Q: How do you “do” systems thinking if you dont have authority or resources or a project board or a programme or Cabinet approval?
A: You just do it.
Skipping far ahead in this story, I was telling a colleague about Benefits experimenting with their redesign and their astounding results, and she asked an unexpected question.
“How did you get approval for all this?”
I must have looked bemused because there was a further question. “You must have got approval, didn’t you? How was it all done so quickly?”.
Sometimes the inferential steps are running in the other direction as it took me a long while to locate the real question, which was a genuine confusion over how activity and change could happen without being festooned with reports, briefing notes, approvals from theme boards and from Cabinet. There was nothing.
Today, right now typing these actual words I have realised an astounding piece of data that’s going to stick with me. From Check through to the experiment phase and beyond…
NOT ONE REPORT HAS BEEN WRITTEN
There is no Word document you can pick up and hold in your hand. Everything has been done using Excel to gather and store data, or PowerPoint to display it and the story to others in meetings. But there isn’t a Word document as there has never been a need for one as there has never been a need to gain approval. The manager of Benefits said at the beginning that this was their number one priority, that doesn’t need to be written down as it was clearly the case, it was said and people heard and believed it.
On two occasions people have asked me for “a report”, when I’ve been telling them about Benefits. I’ve replied “it’s all being written up in the blog”. When they looked at me non-plussed I took to be just the way that people are around new media and the internet, information there is not as valid yet as things written on paper in organisations. But it’s more than that, it’s that in command and control organisations the official reality is the reality held in official reports that have been through the appropriate sign-offs, and without that, Systems Thinking in Benefits doesn’t really exist .
Which means unfettered by that bureaucracy you can change and improve through rapid experimentation with no need for approvals or sign offs or quarterly milestone reporting. You just experiment with method.
Astonishingly, because Word documents about it don’t exist, it’s invisible and we can get on with it. A year ago when Vanguard came to do the Systems Thinking Fundamentals, someone in the room asked if they could write a report for us on something or another. The lady replied “Vanguard don’t do reports”. I thought that was one of the coolest things I had ever heard. She should have been wearing shades when she said it, and perhaps in a Mexican accent.
Now I understand.
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