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Systems Thinking for Harassed Managers

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This book describes the processes that shape organisational life and shows how managers can work together to help one another to work out their problems and develop their skills. The authors draw on their experiences of working with managers and in the group relations field.

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CHAPTER ONE. Going round in circles

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Technical or formal rationality is linear, you reason, you act, you achieve accordingly. Encompassing reason is circular and iterative. You probe, discover something interesting, reflect, cogitate and probe again. The manager acts with whatever degree of forethought is appropriate, but carefully examines the feedback and, through a cybernetic process, rethinks and acts again, learning along the way.

C. Hampden-Turner, 1990, p. 5

Over the past nine years we have run a series of workshops in which managers have consulted each other about problem situations in their organizations. We have also acted as consultants to managers in a range of organizations, and have consulted each other and other people about our own work. This has given us a picture of the kind of circumstances in which managers and others become sufficiently perplexed or exasperated to seek an outsider’s perspective on what is going on around diem.

The problems themselves have been varied and complex. Many have reflected larger-scale pressures on the life and governance of organizations in Britain: pressures towards greater efficiency and value for money, flatter organizations, equality for disadvantaged groups, clearer accountability on the part of those who spend public and charitable money, and a sharper focus on the quality of provision for customers, clients, and service-users.

 

CHAPTER TWO. What’s the problem?

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The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect “Cheshire Puss/ she began … “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.

PietHein, 1969

In the Introduction we suggested a number of circumstances in which someone might adopt a systemic approach to problematic situations: a manager advising a subordinate, a colleague, or someone else in their immediate work group; a manager consulting informally to someone outside their work unit; an internal or external consultant advising an organization; a group of colleagues meeting to support and advise one another; or an individual taking time out to think through a current difficulty and in effect act as a consultant to himself or herself.

 

CHAPTER THREE. Asking the right questions

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Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant To come with a well informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the variety of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Wisdom in human affairs seems to be a matter of asking the right questions. A “well-informed mind” can be an obstacle to insight and an ability to turn one’s ignorance into questions can be a priceless skill. In consultancy, questions perform several functions. In investigating any situation presented by a client, our questions have two overarching purposes:

•  to enable the consultant (and the manager seeking advice) to arrive at hypotheses about why the situation is the way it is;

to lead the manager (and the consultant) to see the problem situation from new perspectives, and “reframe” the goings-on they regard as problematical. In this sense every question is also an intervention.

 

CHAPTER FOUR. Constructing hypotheses

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We all know the metaphor of being able to “step back” far enough from the details “to see the forest for the trees”. But unfortunately for most of us, when we step back we just see lots of trees… .

Senge, 1990, p. 127

Kate, when she had digested all the good news in The New York Times, decided to review her facts. It’s not the facts, its the narrative they’re arranged to tell, she reminded herself.

Amanda Cross, 1990, p. 117

INTRODUCTION

We have discussed how we can use skilful questioning to open up a situation described by a manager. One of the purposes of such questioning is to enable us to formulate hypotheses about what is going on.

Hypothesizing is a dangerous word, because it comes out of a box labelled “science” and can lure us into supposing that managers and consultants live in a world of unambiguous facts, and of explanations that can be proved and disproved. As we see it, it is not as simple as that: we deal with selective descriptions of complex affairs by complex men and women—with stories, not facts. We are not therefore looking for the truth (the Truth!) about a situation, but rather—more modestly—for provisional and partial explanations that are illuminating, in that they suggest new meanings, and useful, in that they unparalyse people so that they can move on.

 

CHAPTER FIVE. Finding a new course

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“The question Is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The purpose of an intervention is, first, to provide a means of communicating the meaning of a hypothesis to the client; second, to provide a means of testing its usefulness; and third, of course, to nudge the client system into moving on and finding a new course. In our workshops, interventions can also be a tactful way of saying: “You are expected to do something different, as well as perceive something different, about this situation.”

As we outlined in chapters three and four, asking questions and offering hypotheses are themselves interventions, when they lead the manager to reframe his or her problem situation. People do not necessarily decide to act on new information: they may spontaneously change their behaviour because their reality has changed.

Until very recently there was less theory to guide interventions than the theories that supported the domains of exploring and explaining. Recent management and organization development texts are beginning to flesh out the bones of systemic interventions in organizations (Wynne, L.C, 1986; Hampden-Turner, 1990; Senge 1990; Campbell, Draper, & Huffington, 1991b; Torbert, 1991).

 

CHAPTER SIX. Theoretical postscript

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Here comes the heavy stuff!!!

Gareth Morgan, 1993; uttered by figure In cartoon
before Morgan’s theoretical appendix

In this concluding chapter we elaborate on a number of themes that we have touched upon in the preceding pages. We include them here either in order to be able to examine them at greater length, or to record ideas that have only recently come to our attention, or to clarify how we see the relation between what is said in this book and other bodies of theory. These are in effect five mini-chapters or extended footnotes, related more closely to the preceding chapters than they are to each other.

IDENTITY AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE

We have said that organizations confer an identity on their members, and that to the extent that they become attached to these identities, they resist organizational changes that threaten them. Our attempts to bring about change in organizations are liable to be ineffective unless we have some understanding of what Peter Marris (1974) called “the conservative impulse” (with a small “c”) by which men and women cling even to ineffective and unsatisfying structures and procedures, rather than accept and implement new ones. Marris wrote:

 

APPENDIX, How we introduce course participants to systems practice

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PARTICIPANTS

In our courses on systems thinking and practice, we have worked with third- and fourth-tier managers, department and regional heads, team leaders and section heads, and also with staff in training and development, administration, fund-raising, and information. To date these managers have been drawn from health and welfare settings, voluntary child care organizations and agencies serving families, and the probation service. Courses have comprised between ten and fifteen participants, with two tutors. The most recent have offered the opportunity for those who have taken part in previous courses to work together as a separate “returners” group for part of the time.

Often there have been participants from different levels in the same organization. We have arranged for them to work in different groups when possible, but this has seemed to matter little to them, perhaps because the climate of the course is one of objectivity, neutrality, and recognition of systemic processes. Similarly, our relatedness to the participants has generally been easy, friendly, and open. We avoid stimulating projections onto ourselves as authority figures, which can often get in the way of learning. This is also a characteristic of the method itself—adopting what is called a “one-down” position in the face of resistance to change.

 

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