In my 30+ years of working in and with many organizations, I have seen many attempts to change the way people do things. Some are successful, some fail. Systems thinking can give us insights on how to make change initiatives more successful. The core idea of systems thinking is that the structure of a system influences its behavior. Any business system includes people, process and tools. Trying to change behavior (i.e., the way people do things) without considering all three is a recipe for failure.
I was trained as an engineer and am prone to a tool/technology bias. It’s not only me – this bias is endemic in our culture. How many times have you witnessed this scenario: Got a problem? Let’s buy or create a tool to solve it. From Fitbits to geoengineering the climate, we look to tools and technology to solve our problems. But tools and technology are only part of our systems. We also need to consider people and processes.
Here’s a simple example. I was working with a client starting to collect and manage data about their greenhouse gas emissions. They asked for help reviewing their results and also asked for observations and recommendations on how they could improve their data collection and management system. Here’s a summary of our recommendations:
- Define clear roles and responsibilities for data collection, validation and analysis at the various levels (e.g., site, region, corporate)
- Ensure the goals of data collection are clear to staff and the understand what the results will be used for (e.g., public reporting, targeted performance improvement, etc.)
- Ensure adequate staff are available to fulfill responsibilities
- Provide appropriate training on how to use the tools and who to contact if they have questions or find “exceptions” to the rule
- Build these responsibilities into performance objectives (“carrot and stick”)
- Provide incentives to encourage good behavior (“carrot”)
- Define regular processes for data collection, data submission, data review and data analysis (e.g., weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly)
- Ensure appropriate balance of effort between data collection, data analysis and feedback based on results so that the impact of actions taken can be seen in the data
- Assign responsibilities for each step in these processes
- Communicate expectations to all affected staff
- Follow up regularly to ensure processes are being followed, and revise processes as required to adapt to new information
- Provide a tool that simplifies the overall process and creates value, helping users to focus more on analysis and actions, and less on getting the data
- In the interim, improve existing tools (e.g., use version control, improve documentation, simplify, etc.)
I can’t guarantee success if you follow this advice, but making sure to include people, process and tools in your plans will improve your chances of making change successful at your organization.