12 systems thinking rules for change agents, Agile coaches or anyone making a change in a company

Several years ago, Louise Diamond (a specialist in global initiatives for peace) published “12 Rules for the Resolution of World Conflicts and Their Path towards the Eradication of Wars.” Some of these rules can be too abstract for many business professionals, but they can also be extraordinarily useful when implementing change in a company or facing massive market disruptions.

Every day, organizations face complex challenges such as technical issues, organizational shortcomings, and market disruptions. Unexpected behaviors also arise from emerging properties (for example, newly discovered ways of work and emerging values or attitudes).

During the implementation of a change plan, there is a repeating cycle of chaos, re-adaptation and acceptance.

For example, a team from a department coping with a small company change will often adapt its structure to stabilize the situation and create a temporary peace. So even a small change can turn into a complex situation.

Understanding the dynamics in complex systems can give birth to a new way of thinking and evolve the techniques or approaches for implementing change.

The following 12 concepts were initially created by Louise Diamond, but they have been adapted -by myself- for anyone seeking change in an organization:

1. Connect the disconnected

In complex systems, all elements or agents are interconnected. They are also interdependent, so what happens to one affects all the others.

When all elements of the company begin to see the benefits of this, they focus on knowledge sharing as a daily activity. No single department should be an island. Look for elements where social density is low and work on increasing it. Knowledge should be able to flow freely inside the company, without restrictions or distortions.

2. Connect well with unpredictability

Complexity is the nature of living systems and the world in which we live. In complex systems, agents or elements combine and interact in unpredictable and nonlinear ways, and decisions often lead to unintended consequences.

A long-term plan is effective only if it keeps people aligned. Think of it as an organic plan rather than a fixed plan, and communicate it transparently to all members of the organization.

Investing time and money in long-term fixed plans is inefficient and may plunge the company into the paralysis syndrome. Create intention maps, allow people to criticize and evolve them, and feel comfortable with new ideas.

3. Create the conditions for quality links

In the enormous network of interconnections, the points or nodes where agents meet provide opportunities for interaction. These interactions determine what will happen to the system. These relationships, therefore, are of critical importance.

Provide the right environment for people to establish quality and lasting bonds. You could use your enterprise values or any other type of clear values and principles (for example, Agile values) to align people in the organization.

4. Rebalance flows across borders

All systems exchange energy, matter and information across boundaries. In companies, these boundaries can be other departments, strategic partners, or outsourced products.

When you identify imbalances in flows (congestion or over- or under-accumulation) change things to be more equitable and sustainable.

5. Reinforce the pattern for the sustainability and well-being of the whole

All living systems develop patterns. Often, these self-reinforcing, deeply rooted patterns are difficult to change. Many are common and recognizable in human systems. Patterns also appear at different levels of the organization. You should reinforce the patterns that give more sustainability and well-being before tackling the obvious causes of a problem.

Analyze the patterns and plan based on the reinforcing patterns.

6. Pay attention to the smaller parts and the larger parts

Everything is a whole in itself. At the same time, everything is part of a larger whole. Solving the personal problems of a group of employees can increase the efficiency of many teams. This will in turn support new ways of working and consolidate the overall vision of the company.

There are unique characteristics and patterns at each level of the organization. Moving back and forth between them, much like a telescopic lens, gives you more information to find better solutions.

7. Pay attention to emerging networks

Living systems are organized through the interactions of their agents or parties. Companies are formed by networks (groups united in a decentralized manner for a period of time). Pay attention to how emerging networks self-organize to reach a goal.

Without understanding the way networks work, you cannot deal effectively with change in your company.

You must pay attention to and support or discourage emerging networks. Think of the different signals you get and the ones that are consistent, that are inconsistent, or that need to be amplified or discouraged.

8. Look for consistency within the chaos

Systems move between different degrees of stability and instability (order and disorder). When disorder or chaos becomes too big, things fall apart. When the order is too rigid, things cannot grow or develop. But a degree of instability or being on the verge of chaos can bring about powerful moments of creative change.

High-performing companies need to alternate between these states to reach their maximum potential. This is normal, but you must pay close attention to how and when variability changes. Set clear rules and help people to be disciplined. But leave room for improvement and entropy.

9. Look at the intangible as well as the concrete to see their potential

All living systems exist as a unified potential field. The observer is an integral part of the situation. Decisions must be made with a global, critical vision of the company’s policies, its actions and the repercussions of these policies and actions. Analyzing them with the people impacted increases chances for success.

10. Articulate, communicate and validate the stories you tell yourself with the rest of the members of the organization

Systems exist within their own unique context. For human systems, this context is an internal narrative that gives meaning to our decisions and actions.

When making decisions, we are guided by the stories we repeat to ourselves—stories we consider true or false regardless of whether they have proved true in practice. We know that conditions can change and old assumptions lose validity.

You must regularly validate your assumptions with the rest of the company by using small hypotheses and short-cycle loops.

11. Regularly define and review objectives and purpose

The parts of a system are cohesive around a common and shared objective. Use stories to support the company’s goal and vision, and use clear but flexible objectives and a great vision to support your change initiatives.

12. Learn to change based on internal and external messages

Living systems are learning systems. They adapt through feedback from their internal and external environments.

Get used to feedback and make sure people around you do the same. In the Scrum framework or other Agile or Lean thinking, feedback loops (Daily Scrums, retrospectives, pairing, etc.) help individuals get quick feedback and reflect on their actions and situation.

If you want to accelerate and sustain change in your company, you might consider buying the 2nd. edition of my book Leading Exponential Change.

Thank you for listening,


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