There I was, getting into a new executive role and clueless about what I could do to prevent the mistakes made by the three people who had filled that role before me. I knew one thing for sure; if I used the same problem-solving techniques that my predecessors had used, my success at that organization would be no better than theirs. If I was to be successful, I knew I would have to do something different.
Since I worked for a few months before I was asked to lead this group, I knew that my predecessor had already broken the department into pieces and tried everything they could think to do three times already. Yet, all their attempts find solutions ended up with the same classic problems. Decreased customer satisfaction, a lack of individual accountability, the inability to start or finish projects, and high attrition. Sound familiar?
It was clear to me that going through the same problem-solving processes would not help me to find the problems that caused the department to be dysfunctional. Over the course of my career, I learned to find the unobvious, but I didn't know where to start. Then I remembered that a client that I worked for used a different way to find their causes for being dysfunctional.
They invited a professor who helped them with a methodology called Systems Thinking. So, I started to read about and practice Systems thinking. The first obstacle was the need to move from a linear and reductionist approach to non-linear and holistic thinking. Easy to say, but it takes some time and practice to see reality as bi-directional impacts and causes and how individual parts of the whole create them.
The theory started to be clear when I began utilizing visual language to capture causality, flow, and interaction between the parts of the organizations that I was asked to take care of. Creating those models helped me to learn the language and adjust to a new way of thinking. The fact that two of the models could be run as simulations helped me to validate my learning and proposed models against reality.
I started my learning process by capturing why this organization which I had inherited, was struggling with customer support. During the learning process I started to see root causes. The models showed how management tools such as structure, policies, and processes; have an impact on the interactions between departmental groups and led to the decreasing satisfaction of customers.
For example, the way segregation of duties was implemented created silos. Those silos caused finger-pointing that drove our customers mad. Through the examination of one problem after another we found profound insights and issues that weren't related to any particular group or individual. They were the result of years of management’s effort to fix issues without understanding the consequences of their methodologies on other parts of the department.
The ability to run simulations showing how immediate outcomes would unfold and how changes to management tools would impact results, helped us to mold models and solutions to achieve more desirable outcomes prior to implementation. They also helped significantly in selling the proposed solutions to my department and its stakeholders. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a simulation is worth a thousand pictures.
The deep realization of what we were facing, and the root causes we found led to bold and ambitious changes. Models and simulations helped us to gain stakeholder support, mainly because they still looked reductionist and linear. Although we had changed the way that we looked at reality, we didn't need to teach others our new language. We spoke in a language they knew. This was a major key to our success.
System thinking enabled me to see the department from a completely new perspective. This perspective revealed not only causes for known problems, but also allowed me to see challenges and opportunities previously unrevealed.
The visibility and insight that we acquired pushed us to create a bold and unique set of solutions. Those solutions turned the department upside down. However, we improved every process or obstacle that we had measured in significant ways and impacted the culture in meaningful ways as well. The result was a respected department that was appreciated by internal customers and seen as part of their value chain.
Reflecting back, I can say that without finding a different way of looking at reality, we wouldn’t have reached the level of understanding that we did of our systems and processes. Without this understanding, I would have probably been another short episode in this organization’s history. Instead, I had the opportunity to be part of that organization for seven years.