with dialogic interventions. The key thing is to let the people themselves tag their stories or at the very least have a group of people reviewing data and finding patterns together. For example, you might notice a correlation between stressful times in an organization and an increase in feelings of discriminatory behaviour
- Probe: Once you have identified some patterns, you can make some hypotheses about what might work and it’s time to develop some safe to fail probes. These aren’t meant to be successful: they are meant to tell you whether or not the patterns you are sensing have developmental potential. Failure is entirely welcome. What if we offered stress reduction activities during high stress times to help release pent up feelings? We want to be okay with te possibility that that might not work.
- Prototype: If a probe shows some promise, you might develop a prototype to develop a concept. Prototypes are designed to have tolerance for failure, in that failure helps you to iterate and improve the concept. The goal is to develop something that is working.
- Pilot: A pilot project is usually a limited time proof of concept. Roll it out over a year and see what you learn. In Pilot projects you can begin to use some summative evaluation methods to see what has changed over time. Because of their intensive resource commitment, pilot projects are hardly ever allowed to fail, making them very poor ways of learning and innovating, but very good ways to see how stable we need to make an approach.
- Project/Program/Policy: Whatever the highest level and most stable form of an initiative is, you will get to there if your pilot shows promise, and the results are clear. Work at this level will last over time, but needs regular monitoring so that an organization knows when it’s time to tinker and when it’s time to change it.
Cynefin practitioners will recognize that what I’m writing about here is the flow between the complicated and the complex domains, (captured by Dave Snowden’s Blue dynamic in this post.) My intention is to give this some language and context in service organizations, where design thinking has replaced the (in some ways more useful) intuitive planning and innovation used in non-profits and the public service.
Since October, when I first starting sketching out these ideas, I’ve learned a few things which might be helpful as you move through these circles.
- Dialogue is helpful at every scale. When you are working in a complex system, dialogue ensures that you are getting dissent, contrary views and outlying ideas into the process. Complex problems cannot be addressed well with a top-down roll out of a change initiative or highly controlled implementations of a single person’s brilliant idea. If at any point people are working on any stage of this alone, you are in danger territory and you need another pair of eyes on it at the very least.
- Evaluation is your friend and your enemy. At every stage you need to be making meaning and evaluating what is going on, but it is critically important to use the right evaluation tools. Developmental evaluation tools – with their emphasis on collective sense making, rapid feedback loops and visible organizational and personal learning – are critical in any complexity project, and they are essential in the first three stages of this process. As you move to more and more stable projects, you can use more traditional summative evaluation methods, but you must always be careful not to manage to towards targets. Such an error results in data like “We had a 62% participation rate in our diversity training” which tells you nothing about how you changed things, but can shift the project focus to trying to acheive a 75% participation rate next cycle. This is an especially pervasive metric in engagement processes. And so you must…
- Monitor, monitor, monitor. Intervening in a complex system always means acting without the certainty that what you are doing is helpful. You need data and you need it on a short term and regular basis. This can be accomplished by formal and informal ongoing conversations and story captures about what is happening in the system (are we hearing more stories like the ones we want?) or through a SenseMaker(tm) monitoring project that allows employees to end their data with a little data capture.
- These practices are nested, not linear. An always to remember that this is not a five step process to intervening in a complex system. In a large organization, you can expect all of these things to be going on all the time. Building the capacity for that is a kind of holy grail and would constitute a 21st century version of the Learning Organization in my books.