In the work we do with clients, there is often a tendency to for them to want to decide something on behalf of a group they serve. This is usually done with good intentions: people within organisations have expertise, can move relatively quickly, and are aware of any restrictions around funding they have for a project.
To use an example which I’ll keep anonymous, during the pandemic there was funding available to help young people who were isolated due to lockdowns. One organisation I spoke with ‘knew’ exactly what was needed, started implementing a digital solution, and were surprised when very few people used it.
The acronym DAD (decide-announce-defend) describes this approach, where an individual or organisation decides on something, announces it to stakeholders, and then has to defend the decision when things don’t go to plan. Although it may seem speedier to decide things behind closed doors and then get on and implement things, if stakeholders are resistant then the overall implementation can be delayed or even stopped entirely.
It might be that what is proposed is fantastic and exactly what is required. Or it might be that what is proposed is terrible and does not take account of some key information. Either way, change management involves stakeholder engagement, without which even the best of plans can be thwarted. It’s often actually faster and cheaper, in terms of the overall implementation, to get people involved from the start. It’s just a lot messier.
Note: in the absence of knowing why something is happening, people make up all kinds of stuff. I remember overhearing a conversation among retirees in a coffee shop about technology which took on an almost mystical flavour; because they didn’t know why some things happened, they’d invented all kinds of conspiracy theories!
Another approach, which is the one that WAO usually champions, can initially take longer. Sometimes, much longer. It involves stakeholder engagement, usually through user research and convening meetings. This takes facilitation skills which draws on both nonviolent communication and creating psychologically-safe environments with consent-based decision making. It’s challenging work in its own right, and so I can understand why technocratic-minded people and organisations seek to skip it. As I often say, it’s harder to work with people than technology.
I’m pleased to now have a name for this approach: EDD (engage-deliberate-decide). One of the biggest problems with a DAD approach is that stakeholders don’t understand the why and the how of the situation, as they have not been consulted. In the example given in the course materials, the UK’s Environment Agency worked behind closed doors to figure out a plan for a town at risk of flooding from the sea. When the plan is presented to the people of the town as a fait accompli, they only see the negative impacts of the flood defences. Unlike the staff who have worked on the plan, the townspeople have not engaged with the risks or options for prevention and mitigation.
Contrast that with the other example given in the course materials, after the Environment Agency learned its lesson and switched from a DAD to an EDD approach when working with another town. In this case, a much more holistic approach meant that the project was successful and seen as beneficial, came in under budget, and proceeded smoothly. In fact, because the liaison group which was established was separate to the Environment Agency, they could go beyond the agency’s brief to increase the system boundary to include all different kinds of flooding.
One thing mentioned in passing which I don’t think should be underestimated is that an EDD approach can lead to stakeholders seeing themselves as active participants in creating a shared future. This is what we mean by ‘civil society’: people and organisations on the ground working together to improve the local situation, rather than technocrats at a distance deciding what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘efficient’.
Let’s compare and contrast DAD and EDD approaches using the PFMS heuristic:
Mainly Environment Agency staff and decision-makers. Limited local involvement. Stakeholders as ‘victims’.
Broad range including Environment Agency staff, local residents, business owners, local authorities, and other stakeholders. Stakeholders as active participants.
Top-down decision-making. Consultation as a formality. Rational, technocratic, and ‘efficient’.
Collaborative, inclusive, and transparent process. Emphasis on building trust. Emotions welcome, holistic approach.
Decisions made behind closed doors, followed by public announcement and defence.
Engagement from the outset, deliberation, and collective decision-making.
Flood prevention in Teignmouth with public unaware of the risk, leading to shock and opposition.
Flood prevention in Shaldon with proactive engagement to understand and address local concerns and knowledge.
Now let’s look at the benefits of DAD vs EDD in this particular situation:
Resistance and failure to address local concerns effectively. Huge delays to the project.
Effective solution accepted by the community, demonstrating the value of diverse perspectives and a holistic approach.
Minimal to none. Decisions imposed on the community.
High. Community actively involved in the decision-making process.
Low. Lack of information and communication with the public.
High. Open dialogue and information sharing.
Rigid. Sticking to the pre-decided plan despite opposition.
Adaptive. Open to changing plans based on community input and new information.
Inefficient in the long term due to opposition and delays.
More efficient overall: initial time investment led to smoother implementation.
Trust and Respect
Low. Community suspicious and distrustful of Environment Agency.
Medium to High. Improved trust and respect for Environment Agency, and constructive ways of working established.
I found working through this example extremely instructive when it comes to my own work. For example, we’ve got some potential work with a client onto which the DAD vs EDD approaches map almost perfectly. They’ve come to us wanting an implementation in a hurry based on limited interaction with stakeholders (DAD), and we’re pushing back against this suggesting starting with finding out what problems actually need to be solved, and to engage their stakeholders (EDD).
There’s no rest for the wicked and, so after submitting my first tutor-marked assessment marking the end of Part 1 of this module, it’s time to get started with Part 2. I’m in Vienna at a conference next week, and then of course it’s Christmas, so I’d like to front-load as much of the work in this part as possible.
Part 2 is designed to enable you to become an effective Systems Thinking Practitioner and to use your STiP literacy and capabilities to undertake systemic inquiries which effect change that can make a difference.
In the course materials, Part 2 starts with some fantastic quotations, some of which I’d like to share here:
A caterpillar grows by getting longer and fatter, but this can only go on for a while before it reaches the limit…. It has to go through a transformation in how it is organised and how it relates to the world around it. The caterpillar changes the pattern of its life, abandoning the old and adopting the new. Similarly, we recognise the need for transformational change when we see that the way things are getting done now has limit; that we cannot get beyond these limits however much we try to improve the existing system, and that we must, as a result, create a new pattern of life for the future we want and need.
(Sharpe, 2020 p. 5; as quoted in Ofir, 2020)
This analogy captures a core principle of Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) around the necessity for transformational change in systems. Like the caterpillar, systems have inherent limits to incremental growth and ‘efficiency improvements’. At some point, continuous small-scale enhancements are no longer sufficient, so a fundamental reorganisation/overhaul of the system is required.
The caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly is symbolic of the emergence of new patterns and behaviours in a system. The analogy is also instructive in terms of the need for the proactive creation of new systems aligned with desired future states. In other words, the caterpillar doesn’t become a butterfly by being more caterpillar.
When we must deal with problems, we instinctively refuse to try the way that leads through darkness and obscurity. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.
(Jung, 1933, p. 111)
This quotation from Carl Jung emphasises the importance of embracing complexity and uncertainty in systemic problem-solving. With STiP, complex problems often have many interdependencies and hidden factors (“darkness and obscurity”) meaning that STiP practitioners need to be ready to engage with uncertain and ambiguous situations. Real-world problems rarely have obvious, clear-cut solutions, so journeying into the complexities to find a solution can involve courage to face the uncertain.
Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain.
(Bateson, 2001 p. 14)
As I’m learning in the book Systems Thinkers there were quite a few prominent people relating to systems thinking with the surname Bateson. All were related. This quotation is from Mary Catherine Bateson, and emphasises how systems are dynamic. A ‘stopping place’ is therefore not just a static point but part of a larger, continuously evolving process. In others words, every state within a system is provisional and transitional.
This is similar to to something I often say in terms of “every technology is a bridging technology”. In other words, it’s the direction of travel that’s important when thinking about technologies, not whether this or that is the perfect technology for all time. Bateson’s reference to evaluating a place as both good to remain and to move on from resonates with me in terms of continual learning and adaptability.
With STiP, it’s important to keep reassessing situations, acknowledging that strategies and solutions effective in one context may need changing or adapting for future challenges. This mindset is forward-looking, and the value of any current state is assessed not only in terms of its immediate benefits, but but also by its capacity to enable and support future growth.
The final thing I need to do before working on TMA01 (i.e. my first tutor-marked assignment) is to complete a learning contract. The things I’ve worked on so far build towards the assignment, so it’s like a coral reef, with my learning and understanding building up through accretion.
The above table is based on a template made available in the module resources section. It covers the elements of the PFMS heuristic, asking which of them I’m focused on. It’s a worthwhile thing to do, although oddly framed as a ‘learning contract’ (that framing seems to be a dead metaphor along the same lines as a ‘skills passport’)
The table is to be completed in the ﬁrst instance by ranking your current priority (nil, low, medium, high) against the possible sites for change in the left-hand column. Do one entry per line and use a Y (yes) or N (no) to indicate your current priorities. You can make this framework more illuminating by adding short notes to key cells explaining your priorities.
When you have completed [the table] use it to make some preliminary notes about the sorts of changes you would like to see as a result of having studied the module.
As you can see by the way I’ve completed the table, I’m really interested in all of it. Although I’m not specifically doing this MSc (and therefore this module) for work, I do expect Systems Thinking to be an important part of the way I interact with clients and networks I’m part of, going forward.
I haven’t adapted the table as I don’t have any ‘reporting requirements’, such as justifying my organisation’s spend on my fees (as I’m self-funding it), nor do I have to prove/demonstrate the impact of my learning to my boss (as I don’t have one).
Part 1 of the module closes with a fantastic quotation from Stafford Beer, which I hadn’t come across before, so I’m going to share it here:
It is not the living, breathing human being who resists change in [their] very soul. The problem is that the institutions in which we humans have our stake resist change (…) The power has remained where it resided. (…) Every time we hear that a possible solution simply cannot be done, we may be sure on general scientific grounds that it can. Every time we hear that a solution is not economic, we ought to ask: “for whom?”- since it’s people, just people who will have to pay. Every time we hear that proposal will destroy society as we know it, we should have the courage to say: “Thank God, at last.” And whenever we hear that it will destroy our freedom we should be very cautious indeed. (…) This is the simplest method that the powerful have to cling to power: to convince people that any other concession of that power would be unsafe.”
Beer, S. (1974) Designing freedom. Toronto: CBC Learning Systems.
I won’t be sharing my TMA01 assessment submission, for obvious reasons, but given that it will be based on what I’ve already shared here, you’re not missing out! I have to do things like: update and comment on my trajectory diagram, assess my systems literacy, and share/explain the above learning contract. The main part of it (45%), however, is to use the PFMS heuristic to reflect upon and explain an example of my current or past practice.