Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. – Frederick Douglass
I’m reading Brian Wilson’s Systems: Concepts, methodologies and applications as I reflect on my own practice and puzzling over something. If you’re trying to make a situation better and you understand that you can’t do it by just working on one element in that situation then you’re well on your way to thinking systemically, about the whole that’s in front of you. Just like you can’t become the best runner you can be by exercising just your left leg so that you can accelerate from a standing start as fast as possible. You also need to do the rest of the work, build up other muscles and your heart.
Anything we do consists of a set of activities. In organisations, we do these activities in concert with others. At the highest level, then, you can map out the activities and how they relate to each other. Think of this like the interactions between marketing, purchasing and engineering, for example, among others. Activities tell you what should be happening but of course they don’t happen by themselves. There are also people involved and there is a network of relationships between them that lies below the activities that you have identified. It’s the connections and interplay between the people in the organisation that makes it all work.
When you want to improve the situation you start by looking at the activities and seeing if you can do them more effectively. To do them more effectively you then focus on the people and how they work together. The thing is that even if you try and restructure the work or add or remove reporting or change or add people it’s possible that things don’t get better. And I wondered why this might be – why is it that if we are more efficient in what we do and who does what things can still just not work.
This reminded me of the basement model of your body and how you might not be aware of what’s going on under the surface of your conscious self. In the same way we don’t always see what’s happening below the obvious and visible aspects of our organisations. If you look below the activities and the network you might see people and how they feel – and I saw this as in the picture above. Maybe some people are fine – they’re on the boat doing a job they can do well or they’re in charge steering things. Others have fallen overboard, struggling with what they have on, beset with problems. Others have been overwhelmed, sinking below the surface, with nothing left to give.
The challenge for leaders in organisations is having conversations at the deeper levels of the model. You can talk about activities and you can talk about roles and interactions. The last level, however, is hidden and hard to access, not least because people are worried about the impact it will have on their jobs and how they are perceived. It’s difficult to create a truly safe space to have these kinds of difficult conversations. But if you don’t then everything you talk about is at a superficial level, treating the symptoms and not the underlying cause.
I have no answers to this problem. Maybe Wilson’s book will address it later in the text but for now, it’s an open question. How do you create a safe space for others and yourself?