Real Improvement: It’s Just a Game!
Everyone wants to improve.  However, most people tend to think of improvement in terms that are “too local” and “too transactional”.   By “too local”, most people narrow the problems they face down to what they can control and tend to shrug off anything outside their control as someone else’s problem.  By “too transactional”, most people think in terms of applying the fix to the problem and arriving at success.  In order to survive, leaders have to take the broadest possible view of business, customers, and competition and apply a multi-level, multi-player game strategy approach to driving improvement.
A multi-level, multi-player game is typically too big and too complex for those playing the game to totally comprehend and control.  With ever-faster technology change, increasingly innovative competition, and customers who always want more for less, charting a strategy that is guaranteed to win is difficult – particularly if one is looking for a “one step fix”.  The best strategy to win the prize in a multi-level, multi-player game is to learn as much as you can, get started with the best approach you know, measure how you are doing, and be willing to evolve your strategy and tactics as you learn more.
In order to be guaranteed to succeed at business, one would have to have perfect knowledge of their evolving business (e.g.customers, stakeholders, employees, competitors, technology, global economy) and be able to react instantly to any changes.  Rather than feeling like they have such “perfect knowledge”, most leaders I know are so busy dealing with what is on their plate right now that they have no time to learn about what might be happening “out there” that might impact.  No one person can possibly know enough to succeed today – one has to develop a “fast learning, fast acting” culture.
A “fast learning, fast acting” culture is most analogous to a “team on combat patrol”.  Someone has to take point and lead the way.  Someone must scout the area the team will cross for danger.  Everyone on the team has to know their role and be both willing and able to do it well.  Everyone has to know the plan and be able to adapt in real time when the plan has to change.  Most importantly, everyone has to be willing to put team success ahead of personal success.  A team without these factors is much less likely to safely achieve their objectives.
In a multi-level, multi-player game, it’s not possible to know all the (seemingly random) factors that will impact your fate.  The best one can do is to know your starting point, know your desired goal, know your team, and start off in the right direction.  The key to the desired “fast learning, fast acting” culture key to  success is frequent performance measurements relative to the goal, fast diagnosis of reasons for any widening gaps, and immediate corrective action to close those gaps and move closer to the goal.  This rapid, iterative learning process can’t just take place in the CEO’s office or even just in HQ – it has to be an integral part of the culture of the whole company – everyone has to learn and fix as fast as possible.
The only way to lead a team into a “fast learning, fast acting” culture that can navigate its way through the maze of today’s multi-level, multi-player business game is to listen, learn, and listen some more.  As the leader, one must put the “act, measure, diagnose, correct” iterative learning process into practice and show the team how it’s done.  As others “get it”, task them with “spreading the gospel” by asking them to make improvement projects happen.  This kind of change has to start at the top, find its way to the front lines, and then permeate the company from the ground up (which will only happen if leaders model and expect this behaviour relentlessly until it is second nature to everyone in the company).     
Ryder Cup and Post-Modern Leadership
In the aftermath of the recent European Ryder Cup demolishing of the USA, many have said that the USA team was simply outplayed during the matches.  I disagree.  There were no significant differences in the 2 teams in talent, desire to win, or pressure they experienced.  However, when it came down to crunch time, the European players made the key putts and erased the early deficits and won going away.  The question is, with so many similarities between the two teams, what made the difference?  I believe that the short answer is “leadership style”.  The recent Ryder Cup can teach us a lot about the type of leadership required for businesses to survive and thrive in today’s tough environment.
Businesses need a different type of leadership in order to both survive and thrive in today’s tough business climate.  Both captains wanted their 2014 Ryder Cup teams to win, but the European was a better "servant leader" who engaged in a "caring, constructive dialogue" with his team (i.e. listening to their ideas, being willing to take their input, and showing them he cared about them as people even when he didn't agree with them) and who fostered the "supportive, celebrative community" spirit that made the difference in the European team when times were tough.  The triumph of the European team in the recent Ryder Cup matches is a striking illustration of how crucial this new style of leadership is to running a successful business (both now and in the future). 
The recent European Ryder Cup team all commented extensively on how much time their captain invested in them in the two years leading up to the latest competition and how much discussion they had with him regarding the approach to the matches.  Most team members today demand dialogue with their leaders.  If they believe that their leaders care about them and have truly taken their input into account, they will remain engaged and do their best even when the decision is not in line with their input.  The recent European Ryder Cup team’s success shows that “caring, constructive dialog with a leader they trust” is a key factor in a team’s engagement.
The leadership style of their captain made the European team willing to forego the normal, selfish attitude for which golfers are famous.  However they played, the European team knew deep in their bones that their captain would "have their backs".  The captain’s attitude was infectious and the entire team became a “supportive, celebrative community” that freed the European to perform their best under pressure and to prevail in the crucial Sunday singles matches.  High performance in the face of adversity is much more likely if the person feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves who truly cares for them (i.e. a "supportive, celebrative community"). 
The European captain spent time over two years (often at the expense of his own personal success) frequently having dinner with his team, talking to them on the phone regularly, and spending 3 nights at the home of the most introverted, private person on the team to understand him better.  He even talked to the players' caddies to learn more about what made the players tick.  As a leader, he was truly serving in the team's best interest and the team knew it and responded wholeheartedly to him. 
The European captain in the recent Ryder Cup matches demonstrates the leadership style that businesses need to emulate to be successful.  In order to motivate our team to deal with tough global competition and with shifting technology trends in a manner that wins more than it loses, we must be "servant leaders" who engage in "caring, constructive dialogue" with our team and who lead them into a "supportive, celebrative community" that enables them to handle adversity and still triumph.  Today’s employees don't follow someone because they are smart - they follow people they trust who care about them and who listen to them.  As one of my friends says, "They don't care what you know until they know that you care."  
April 16, 2011

What Is "System Thinking" Anyway?

 You may have heard of the term "Systems Thinking" and, if you are like many people I have mentioned the term to, you probably rolled your eyes and thought "here we go again - another foray into arcane theory".  However, I believe that each one of us actually engages in "Systems Thinking" regularly - we just don't realize it.

To help explain why I believe I know what is going on inside your head, let me quote something I heard recently:  "A system is just a way of looking at the world". So, in business, your system is the way you look at the workings of your business (e.g. how do things work, what are the causes and effects, who influences decisions, etc.) and the broader industry in which your business and your competitor's work.  I believe that it is safe to state that everyone who works in a business forms a framework in which they operate to achieve the results they desire.  That framework may be rudimentary when one first joins a company but it becomes more complex over time as you "figure out the ropes" and become more experienced in making things happen.  That framework that helps you be effective can also be called your "system".

Assuming that you will grant me that you do operate within your "system", I believe that, as you gain experience and learn more ways to make things happen, you are thinking about how you should change your approach to be more efficient and effective.  Examples of such "system thoughts" might be: "People are more willing to help me if I have been helpful to them in the past - I'll look for ways to be helpful." or "The stakeholders who need to agree to my recommendation always want an assessment of risks and worst-cost scenarios so I may as well provide those the first time rather than being sent back to answer those questions after the initial presentation."  Since we all learn as we grow in our roles, we often think about how to make our part of the company work better and, when we do that, we are engaging in "systems thinking".

However, I believe that, if we stop there, our "systems thinking" remains primarily tactical and focuses mostly on our world within the company.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with that, I believe that limiting our thinking to just our part of the company restricts both our impact and our ability to drive beneficial change.  I believe that, rather than focusing on our local context, we should look at the broader company and how it operates.  If I asked you to sit down and draw a diagram and explain to me how your company serves its customers and how it acquires information or assets in order to meet the needs of its customers, I believe you could (with probably a couple of false starts) do a reasonably good job of depicting your company's work flow and processes.  Moreover, I believe you could describe the various teams within your company and how they work together to serve customers.  In fact, if you have been at the company very long at all, I believe you would have an opinion about how well the various teams operate, how decisions get made, and what gets in the way of efficiency or quality.  If I am right and you did what I just described, you would have created a "system diagram" of how your company operates.

If you agree with me that you could create a "system diagram" of how your company works (at at least the part of the company you work in), then all you have to do to engage in "Systems Thinking" is to consciously think about what is getting in the way of good results from that bigger entity and how things could work better.  To do that, you will probably need to consciously step back and look at the end to end picture and think about why things work the way they do and what causes the "stumbling blocks" that people trip over regularly.  If you can start forming those ideas in our head, the next step is to figure out how to get rid of those "stumbling blocks (e.g. if you had the power to do so, what would you change to get rid of the things that are slowing the team down or making costs higher than they need to be or impacting the quality of the team's output?).  If you have gone that far, you are well into the realm of "Systems Thinking"!

You may well be thinking to yourself "What good is it to figure out what I'd do if I had the power when I'm not in charge?".  However, if you have an idea of what needs to change to make the company better, you will be amazed at all the ways in which you can impact the company's performance (either directly or through interaction with others).  In fact, I believe that, by bringing those broader perspectives and ideas to bear on your local context, you will help your own team perform more effectively (at the very least) and that you will probably be able to improve relationships with other teams and extend your influence much wider than you currently think possible.

Based on my experience, our "system thinking brain muscles" need to be exercised and trained to be most effective, just like the muscles of our body. Like any new skill, "Systems Thinking" may feel awkward at first and it may be difficult to communicate your ideas and the thinking behind them.  However, please persevere - it will get easier over time.  As we have all heard many times, "no pain - no gain".  This is just as true of our "system thinking brain muscles" as it is of our physical muscles.

If this makes sense to you but you want to do a bit more reading about Systems Thinking, I suggest you pick up a copy of Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline to help you understand the theoretical foundations for Systems Thinking.  If you are looking for examples of how Systems Thinking has worked in practice, I suggest you read my book Travels In Telecom: Don't Be Afraid To Screw Up ... and Prosper.  It is only available on-line at the Catalog Page of this website (


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Ibrahim Ibrahim on August 25, 2013 12:27 PM
People nolramly pay me for this and you are giving it away!

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