Where system change meets agile practice; the multidisciplinary primordial soup

diagram showing circles of influence and control in a system

This is a post very much at the intersect between my different areas of practice. I am hoping it will be helpful for agile practitioners thinking about large scale change and system change practitioners trying to better understand how to better grasp ‘digital’ as a lever of system change. I think these two disciplines work can offer each other real strengths and opportunities – but you need a consciously multidisciplinary practice to make the most of this – and a desire to have a theory of change and not just get stuff done. It comes from a place that says that adherence to method is very rarely simply a fondest for a set of tools – its usually a signal of underlying beliefs and framing of the work is to some extent tribal and that needs to be understood so that multidisciplinary work can be successful. The post came about because I’ve been wrestling with a question that is the subject of frequent debate in my team;

While we all want and crave psychological safety is it realistic as an objective when the goal of the team is system change work which means you are working at the boundaries of certainty well beyond your circle of control and perhaps influence?

Psychological safety – the feeling that no matter what you say your team will listen and support you – is an acknowledged goal of high performance teams. It’s essential for creativity and its also a big contributor to individual and team resilience. It’s not a new thing but it came to prominence for agile practitioners following a two year long Google study on high performing teams (which you can read about in this New York Times article but is widely discussed in the literature in this space (have a read of this HBR article if you want a shorter read) and is not a new idea. It does however assume that the boundaries of the team are clear and that they are best left to their own devices to do ‘the work’. But when working to deliver change the problem is often that boundaries are not always clear because the work is never in isolation and we need to think about how we manage them.

Agile practice has a good metaphor for understanding these boundaries with an exercise called circles and soup (HT Giulia) where the retro is designed around identifying zones of control, influence and external ‘soup’ which is beyond the reach of the team. I also use the circles of Zorro metaphor a lot here as well.

There are limits to this as the circle and soup metaphor sort of implies that much of what is in the soup is either unknown or ignorable. This reflects how we often, as leaders create space for our teams to work in the face of numerous unknowns. We often make risks less visible to the team and try not to communicate uncertainty; either to avoid people being unnecessarily worried or to avoid telling them something that is not actually clear to you – creating the space for the team to be psychologically safe but leaving them ignorant of the forces which are effecting their work. But this hardly mirrors an adult to adult relationship and most change practitioners would suggest you are transparent with your team about what you do and don’t know – you should work in the open.

There is an added twist to this when you are the team responsible for making change happen. How do you help your team achieve psychological safety at the same time as working in the open with them – something which makes the uncertainty outside of the team space more visible and the boundaries of the team more porous??

Working in the open – especially when you trying to change things – makes the soup more visible. Change brings uncertainty – it makes more soup. If you share things which you are aware of from the wider organisation which are beyond a team’s circle of influence then you are adding to the soup and reducing their own sense of certainty. But if you don’t share that stuff then you are perhaps not working in the open and at some point risk losing their trust. There is a tension between the belief that sharing an idea early means it’s a better idea and the knowledge that if you introduce too much uncertainty you damage the psychological safety of a team.

I think agile approaches are a brilliant tool for getting stuff done and I would not approach a technology led project any other way but their uneasy relationship with uncertainty and the mantra of start small and iterate can provide a difficult foundation for large scale change as its essentially about creating small focused teams who are ‘showing not telling’ the rest of the system (or more usually organisation) the change that they want to see. You need a way of connecting these small teams together in a larger meaningful endeavour and this is where system change approaches can help.

System change practice would tend to talk more about safe space – moments of safety – rather than a persistent state of psychological safety as its practitioners assume part of their role is to navigate uncertainty and are more conscious of the forces which are acting on the work and effecting it from beyond your direct control. System change projects would tend to start with some form of system mapping and an understanding of where the system is vulnerable to change as well as the develop of a theory as to how that change might be shaped and directed.

Systems thinking also gives a different lens on influence and control – it puts us as actors in a system where really we just have control over our own actions – everything else is about influence and connections. Our choice are there about where in the system to apply our energy and what interventions we think can shift the context. The systems practitioner works in a highly relational way in navigating the system; relying on these relationships to create the moments of safety needed in order to make change happen. System practice does which is often lacking in agile approaches is taking time to map the system and understand the context in which the work sits.

It is a role of leadership to create an environment of psychological safety – or perhaps it’s better described as making it possible for teams to create their own safety. One of the major tools of leadership (and resilience) is understanding the difference between your circle of control, your circle of influence – and then what my colleague Giulia calls the soup – the stuff that we have not influence or control over. Psychological safety demands that your team also has alignment about what they can and cannot change and a mandate to get the work done. The issue can be that the work then becomes to some extent closed off – the psychological safety of the team effectively becoming a barrier for wider collaboration – a barrier to the actual work.

So what we have are two different disciplines which approach problems from different directions; the ‘digital’ approach which is to start small and iterate and the systems approach which navigates the whole space and find opportunities to connect and make change happen. At a system scale it is difficult to use these two approaches in tandem (we tried with NHS Citizen for example and failed). At organisational scale the combination of system and digital thinking is both achievable and desirable as an approach to change.

In our Future of Work programme we are testing this. The programme is a whole organisation change around our ways of working that both delivers new kit and software but also explores how we want to adopt new practices like activity based working. Our goal is the help the organisation be more flexible, adaptive and collaborative with the ultimate goal of being more productive. We have small groups iterating around specific questions (such as our meeting etiquette or flexible working policies) as well as an organisational framing of this which both shapes and bridges these smaller pieces of work and also connects and makes sense of them so that we can turn it into something that reflects a shared and emergent view of ‘how we do things round here’. The programme is designed to answer some of those questions in time for our organisational move to Stratford in the Autumn and we are using the energy and momentum of that change to drive the programme. The programme design is a synthesis of systems and agile practice – though I don’t think that synthesis is as yet visible to the participants. We are also handing out a lot of kit and training people on some basic collaboration tools.

I see this as a socio-technical programme where we are using the codification and certainty of the tech to reinforce and echo the behaviour changes emerging from our experiments in ways of working (I find Latour irritating as a writer but his actor network theory is very useful in this space). The iteration of the technology and processes that the agile approach brings means we are able to gain the benefit of this codification without the rigidity that many people feel when faced with large scale technology change. The systems thinking approach is influencing how and where we approach teams to work on things and how we then weave the smaller interventions together in order to play back a set of organisational conclusions about how we want to work that have senior and wider organisational buy in.

Future of work is our first attempt at combining these practices – but we are learning a lot and I am encouraged that it gives us a valuable foundation for more ambitious change work. What we will need to do is to draw our our learning this work and make sure that we have made the approach visible and transparent to people – the design of the programme was very much driven by me and I want to make the next iteration more of a shared endeavour.

Circling back to psychological safety I am finding a tension in trying to nurture a safe space for the teams I am responsible for when I am also asking them to look at a whole system where we have little control and finite influence. Working in the open compounds this – even if you want to ignore something in the system working in the open will flush it out. There is also an element of be careful what you wish for – sometimes hearing about something which you can’t change just adds to your stress and can cloud your ability to act – this is the soup and we risking drowning in it if we are not careful.

My current working assumption is that for teams that are not leading organisational change it can be enough to be informed of what going on and be aware that ‘someone else has got this’. Thats what we have done with our Future of Work programme; people have visibility of all the work that is going on but are only asked to be active on one question or theme. We make the system visible but then expect teams to create the psychological safety needed to get their aspect of the work done. We support at a system level and connect the whole thing together.

For teams who are leading change I think we need to equip them with approaches that take them beyond agile or even design thinking and look at systems thinking and change as an important – and perhaps primary – building block. It’s important to have the discipline that you get from ‘big programme’ thinking but you also want the adaptability and fluidity that you get from more iterative and relational approaches.

I am left musing on the different approach to ‘safety’ in these two disciplines; one which relies on the individual to manage their own safety and work with other practitioners to create safe spaces and the other which relies on teams to work together to create a persistent safety for that group. Teams who are driving change will always be at the boundaries of safe space and so perhaps the answer is to make sure that they have strong bonds and psychological safety within their team so that they are able to work effectively across the organisation to create safe spaces for others that allows for change to happen; drawing a distinction between safe teams and safe spaces. Not everyone will find this comfortable but the ones that do find system thinking an invaluable tool for navigating the uncertainty which lies beyond the team boundaries.

The role of leadership in this whole process seems to be a delicate balance of providing the space and the environment for people to create their own safety without taking away the individuals responsibility to make themselves self. But it’s not just about people being safe – in the context of change one off your priorities is keeping the work safe – protecting often fragile and new ideas as the are tested and explored in a hostile environment. In system change leadership operates often in the liminal spaces that exist between things and this is often the space that leaders need to occupy; connecting, explaining and translating in order to keep people and ideas safe and give them room to grow.

Multidisciplinary working should be more than a greatest hits album where you mashup the best of each of the disciplines you involve. It should be a more nuanced weaving of practice so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Systems thinking and digital practices have enough in common to make this weaving possible and enough difference to mean that the combination is additive. By understanding the soup as part of the system you are trying to change you open up new opportunities for influence, and by setting the boundaries of small pieces of work you give them space to be able to demonstrate value and not be endlessly negotiating.

The question of safety; of work or of individuals is critical to making change happen. But change brings with it a necessary absence of safety and certainty which is part of the process – we need to get the balance right if we are going to help make sustainable change happen.

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