How to Figure Out What's Really Going on In Your Organization

We have a habit of looking at organizations as machines that simply take input and transform it into output. But of course, that’s not what’s really going on. What’s really going on is much more complex. Modern organizations of the knowledge era are living systems of interconnected ingredients, processes and interactions.

In Other Words, They’re Complex Systems.

When academics talk about complex systems, they like to show you things like this (and then they wonder why system leadership theory isn’t really taking off in the real world).

I take a slightly different approach. I prefer to show you this.

This cake is the product of a complex system of interconnected ingredients, processes and interactions. The thing about complexity, is that we can’t deconstruct it into component parts. It is whole as it is. We can’t tell from looking at a cake that it contains flour and sugar and butter and eggs, and (if we’re lucky), cocoa. We don’t see the process of measuring and mixing and beating, nor do we see the interactions in the oven that transform batter into something fluffy and delicious. It’s just a cake. It is what it is. And that’s complex.

Same goes for your organization.

It’s only when we understand the ingredients, processes and interactions in our organization, that we can learn to work with them and change them to our advantage.

When we lack awareness of the systems at play in our organization, we’re essentially flying blind. We’re under the illusion that we know what’s going on, but we really don’t. Our vision is clouded by what we think should be going on, what others tell us is going on and what the tradition and culture of the organization suggests is going on.

And so, when events happen – productivity decreases, employee turnover increases, competitors outpace us, etc. – we react to them. The more we react rather than innovate, the more our world happens to us, not for us. Our world becomes one of problems and decline. We are in a contractive state. Nothing good happens from a contractive state.

Understanding the systems at play in our organization gives us the gift of anticipation. And that changes everything. So let’s take a closer look.

How to Spot a System in Action

Start with the surprises.

When was the last time you were surprised by a result? Perhaps you missed your quarterly target by forty percent. Or maybe you overshot it by thirty percent. Or maybe a product launched nine months late, and no one can say exactly why. Perhaps customer service calls jumped twenty percent. Or there was some kind of kerfuffle in the shipping department.

A stuck leader hates surprises. To them, surprise implies not being fully in control. It implies weakness. It implies fault. Even when the surprise is a positive result, the underlying thought is, Why didn’t I know this would happen?

An Unstuck Leader is open to surprise. In fact, the surprise isn’t seen so much as a problem, but as an indicator. It’s a chance to look beyond the event, to dig deeper and to learn something new. They don’t start with who is responsible (i.e. to blame) for the surprise result. They start with why the surprising result happened. They don’t try to mitigate it or justify it or deny it or pass it off as a blip that couldn’t have been predicted or prevented. Their natural response is not panic, not avoidance, but curiosity.

Receptivity to surprise is what allows the Unstuck Leader to detect the underlying systems that created the surprising result. The Unstuck Leader is comfortable with not having all the answers and they’re able to admit that their initial judgements and predictions were wrong. It’s about inquiry, not ego, exploration, not confirmation.

Unstuck Leaders seek to understand the connections between an event affecting a system, the behavior within the system and the structure of the system. To do this, they seek the logic. Rather than looking for reasons things went wrong, they look for why the result achieved, good or bad, makes sense. How is the outcome logical given the processes, ingredients and interactions? In a study by management professors Pamela Buckle Henning and Sloane Dugan into the way leaders detect “self-organized patterns,” aka “systems” in their organizations, one participant said, “I have to figure out how to take each of these moments I’m seeing as being perfectly logical, perfectly understandable, perfectly right”.

And this is key. The results didn’t just magically manifest out of nothing. The results are perfectly logical given the conditions in which they were created. So, ask yourself, “What would have to be true for this result to have been created?”. Then you’ll be on your way to understanding the processes (workflow, communication lines, organizational culture), ingredients (people and resources) and interactions (how the processes and ingredients interconnect and the reactions they create).

Give it a try:

Think of a recent result that surprised you.

What was the behavior that led to the result?

What were the beliefs that led to the result?

How did the behavior arise over time?

Interview participants both internal and external to the organization. Where do they see the logic in the outcome?

Examine data over time. What changed? What remained consistent?

What other events could have affected the outcome?

This is where the system is hiding.

BTW, when the outcome is negative, it’s usually due to a maladaptive archetypal system trap. I’ll be talking more about those in the coming weeks. But if you can't wait, you can start here, with the most common one - Fixes that Fail (aka Firefighting).

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