Module 9: Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change - Communication, Accountability and Innovation

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Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change

Communication, Accountability and Innovation

Systems Thinking

A Primer on Systems Thinking – What is a System?

W. Edwards Deming, defines a system as “a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish a common aim.” [1]

A pile of sand is technically not a system since the removal of a single component (i.e., a grain of sand) does not change the functioning of the collectivity (i.e., the pile). Furthermore, there is no “aim” designed into or emanating from the pile.

In contrast, a car is a system that comprises thousands of parts that all work together to provide transportation to a driver.

If you remove the gasoline tank, then the car fails to perform its aim properly. In this case, the aim is designed into the car by the automobile design team, so the car is a mechanical, not a living, system.

An organization needs to run as a system if it wants to implement change successfully

What is a System? (Continued)

Living systems are the most complex forms of systems.

What makes them unique is that they interact with their environment and are self-organizing. As a result, the aim is not designed in but constantly evolving over time.

Living systems can be something as simple as a cell, to something as complex as the European Union.

Therefore, one of the ways of determining whether a collectivity is a system or not is:

Determine whether or not the interacting parts possess a central aim or purpose.

Determine whether or not the removal of a component changes the functioning of the overall system. [2]

What Is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking builds on our understanding of natural and man-made systems. It emphasizes that we need to understand how the whole affects its parts and how the parts affect the whole.

Systems thinkers tell us that there are two types of systems-closed and open:

Closed systems function as systems relatively independent of their environment;

Open systems are constantly exchanging material, energy, and information with their environment.

Systems Thinking and Organizational Change - The Delusion of Mental Models

Peter Senge says we all have mental models of how things work.
When our organizations are not functioning properly, he suggests we need to reconsider our individual and collective mental models.

Therefore, change-capable organizations are conscious of their shared mental models, and are adept in revising those mental models when they no longer work.

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This is not easy to do because:

“Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even picture or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects that they have on our behavior”. [3]

The Delusion of Individual Initiative Within a System

“The systems perspective tells us we must look beyond individual mistakes or bad luck to understand problems. We must look into the underlying structures which shape individual actions and create the conditions where types of events become likely.” [4]

When an individual or subunit within an organization is not meeting performance standards, the traditional response by the individual or subunit is to “work harder.”

Sometimes this works; often it does not. When this does not work, Senge points out that often the system is the problem, rather than the individual or individuals who are working within the system.

Never rush and place blame on an individual employee- perhaps the problem lies within the system!

The Delusion of Learning From Experience

Most learning comes from reflection on the experienced effects that are the result of certain actions.

For example, a common lesson learned within organizations is “When I deliver requested results on time and within budget, my project continues being funded.”

However, what happens when there is not a direct effect of our actions on organizational outcomes? When learning from direct experience doesn’t work, Senge suggests that we need to think more systemically about cause and effect. He states:

“Herein lies the core learning dilemma that confronts organizations: We learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.” [5]

Practice 1: Try to Anticipate “Ripple Effects” of Change Initiatives

Unintended side effects are common with pharmaceuticals, so why should we be surprised when the same thing happens during or after an organizational change?

Organizations are complex, interdependent social systems. Like a water balloon, when we push on one part of it, another part changes. While anticipating the side effects of a change initiative is not easy to do, effort should be made to envision what those effects might be.

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In sum, anticipating ripple effects is more art than science, but the effort will ensure that unintended side effects are avoided and will deepen the change sponsors’ understanding of the systemic nature of change.

Practice 2: Small Changes Can Produce Big Results; Search for Optimal Levers

There are no rules for finding high-leverage changes, but there are ways of thinking that make it more likely. Learning to see “structures” rather than “events” is a starting point. Thinking in terms of processes of change rather than “snapshots” is another. [7]

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book on this very topic and it was given the graphic term “tipping points.” Gladwell argues that “the world may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push-in just the right place-it can be tipped.” [8]

Learning how your system has tipped in the past, and understanding who or what was involved can be an invaluable insight into thinking systemically about your organization.

Try to know the tipping points in your organization prior to implementing change!

Practice 3: Identify Feedback Loops and Multiple Drivers of Change

Systemic change involves multiple feedback loops and drivers of change. As such, focusing on a single causal variable is not helpful.

Barry Oshry writes about “spatial” and “temporal” blindness within an organizational system. He recommends that people from various parts of the system need to take time out to reflect collectively so as to transcend their blind spots. [9]

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For example, one often hears executives argue that “it is all about the right reward systems-get your rewards right and everything falls into place.”

While reward systems are very important and a key part of organizational change capability, they are a subsystem within a larger system that has many complex and interacting parts.


Spatial blindness is about seeing the part without seeing the whole. Temporal blindness is about seeing the present without the past.

Both forms of blindness need to be overcome in order to better understand
cause and effect within a system.

Practice 4: Align Change Initiatives Around an Inspiring Vision of the Future

In sum, a compelling and well communicated vision is key to bringing about change within an organizational system, and this is central to systems thinking.

Change is difficult and often painful. People generally will not give up an idea, behavior, or mental model without latching onto something to replace it. The something that they need to hold onto is the shared vision of the future.

In their analysis of over 10,000 successful change initiatives in organizations, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner found that the creation of an inspiring vision of the future was always present. [10]

Employees need to know what to expect in the future if change is implemented!

Practice 5: Engage in Vigorous Dialogue Around the Welfare of the System

Dialogue aimed at understanding the organizational system is fundamental to enhancing systems thinking.

This dialogue should involve top executives, middle managers, frontline workers, and customers at repeated intervals.

Organizational systems gurus, such as Deming, Senge, and Oshry, all agree that the key to systemic thinking is to involve a wide variety of voices within the system talking and listening to each other.

Town hall meetings, weekend retreats, and organizational intranets are a common and increasingly popular means of engaging in dialogue about the system.

Employees need to know what to expect in the future if change is implemented!

Practice 6: Work to Maintain Openness to the System to Avoid Entropy

A systemic perspective is essential for making your organization change capable. Systems thinking is an infrastructure within which all change takes place.

When an individual or group within the system engages with another individual or group within the system that is “not normal”; new information is created within that system.

This new information can lead to energy and matter transfer that counteracts systemic entropy.

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Intrasystemic openness occurs when two departments agree to collaborate on a project that contains mutual benefits to each. “Open door” policies are clearly a step in the right direction.

Extrasystemic openness occurs when new employees are hired, when external consultants are engaged, and when individuals attend trade association meetings or external training sessions.


[1] Deming (1986). Out of the crisis. Boston, MA: MIT Press.

[2] Miller (1978). Living systems. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

[3] Senge (1990). The fifth discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[4] Senge (1990). The fifth discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[5] Senge (1990). The fifth discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[6] Hebel (2007). Light bulbs and change: Systems thinking and organizational learning for new ventures. Learning Organization, 14(6), 499-511.

[7] Senge (1990). The fifth discipline. New York, NY: Doubleday.

[8] Gladwell (2002). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York, NY: Little, Brown.

[9] Oshry (1996). Seeing systems. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

[10] Kouzes and Posner (2003). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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