Thanks for asking. Still tired but I made some good progress on a project I’ve been working on for about 6 months. I actually slept better after finishing this draft. But that’s not today’s topic…
Today I want to reflect on jam and systems. Jam systems. Jammed systems. Systemed jam. Systems of jam. I need to stop before I can no longer say “jam” and still understand what it means.
I really like raspberry jam. Even if the seeds get stuck in my teeth, it tastes like summer. If you are a manager and have not heard of the Law of Raspberry Jam, I’m sure you have felt it. Jerry Weinberg writes about the Law of Raspberry Jam in his book The Secrets of Consulting: the more you spread it, the thinner it gets. I learned this as a team lead at my previous job where I tried to build up testing and fix everything and anything that was wrong with quality.
As a competence head, I’ve now learned that the higher you go vertically, the more you are in danger in spreading yourself too thin. It’s an asymmetry that probably can’t be helped and that C-level executives probably know better than I do: the higher you go, the more there are people who place demands on your time so that your time becomes extremely fractured. It’s just there’s still one (jar) of you (to spread across those demands).
Managing one’s energy is important to be able to work on and achieve stuff continuously and in sustainable manner. Managing your energy well also means you know your priorities as you will spend it only on important things. If only it was easy to identify priorities when all opinions are different and contradicting… But there’s always something you can observe that can tell you what’s important to achieve and whom to get support from to succeed.
Being a manager, I’ve found systems thinking to become increasingly important for uncovering organizational dynamics. Combined with sketching it allows to visualize the system and its parts which is a great exercise for clarifying your own thinking. So after a couple of months, I was able to sketch the organizational dynamics that I considered detrimental to its strategy and goals (and to my goals), and the visualizations helped me discuss it with others. Making changes to the organization at this level was not in my scope or under my influence but at least I could express my concerns, and point at potential obstacles.
There was a downside. Once I understood (or thought I understood) how the organizational dynamics worked, I also saw how all the things I thought of trying to bring about change would fail. It’s entirely possible that someone with a different mindset would have only seen opportunities not obstacles.
I see opportunities too. I’m simply pessimistic about overcoming some of them. Especially those that get perpetuated in the organizational structure and behaviors. This is quite abstract but here are a few heuristics to use:
- what gets talked about in all-hands-on-deck meetings held by C-level management
- how managers handle requests for collaboration coming to their team or going out of their team
- how much awareness and knowledge there is in one team about what kind of practices are used in other teams
- how much slack people have to attend trainings (either internal or external)
- how much energy and time are people willing to spend on internal educational or social activities
- how much time do people spend talking about each other’s work (and in what tone) at the coffee machine
- what kind of objectives are managers driven by primarily
- how many spontaneous initiatives you see popping up without having to use a stick to get someone do something
The list could go on. Some of these observations can be made within a couple of weeks if you’re new to the organization. Some of them may take longer. Eventually, by observing these behaviors and then investigating the sources of them, you start getting the hang of the system.
For example, if you keep hearing how people “don’t have time” for this or that, then in addition to listening their stories (and justifications), it’s worthwhile looking at how the system structures the use of time, what kind of actions control it, and what kind of other behaviors are related to it. I find that “lack of time” mostly comes down to priorities and preference, hence, it’s informative to learn what drives those.
In systems thinking language:
- where are the flows and what is their direction;
- where are the stocks and what’s their relation to each other and the flows
- what are the feedback loops like in terms of strength
- and so on
In case you’re new to systems thinking, check out Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donna H. Meadows. I think it’s a wonderful introduction to systems thinking.
I had an understanding of how the structure of a system affects the behavior of the system and its parts. I mean.. .isn’t it obvious when you observe any kind of system, especially one that contains humans? Reading Meadows and getting more into systems thinking in general, has helped to make my thinking clearer and has helped me understood the system within which I am operating.
As Meadows has elegantly put it, “System structure is the source of system behavior. System behavior reveals itself as a series of events over time.”
This sums up quite well why I think it’s essential for managers to be skilled systems thinkers. Surely you can affect the behavior of some humans in the system who may then help you change the system (maybe you end up being a bunch of revolutionaries on the chopping block, who knows). However, without understanding the system, it will be hard to direct your efforts. Remember the spread jam? Exactly.
I see my work mostly to be about affecting the system and some of its structures so as to help change in behaviors to emerge that would improve the system, and that would make it sustainable and resilient. (It could also be that I attempt to remove jam from systems or get them “un-jammed”).
But how to do that? I don’t have a magic bullet but I’ve tried and failed and tried, so that is what I’ll cover in my next post: change and a context model for affecting behavior.
Now where’s my raspberry jam…