Organisational Systems Design Capability
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The problem

Being an effective leader of complex human systems in a changing world requires the ability to lead system change and transformation.   

 

Few leaders have been educated or have the skills/tools to be able to do this with confidence.   Too often, the need for change is met with direct interventions that don’t work rather than the more subtle (and more difficult) pathway of systems design and systems leadership.   

 

Typically, change begins with structural changes that have been ‘designed’ based largely on previous experiences or reflecting current constraints.   A common example is when a project structure is set up within available resources, rather than taking a whole of systemic, strategic approach optimised for best outcomes over time.

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An applied systems thinking approach to organisational design is both essential and possible.

Systems thinking models and processes help to design robust systems (including structures) that will stand the test of time. 

 

We can avoid long-term cycles of 
re-invented structures and ways of working that we have all seen before.  

The first step is to understand the purpose, task, key constraints, boundaries and environment of the organisational system being worked on.  While this sounds obvious, it is seldom done well.  Purpose and task are often confused and boundaries are almost never properly understood. 

Practical organisational systems design means working on systems-of-systems

It’s a mistake to think we can work on ‘a’ system.  Every human organisation with more than a few people has multiple systems interacting.

 

This system-of-systems can seem daunting.  For many leaders, the response is to hide from the complexity.  They set new governance structures and controls and tell lower management levels to ‘fall into line’.  

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Structure-focused interventions, no matter how well implemented, tend to create system-wide chaos until a new ‘steady state’ emerges – if it has time to do that before the next change!   The new state will also be emergent – with no certainty that it will be a stronger, more viable, more effective organisational system. 

 

A key question for leaders of change is how to work on their complex organisational systems more effectively, in practice and within the time and resources available.

 

It is possible, but it does not start with conversations about structure.  A rapid deep-dive into system-of-systems requirements and essential capabilities can quickly lead to identification (and definition of) key sub-systems.  This top-down approach is necessary to understand larger system parameters, so that sub-systems can be designed to contribute to the whole. 

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There is no panacea.  Leading change in complex organisational systems requires a combination of judgement, systems design capability and strong (systemic) change leadership.  The first of these many leaders already have.  What they lack is system design insights to help them apply judgement so that they avoid more-of-the-same cycles of churn and change.