Reduce overwhelm by fine-tuning your organization’s systems

Too many leaders have been consumed by their organizations. They’re too busy putting out fires to think about how they want it to run. They’re spending too much time in the “engine room” of their organization, rather than providing strategic direction from the captain’s chair.

I believe that we should learn to adequately appreciate and respect the important systems in our organizations. Then we can begin to fine-tune them and get things running the way we’ve envisioned.

In writing this article, I’ve been inspired by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, one of my childhood heroes. Regardless of whether the Starship Enterprise was being attacked or sucked into a wormhole, he was always composed on the command deck and able to provide strategic leadership to his team. Furthermore, he let his officers and crew do their work with trust, since the processes and the technology they used had been fine-tuned over generations.

There are signs of automation everywhere; fear of artificial intelligence taking jobs; and the “fourth industrial revolution” haunts the media. The good news is that if we learn to see and work with systems, then we’ll be able to benefit from these trends. We can use them to increase the sustainability and impact of our organizations.

This article will unpack my view of organizational systems and the benefits of working with them.

What are organizational systems?

I define organizational systems broadly as:

The combination of people, processes and technology that work together in a structured and repeating manner to achieve a specified outcome.

For example, let’s consider your organization’s project management systems. Managing projects requires people (e.g. project managers, specialists, administrative support). It requires processes, which may range from informal through to formal and explicitly documented, as is prescribed by the PRINCE2 or PMI project management standards.

Project management also requires tools (e.g. Inception Meetings, Risk Assessment, GANTT Charts, Work Breakdown Structure) and technology (e.g. Excel, MS Project, Google Calendar, Sales Force).

Successful organizations are built on effective systems. This is a simple truth. Conversely, the problems and crises that regularly occur in our organization are as a result of dysfunctions in its systems. In most cases, the Pareto Principle will apply – 20% of your systems will cause 80% of your problems and late nights. Improving problematic systems will significantly improve your organization’s ability to smoothly achieve its goals.

The most important systems tend to be those that deliver value to customers and/or beneficiaries, and those that drive your organization forward.

Adopt a systems perspective

Leaders who learn to see their organizations as a collection of systems will be inclined to see problems as a result systems error. Sometimes it will be easy for them to identify a system that has run amok; other times the dysfunction will manifest slowly over time and require more detective work.

Then once the problem has been identified and mapped, leaders can begin to redesign and optimize the guilty system.

Sam Carpenter in Work the System clearly explains a leader’s role:

The leader’s role is to first see the wheels of the machine, and then to get those wheels turning with maximum efficiency. It is simple logic. Creating efficient subsystems should cause the primary system to be efficient too…But for many people, there is no deliberate effort to dissect and then perfect the sequential workings of more complex, wide-angle system processes…Too many of us just churn along, wasting our days revisiting the same problems over and over again because we aren’t focusing on the elements of the equation.

To embrace this role, leaders must learn to adopt a meta perspective where they can simultaneously work within a system while observing themselves as part of the system. In other words, they must be able to simultaneously work within their organization and on their organization.

In their latest book, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from Basecamp suggest that leaders should see their business as a product:

It begins with this idea: Your company is a product…A company is like software. It has to be usable, it has to be useful. And it probably also has bugs, places where the company crashes because of bad organizational design or cultural oversights…When you start to think about your company as a product, all sorts of new possibilities for improvement emerge. When you realize the way you work is malleable, you can start moulding something new, something better.

I’m consistently striving to see systems in this manner and I encourage you to do the same.

Benefits of effective organizational systems

There are several reasons why leaders need to invest the time to identify and fine-tune the systems in their organizations. Here are five reasons that are top of my mind.

1. Reduce error – Consistent errors are a signal that a system is dysfunctional. Correct the underlying problem and error levels should decrease. While this is much easier said than done, it is ultimately much better than dealing with constant drama and putting out fires all the time.

For example, I work closely with Citizen Surveys, a social research company that conducts large-scale fieldwork each month. Its datasets are monitored daily and scanned for unusual and illogical patterns. The source of any error is tracked down in a forensic process. The originating problem in its systems is then fixed, through tactics such as adding more validations to the electronic questionnaire, retraining interviewers, changing the GIS constraints on the locations were interviews can be conducted etc. Essentially, errors help to teach the systems how to improve.

2. Increase speed – Sometimes we waste a lot of time trying to remember the next step in a process, especially if it is something we only do occasionally.

I work with STEPS, which works to treat clubfoot in South Africa. It used to take days for the team to process each order of orthopaedic shoes (“bracers”) and deliver them to healthcare professionals throughout Africa. The process was done manually and followed an ad-hoc process. It was “such a pain” according to the director. After examining and redesigning this process, it now takes 30 minutes of their time. The new system uses outsourced logistics and storage, a cloud-based ordering and invoicing system, batching of orders, and a detailed process guide for staff. Staff can manage the entire process without being at the office, and the costs work out to be roughly the same. Lots of valuable time is also saved for more essential tasks.

3. Save brain power – Scientist have proven that humans are able to make a limited number of good decisions each day. I believe we should be careful about how we allocate our brain power. By building wisdom into the system, you have fewer decisions to make.

For example, a long-term client used to spend lots of time developing budgets for large scale consulting or research projects, while ensuring that such projects were still profitable in a price war environment. We’ve radically overhauled this system: introduced a different costing method; created roles for each person; introduced collaborative software; and built decision-making into the system via set ratios, parameters and guidelines. Now it is much easier, quicker and takes less brain power, knowledge and experience to prepare good budgets. They can now focus their efforts on developing more persuasive proposals.

4. Assign work more effectively – It is much easier to assign work to subordinates when they have a prescribed system to follow. This increases the likelihood that the outcomes are those that you intended. It also enables you to focus on coaching them in their personal development and the subtle elements of their job.

The same applies to new employees who have joined your organization. It can take up to 6 months for them to be productive. By explicitly documenting the system and building knowledge and wisdom into it, this process is accelerated. This is especially relevant to non-profit organizations and social enterprises that operate on a project basis. Being able to rapidly expand and contract and bring on temporary team members is essential to their survival.

5. Enable succession planning – I work with many founders of non-profit organizations who are ready to retire or move on. They would like to find someone to take over leadership of their organization and grow it further.

By ensuring that all systems are documented and run efficiently, they make it much easier for someone to take over and build upon their legacy. This gives them the peace of mind that they can let go and move on, while someone else takes their turn at the helm.

This also applies to owners who would like to sell their businesses, either because they intend to retire or because the business is giving them too many headaches. However, these businesses would only become attractive to buyers (or be enjoyable to lead) once they run as efficient and independent systems.

How to improve the systems in your organization

I have found that systems improvement centres around your ability to adopt a meta perspective and see yourself as part of the system. Strive to build an organization that can run without you. This will create an organization that is pleasurable to run – one that can be sold or handed over to a new leader who can continue to build upon your legacy.

Get in touch with the pain that dysfunctional systems are causing you. Understand your reasons why you both want and need to optimize your organization’s systems.

It is more difficult to adopt the right mindset than it is to do the work of improving systems, which involves systematically identifying and mapping systems, and figuring how the constituent processes, people and technology can be improved and better integrated with one another.

Sam Carpenter sums up the process of systems improvement as follows:

One by one you take your systems apart, examine them, and then make them better. Over time, complexity and confusion decrease to be replaced by order, calm, and rock-solid self-confidence. Fix one sub system at a time; don’t do them all at once.

Although it is not as easy as this quote suggests, this is nevertheless the base process I’ve used.

Conclusion

Next time you’re called down into the engine room of your organization to fix some problem, spend a moment to reflect on the system that is broken and how process, technology and people are working together to create this problem.

Consider how the system needs to be improved so that the problem can be permanently fixed and never occur in that same way again. It is much more difficult than simply telling someone to do something differently, but at the same time the process of systems improvement is straightforward, provided you are methodical and put in the hard work.

I encourage you to join me in cultivating a systems mindset and learning to see the beauty in how systems can work together in your organization. Let’s work towards creating organizations that are impactful and a pleasure to run. Then you’ll be able spend more time providing strategic leadership from the captain’s chair.

Suggested Books

Thanks to Andy Simpson from Imani Development and Philip Anastasiadis for their valuable contributions to this article.

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