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The Agile benefits from Systems thinking

If you disengage from the previous styles of leadership, which were based on a strong, authoritarian superior, who did not involve his employees in decisions, expected unconditional obedience, sanctioned in case  of a mistake and understood decisions as orders, then this has a great influence on the thinking of all those involved. With the agile, abilities are now appearing on the screen that have been described by chaos, complexity, social and systems sciences for decades. Systems thinking offers approaches that contribute to the new agility.

Let us look at the new ways of thinking that Barry Richmond described briefly at the turn of the millennium and that are reproduced here in slightly different ways.

  • Dynamic thinking
    The analytical thinking becomes clear through a focus on the individual parts, technical variety, valuing consideration, clear measuring points, strict organization and objective science. The new paradigms have worked out that through this view important aspects get lost.
    Systems thinking, in contrast, is based on holistic thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, relationships between the elements, the mapping of different perspectives, difficult to measure properties, processes, and epistemic science (more here).
    Agility draws its advantages from considering the process-oriented behavior and the related milestones as well as the active coherence and dependencies.
  • System-as-Cause Thinking
    In the past the starting point for activities were the influencing factors that affected a system (System-as-Effect). With the recognition that the system is the cause of its behavior, the attention was shifted to the creation of guidelines and open forms of collaboration.
    Agility uses simple rules and promotes the self-organization of those involved to respond to Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous circumstances.
  • Forest Thinking
    The categorizing, continuously drilling-down approach of the past, which, with more and more computer power, has led to not seeing the forest for the trees, is now being replaced by a holistic way of thinking that approaches the problem by looking at the whole, the forest. In this way you get through the coherence, the relationships and dependencies closer to a viable solution.
    The agile thinking promotes this by making everyone responsible for the whole and to make decisions accordingly.
  • Operative thinking
    The emphasis in analytical thinking is on the factors that lead to a behavior. This comprises education, training or the lived experiences. They move into the center of the treatment, which gets designed and predicted. In contrast, operational thinking focuses on the behavior – especially on the current, visible action. This allows looking at the issues that one intends to deal with. At the same time, solutions can be derived that lead to an immediate change in behavior.
    You are not agile theoretically, but always practically by focusing on tasks that produce viable results.
  • Circular thinking
    If one moves in a one-way street and a cause is followed by an effect that is a cause that is followed by an effect, … then this corresponds to analytical thinking. This is stimulated by the fact that we can only process 7plusminus2 facts at the same time. Actually, we always operate in a dynamic environment, which means that one cause leads to many effects, which in turn produce many effects and, under certain circumstances, lead to a feedback to the first cause. Because of our modest power of imagination, we avoid circular thinking because it overloads us, and we feel forced to escape into simplifications.
    Agility uses short control loops, e.g. sprints, which take a maximum of four weeks, to produce all kinds of results.
  • Qualitative thinking
    Through the legacy of analytical thinking, the focus on metrics and measures, most of us, will always look for the next key indicators to support our decision makings. The result of an addition (e.g. 1+1=2) is not a decision, but only a logical consequence of using mathematics. Decisions require qualities, if you are looking for patterns in behavior in order to decide whether you do something like this or like that.
    Agility therefore also looks for the soft factors that determine progress and it prefers intuitive opinions to hard facts.
  • New scientific thinking
    The biggest road block of analytical thinking is that the obvious goal is always to confirm one’s own hypothesis. And this, although Karl Popper introduced falsification into scientific work very early on – the idea that one must always strive to refute one’s own thesis. The next point is that one must always present one’s argument in such a way that everyone can show its falsity. Therefore, appropriate test cases must be prepared.
    Agility promotes this approach through cross-functional teams, which are not determined by distributed tasks, e.g. developers and testers, but by a joint responsibility for all aspects of the outcome.

Bottom line: It is the attitude that determines the agile future. This includes known skills that have been used for years and have proven themselves. These different thinking styles (see above) are contrary to our spiritual strengths and the practiced behavior patterns, but they follow laws that have proven themselves in nature. Once the acquired node of analytical thinking is unraveled in our mind through consciously striving toward systems thinking, the above thinking styles can be applied easily. The good news is: the agile benefits from systems thinking.

Business processes are rarely the problem

Digitalization increases the proportion of mechanically consecutively executed steps that are performed by computers at an incredible speed. This fulfills the dream of many process designers – finally the flows can be introduced reliably. The fact that only simple operations can be determined is overseen with the amount of documents regarding inputs, outputs, KPIs and process steps. However, the VUCA reality requires the ability to react to short-term changes. And these skills are still provided by humans – albeit not as fast as computers. Despite advancing digitalization, the road blocks of recent years must still be taken into account.

It is a surprising phenomenon that the people, who work the most with business processes, are the biggest impediment to application. As Peter Drucker puts it: „Anyone who only has a hammer as a tool will see a nail in every problem“. The next few points illustrate such shortcomings.

  • Processes are not code
    Even if digitization is currently putting business flows back on the agenda, so those parts that are continuously executed by people remain the issues. The flows are not a program code that you „upload“ to employees and then everything runs smoothly. It is rather the case that everything runs DESPITE the determined operations.
    This requires the consideration of the employees when describing the activities. It only needs so much specification that the missing subtleties can be added by the employees as soon as they have understood the flow.
  • Described is only half the battle
    Since we are all driven by targets, the outcomes we produce have to be measurable. It is not a question of abolishing the description – only what is printable is valuable. It is more important that you do not stop, when the flow is documented. How useful are the best instructions, if nobody can fulfill them. Many a responsible person hides behind the flood of flowcharts, which he has created and forgets that the real work is only just beginning.
    Those affected must be introduced into process thinking, understand the business process and recognize their part in the realization – the sooner, the better.
  • Processes are a top management task
    The biggest hurdles in the realization are the decision-makers. Of course they are on fire at the beginning and announce the necessary guiding principles – from end to end. It usually does not take long for other topics to become more important – unfortunately, before the procedural measures are fully implemented. That way, managers undermine their own intentions and have to face the shambles of their wishes within a very short time – which does not prevent them from starting the next but one initiative on the shards. Over time, this leads to a multi-project portfolio, endless reprioritization, frustrated employees and a desire from above: Do the one thing, without let doing the other.
    As long as the decision-makers do not consider the flows in all their tasks and ensure that they do not get stuck in the end, business flows have no chance of create their impact.
  • People will not do, what they do not understand
    Although these actions permeate the day-to-day business and actually affect all employees and managers, the responsible people make great efforts to protect the flow descriptions in such a way that only selected people get a glimpse. Even after the sequences have been approved and released for realization, efforts are rarely made to inform employees comprehensively. There is no big picture to explain the rough interplay, or the critical issues, or the new skills that are needed, or the workflow that is actually to be executed by the employees.
    As long as the business processes are treated as secret knowledge, without explaining the notation, the documentation is not made available and the parties involved cannot join, the employees will resistively let the tsunami pass over them without changing anything – business as usual.

Bottom line: Digitization is once again crying out for new flows – for all regions, cultures and languages. Business Process Management (BPM) is an honorable discipline, so there are no more unknowns. All elements, procedures, methods and formats are available as best practices. And yet the initiatives are still unsatisfactory. This is partly due to

  • Wrong understanding: Processes are not code
  • Missing dissemination: Described is only half the battle
  • Lack of support: Processes are a top management task
  • Real resistance of those affected: People will not do, what they do not understand

As long as those affected are forgotten and leaders continue to afford this homemade chaos, the cycles of unsatisfactory BPM activities will repeat. Business processes are rarely the problem.