Monday, November 16, 2009

A Job Description for Systems Thinking

Michael Zang asked how to distill the essence of Systems Thinking into a job description?

Michael's question starts with the challenge of "selling" the idea of a Systems Director to an organization with little experience in this area. The job description therefore contributes to at least four different objectives.

1. To create vision and confidence that there is a job worth doing here (in other words selling).
2. To help select a suitable candidate for the job, without unduly narrowing the field.
3. To help determine a reasonable remuneration for the job.
4. To provide guidance and support to the job-holder, without unduly constraining initiative and innovation.

One of the challenges of a "job description" for systems thinking is that the traditional job description represents a fixed decomposition of responsibilities within the organization. The job-holder is required to carry out such-and-such specified activities, and produce such-and-such specified outcomes. This kind of job description comes out of a reductionist view of the organization. (This remains true even if the description is analysed in terms of systems-friendly "behavioural competences". Absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of reductionism, of course, as long as you don't imagine it's the whole story.)

Whereas a System Director will be working on the whole enterprise-as-a-system and the outcomes may be hard to define in advance. Maybe that's why there aren't many of them.

If you are going to have a System Director, that person will be a leader of systems thinking across the organization, not just going into a darkened room to "do systems thinking" with a small bunch of like-minded chums. In fact, you may follow her around the office and not see any activity that corresponds to a text-book description of what systems thinking is supposed to look like, but things just start to shift in interesting and positive ways.

So one way to explore the role of a System Director would be using the VPEC-T systems thinking framework. The "Content" of the job is presumably about system thinking and transformation, but the other elements (especially "Values" and "Trust") are perhaps more about Leadership.

A typical way of running an organization is that there is collective leadership exercised by all the directors together (notwithstanding the obvious fact that some directors will have more power than others) and in addition each director provides leadership in one specialist area. The role of Systems Director implies that one director is a specialist in systems thinking and systems practice, and brings this specialism (the Content in VPEC-T terms) to the general role of leadership.

Simply by opening up a discussion about the nature of leadership roles within an organization, and using a system-thinking lens like VPEC-T to provide a light structure to the discussion, could be a really good way of edging the organization into new ways of tackling complex problems.

The question of Trust is clearly a major issue for any organization. The System Director will draw a decent salary (presumably commensurate with her status in the organization), consume other resources, demand time and attention from her peers, push people out of their comfort zones, and so on, all for the sake of some uncertain and unquantifiable benefits to the organization. There is a much greater commitment here than employing an external consultant, so a considerable degree of trust is required.

But "selling" is not just getting an organization to accept the idea of "Systems Director". What's more important is for the organization to be able to trust the person occupying this role.

And in many unreflective organizations, people are trusted if and only if they fit the organization's stereotype of what people should be like. And yet someone who fits this stereotype may be unable to perform the role. So there is a critical tension to be confronted here.

For me then, what's most interesting about the job description is not the contents of the finished document (competences, outcomes, and so on) but the process of negotiating it - so that it provides a focus for critical discussions between stakeholders and their advisers that will help set appropriate expectations about the role, and start to build the trust that will be required.


When this question was put to the Linked-In Systems Thinking group, some of the discussants went to some slightly unproductive places, perhaps responding in advance to positions they imagined others might take. For example, arguing which of the many available schools of systems thinking should be written into the job description. (My own opinion is that it would be better to keep the job description as neutral as possible rather than writing it in the language of any one school in particular.) There was also some (in my view wholly unnecessary) deprecation of people who don't share The Vision, dismissing them as left-brained Cartesians, with a special dig at accountants. One of the enemies of the systems approach (as identified by Churchman) is politics. Even in a Systems Thinking discussion group (which a naive person might imagine would know better) we can see how easily how schism emerges and the debate gets unnecessarily politicized.

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