Systems thinking: People are already doing their best, the problems are with the system. Edwards Deming
Systems thinking is considering a system to be an interrelated and interdependent set of parts which is defined by its boundaries and is more than the sum of its parts (subsystems). Changing one part of the system affects other parts and often ripples through the entire system. While the specific impact itself may not be predictable, there are many patterns of behavior which are.
The goal of systems thinking is to systematically discover the system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned. With this knowledge improvements can be suggested and then run as experiments, knowing that simple changes often will create unknown side-effects.
Systems thinking is a foundation of FLEX. In order to consider the system as a whole we must look at what we are wanting the system to achieve – quick realization of business value, predictably, sustainable and with high quality. When we get challenges to this we want to look and see why and what can be done about it.
However, looking at the work mechanistically is insufficient. How the organization will react to any changes must be considered by any approach you take. Their reaction is part of the system. The natural laws of software development are now pretty well known. The challenge is not just what are the correct practices as much as how to get people to adopt them.
Our approach must be understanding our challenges, the intentions they are blocking and considering different solutions to eliminate the challenges. Many of these challenges are in fact how people react to change. We cannot just say “follow this” without attending to how people react to that mandate. With apologies to Nike, you can’t just say “just do it.”
If the approach you are undertaking doesn’t incorporate this systems thinking perspective, expect troubles. If your approach requires that people need to be a certain way (e.g., commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage), you must ask yourself “what will happen if they don’t have these qualities?” You should not be surprised if you don’t get the results the approach purports. In this situation you should also ask “how can I change the system so as to encourage these values?”
Because FLEX is based on systems thinking, how people learn and change is incorporated into its guidance. When applying FLEX, it is important to see how people react to it. Some of this is in the ability of the coach to interact with people (see What to say when someone just doesn’t get it) in the Appendix for more). This is one of the reasons that FLEX is designed to be used in a step-wise manner attending to the culture of the organization.
Applying Systems Thinking to Frameworks
A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without the aim, there is no system. Edwards Deming
There are several ways systems thinking can be applied to frameworks. These include:
Beware of taking part of a framework and applying it. While starting with part of a framework can be a good way to start, taking parts of a framework may have unintended consequences. Systems thinking tells us that not attending to the relationship this part has with others may cause problems. This is not to say not to do this, but to be aware of challenges it may cause.
Ensure the goal of the system is made clear throughout the organization. Alignment is not possible if people are working at cross-goals.
Everyone needs to do their work withing the context of the intent of the system. While delegation is a cornerstone of Lean and Agile, the delegator must always make the desired outcome clear. This might even be that the delegatee must clarify things. People at all levels in the organization must attend to how their local actions will affect the big picture.
A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system. Edwards Deming