Learn to See the System

How well do you really know your organization?

You are in the business of life-impacting work. You have everything set up and ready to go: mission, vision, values, goals, objectives, and an impressively bold 3-year strategic plan. But as you work to successfully implement initiatives, processes, and plans, do you fully understand how various parts of your organization impact other parts of your organization?

If the Pareto Principle holds true (80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes), then it might serve us well as organizational leaders to better recognize just how, precisely, our organizational system is uniquely designed, connected, and linked at all levels across the system.

Developing a comprehensive understanding of the complexities of even small organizational systems can provide a tremendous amount of insight and awareness to leaders at all levels across the organization. Because of the complex nature of organizational structures (even small ones), the authors in Learning to Improve remind us of the importance of thoroughly understanding that our organizational systems may produce behaviors and outcomes that were not purposely designed or intended (Bryk, et al).

How do you tackle this gnawing dilemma? How do you more successfully create organizations capable of accomplishing the life-impacting mission statements that guide your daily work?

See the System

As mentioned, even the smallest of organizations have many pieces interacting with many other pieces within and throughout the structure and apparatus of the organization. Developing a better understanding of how these pieces relate to and interact with each of the other pieces provides valuable information to leaders, participants, and stakeholders across all levels.

Drawing inspiration from Improvement Science and specifically from Learning to Improve (a must-read!), we can sharpen our skill as leaders to implement changes in a way that actually makes things better in reality, not just in theory. We can design processes that are more effective in implementing change and deepening understanding of how the organization is actually working.

As you consider how seeing the system might revolutionize how you approach your work, keep in mind the following suggestions:

  • Look intentionally for gaps in your organization where there is a gap between what you hope you are accomplishing and what you are actually accomplishing.
  • Identify pieces of the organization that may not be interacting with other pieces as effectively or successfully as they were intended to.
  • Ask the hard question: “Why? Why am I getting the outcome I am currently getting? Why is my organization not producing the results it is intended to produce? Why is there a gap between what I want to achieve and what I am actually achieving? What is the specific problem I am needing to solve?”
  • Avoid “solutionitis” – the tendency to jump to the first (and many times, the easiest) conclusion about what is actually causing the problem.

Seeing the system is a daunting but incredibly rewarding task. As a leader, it is a vital competency that helps you see what works, for whom, and under what conditions. Few things are more exciting than creating processes that accomplish your organizational mission, improve the lives of those you serve, and actually make things better.

Beth Anne Rankin, Ed.D.
With professional experience ranging from the Governor’s Office and State Treasury to foundations, higher education, small business, K12, and nonprofits, Dr. Beth Anne Rankin infuses 20 years of executive and organizational expertise into her consulting work.

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