Epiphanies for Everybody

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Systems Thinking

September 12, 201715 min read

Systems Thinking:

Building a Case for Organisational Change


I was working with a client some time ago. They were having trouble hiring the calibre of person they wanted and, once hired, they had trouble retaining them. These new hires fit a new profile that the organisation hadn’t attempted to hire and retain, before. It was clear to them that something was not working. They reached out to my organisation for help hiring and retaining, as my own organisation spends a lot of time and attention hiring people with very similar profiles to those they wanted. These new people were to be part of the technical arm of the company, but would work differently and in different locations than had historically been the case.

The first people they wanted to speak to were those responsible for Talent, which makes sense — we have a team that’s responsible for helping us remain true to ourselves and to help shape who we are. (As an aside, we know that it is each of our responsibilities to engage in this work, but we found that some specialised skills have helped us immeasurably.)

“It is a mistake to assume that if everybody does his job, it will be all right. The whole system may be in trouble.” Edward Deming

The Approach

After speaking with them about their challenges, we decided to take a 2-pronged approach.

  1. Our talent and leadership work with their own hiring and management teams to help them understand how we hire people, and to provide some concrete assistance in filtering, interviewing, and hiring candidates, while

  2. I and a colleague of mine would look at wider systemic issues, to see if the challenges around hiring were actually due to hiring practices, or to something wider. This piece of work, while not frowned upon, was not seen as critical to success in hiring by the organisation. They did not quite see why systemic factors would impact hiring, or how resolving them would make hiring better.

It took a few months, but it turned out there were systemic factors. More on those later. First, the process.

In order to figure out whether there were systemic issues, the first thing we did was arrange to speak with a wide range of employees, from those directly impacted (tech hires and tech managers), to those who appeared completely unrelated (sales, consulting, strategy), including both senior management and front-line staff. Our hypothesis was that if there were systemic factors, their impact would be visible in other places, and people would be facing challenges that could be traced back to the same roots as those that caused the hiring challenges. In other words, our suspicion was that hiring, retention, and other organisational challenges were symptoms of a deeper root problem.

“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing.” Marshall Rosenberg

Gathering Data

Going through this process requires a set of skills and knowledge that are not often considered to be connected, but which I find to be interdependent in hard-to-predict ways. For example, the interview process requires:

  • Coaching & Anthropology Questions: In order to ensure that our questions weren’t leading, and that we weren’t poisoning the well with our own expectations, we drew on coaching training and anthropology study to help us frame open questions that had no inherent agenda. We would frame the conversation (investigating challenges different groups are facing) and then we would practice

  • Active Listening: Our goal was to ensure that people were willing to share things with us they might not otherwise share. Creating an environment where people are comfortable enough to share challenges that may risk getting them fired requires a level of comfort that comes from believing the people you’re speaking with are hearing your words, and taking them in without judgement. It also requires

  • Creating Safe Space: All our interviews are confidential. Nothing we learn from anybody gets back to the company that hired us, without people’s permission. We aggregate and anonymise information that comes from individuals, and we don’t share names. We also don’t speak with multiple levels of hierarchies at one time. Safety comes from feeling heard, and also from understanding there won’t be repercussions for being open. Whether it’s intentional or not, having people with different levels of power in the same conversation negatively impacts people’s ability to be open. The last necessary part of information gathering is

  • Empathy: The first few minutes of information gathering is spent forming a connection with the person we were interviewing. That connection helps establish trust, and runs both ways. In order to fully connect with someone, we have to put our agenda aside and be fully present in the moment. This is significantly harder than it sounds, especially once patterns start to emerge during the data gathering process. It’s key that we

  • Don’t Allow Emerging Patterns to Colour Subsequent Interviews: No matter how tempting it was to draw conclusions as we went along, it was important that in each interview we were blank slates, allowing the people we were speaking with to bring up whatever they thought their most pressing issues were, without guiding or forcing the conversation to follow what we thought the pattern was showing us. After the meetings we could talk about what we learned, and how it might connect to other areas, but it was crucial not to let that happen in the room.

“Since the strength of the chain is determined by the weakest link, then the first step to improve an organization must be to identify the weakest link.” Eli Goldratt


Once we gathered an initial, varied, set of data, we went through all of it looking for common patterns — what people in disparate areas all identified as challenges, independent of us — so that we could identify the challenges that impacted multiple groups. After this was done, we mapped everything out using

  • Theory of Constraints’ Current Reality Tree: A visualisation tool that can be used to work backwards from a set of problems to a root cause. The tool was initially used in manufacturing, but it can be applied to any type of organisation, quite effectively. Once we mapped it out, we need to

  • Work Through the Map Internally: We needed to be sure that the ideas we thought were connected stood up to logical examination when inspected by people who weren’t directly involved in our work — another set of eyes to catch any wishful thinking or incomplete logic.

  • Work Through the Map With New Stakeholders and Old Ones: Once we were happy that the map was accurate, we needed to validate it with the people who were impacted by it. We did this through speaking with a combination of people we’d already met (“Is this explanation of what you told us plausible?”) and new people who hadn’t spoken to us (“Does this explanation help explain and predict the challenges you’re having?”). We used this feedback to refine and improve our model until we were happy with it.

We spent a lot of time on this work. The Current Reality Tree was meant to lay the foundations for understanding the challenges, highlight it to senior management, and to provide a marker toward solving the problem. To these ends, we wanted it to be as close to air-tight as we could make it. One of the things that I personally love about this process is that it offers surprises. It wasn’t until we had things properly mapped out and people had challenged it a few times that it became apparent what the root cause of the problems were. Some people had suspicions early on, but I had worked hard not to form an opinion, and this was rewarded by revealing a problem that I hadn’t expected to be the root cause. I am always pleased when this happens, as it a) clarifies things, and b) helps demonstrate that we weren’t steering the conversation unduly.

“Incidentally, common sense is not so common and is the highest praise we give to a chain of logical conclusions.” Eli Goldratt

Initial Checkin & Feedback

At this point, we took our work to our own leadership team, validated it, and then took it to the senior leadership of our client. For them, this was entirely unexpected, as they hadn’t been sold on the value of the work we’d been talking about, and weren’t aware of how far it had come. The response to the work was gratifying, however. Two bits of feedback stand out to me, even now.

I wish we’d had this work 2 months ago, when we started our improvement plan. This would have formed the foundation for the entire thing.

Unfortunately, the timing of the work we’d undertaken wasn’t under our control. It would have been better for all involved for this work to have been done earlier, but until the client saw it, they didn’t understand the value of doing it.

This is great. It looks and feels right… but so what? What actually needs to be done?

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

The Art Of The Possible

After making sense of the initial data, we moved onto the next step: envisioning the future. For this, we returned to Theory of Constraints and we built a

  • Future Reality Tree: Take all the negatives (Undesirable Effects, or UDEs) that have been identified, and invert them — make them as positive as you can, within the bounds of reality (e.g. ‘high attrition’ becomes ‘low attrition,’ but not ‘nobody ever leaves’). Then, starting from the inverted root cause, we look at the implications and what changes it would make. We mapped that forward as far as we could, attempting to connect everything, logically, to that initial starting point. When things can no longer be connected just on momentum, we added a new action or behaviour (Injection) to allow us to keep moving. Once that was done, reviewed it to make sure it was sound, and then asked ourselves “What could go wrong while we’re doing this? How will our good intentions be derailed?” This lead us to use the

  • Negative Branch Reservation: A tool explicitly designed to tell you how your great ideas are going to go off the rails. This allowed us to expose as many unintended consequences as we could, and design interventions that could be put in place along the way to head off the negative things we could foresee (we couldn’t predict everything, but we caught enough that we were prepared for arguments about why things wouldn’t work, and understood why and how to respond to those ideas). From there we used one of the final Theory of Constraint tools to build a

  • Prerequisite Tree: Most great ideas haven’t been implemented because there’s something in the way — some obstacle to change that people have a hard time seeing beyond, or around. We used this to identify what needed to be in place before it would be possible to make the changes we wanted. This became our roadmap for change.

Validation, Refinement, Improvement

We vetted the whole idea with yet another group of old and new stakeholders, to revalidate our initial ideas, the conclusions we’d drawn, and the suggested fixes. We reviewed and revised our model and ideas according to that feedback.

By now, we had a full map of what wasn’t working, and what needed to be changed. But to make it real, to make it acceptable to the senior managers, we needed to go beyond logic and turn it into a story that held together. It’s often not enough to present logical improvements, as logic is easy to dismiss. Instead, we wanted to find a story that presented a compelling case for change, and to use our data and logic to underpin the story. Emotion + evidence will beat evidence alone, every time.

“Stories go far beyond simply relaying facts and data. Stories emotionalize information. They give color and depth to otherwise bland material, and they allow people to connect with the message in a deeper, more meaningful way.” Tony Robbins

Making it consumable… making it stick.

I’m not good at the story. Neither was anybody else on the team. At this point, we needed someone who understood

  • Storytelling: It was clear that we had a complex story. What was not clear was how to tell it in a compelling way. The data was sound, and had been reviewed many times, until it was robust enough that nobody could find problems with it. And while it was warmly received, there was no ‘wow’ factor to it — the data wasn’t easily digested, and we weren’t conveying the urgency for change. We didn’t understand our audience, so we need to spend time

  • Building Personas: Not in the traditional persona sense, but in the sense of combing through the history, words, values, viewpoints, and actions of the client’s senior team, to get to understand their motivations and needs. Once that was understood, we needed to tie our story into their needs. The key driver, in this case, was an imposed growth mandate from above the senior leadership, which we could not change. Instead, we had to work with it. What we needed was a hook that made a clear connection between the story and the future. For that, we needed

  • Business Awareness: Somebody who better understood the client’s current market position and the possibilities currently on the table. After one of our presentations, one of our team came up and told us about money being left on the table — projects that our client couldn’t staff because they didn’t have people with the right mindset, or systems that supported and helped those people thrive.

We pulled a few of these people from around the company into our team, and worked with them to craft the message — £Ms on the table if we could change, and a model that would work for our clients customers, as well.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

The Story

In the end, the story was simple:

Customers want to give you huge amounts of money to do something that you want to do. However, you can’t keep the people who can do it. So you have to both hire and train people to do it. However, that’s necessary, but not sufficient, to deliver. In addition, the operating model that you’re using, including systems, processes, approaches, and thinking, need to adapt, or you’ll train people who will immediately leave and go work for your competition in a more supportive environment.

We crafted a presentation and a report around the story, and presented it to our client’s senior management. We put as much data as we could into the story, and followed it up with a report that highlighted the key points, including the Current Reality Tree we’d put together. We ended up having a healthy discussion around the challenges being faced, the opportunities, the costs, and possible revenue and growth. And in the end, they were sold. In addition to accepting the premise, and the solution, they were also sold on the urgency of the problem, and asked us to get started on the next steps immediately, so as to avoid the current situation getting worse. Due to external considerations, some parts of the change were temporarily delayed, and others were to be introduced through other vehicles, but the end result was both acceptance of the problem, the solution, and the roadmap for change.

The next stop would be implementing the suggested changes, see their impact, adapt, review, feedback, and change. It’s an ongoing change process, which has yet to settle enough to be considered ‘final.’ When it does, and along the way, I expect to write more about it.


In the end, change is about so much more than just identifying the problem and the solution. In fact, people inside the organisation had been shouting about the problem for quite some time before we came along. The difference with how we approached things was:

  • Data based on evidence: We gathered both quantitative and qualitative data to build our evidence base.

  • Unbiased views: Letting people speak for themselves, and sharing that knowledge in non-confrontational ways made it easier to see and accept.

  • Make it compelling: Stories matter. With some people, it’s all that matters; with others, it’s a compelling narrative woven around the data. In either case, it’s critical to get it right for the audience.

  • Timing: It’s impossible to change systems where the people don’t want to change. Before any of what we did would be valuable, the audience had to understand the size and scope of the problem. They had an inkling before coming to us, which is why they came to us, and which allowed us to demonstrate the full scope of the problem.

At first glance, it seems that coaching, systems thinking (Theory of Constraints), anthropology, storytelling, and psychology (human motivation) are not connected. But when it comes to practice, as opposed to pure theory, I have found they’re interconnected in ways that make the combination of different disciplines far stronger than the sum of its parts.

“It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.” Edward Deming

At the core of what we did is empathy and believing that people all do the best job they can. Starting from there allows us to see how people’s situations and circumstances can impact and change their behaviours which, in turn, leads us to examine the wider environment. We’re not interested in blame. Only in helping organisations improve themselves.


If you’re interested in learning more, or learning how, the following books are where I suggest starting.

  1. The Goal & It’s Not Luck, by Eli Goldratt: Systems Thinking / Theory of Constraints introduced in a digestible format.

  2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Dan Pink: Human motivation — what works, why it works, and when. Very readable.

  3. Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg: How to connect to people without judgement and without preconceptions.

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