Understanding The System Beats Recruiting People Every Time

How much better off would we ALL be, if all the resources poured pointlessly into chasing talent were instead poured into understanding systems, and systems thinking?

The Quintessential Group

This week I got the opportunity to speak at the prestigious Archbishop’s Palace, a place steeped in history and first mentioned in the Domesday Book nearly 950 years ago. It’s one of those places where as you talk about today’s problems you can’t help but mentally place them in a better context. I was talking to a group of Education Executives having been invited by Forum Strategy as part of day discussing leading and generating improvement at scale across multiple sites and contexts that remove silos.

Most companies think and see in vertical lines across a series of vertical silos. This leaves numerous blind spots where complexity and inefficiency can thrive. This is the overlooked part of your organisational operating system, yet we often fail to learn from it.

Who better to be talking to about the failings of organisational learning than a group of very senior educators?

Our teachers often leave an imprint on us that will last our entire lifetime. You can ask the question “Who was your best and worst teacher at school?” to pretty much anyone on the planet and get a very rich and vivid answer. We don’t forget them.

Despite this, education is just another sector in crisis – 44% of teachers aspire to leave the profession in the next few years citing unmanageable workloads and a lack of support. In a Guardian piece from earlier this year Dr Mary Bousted said successive education secretaries had “failed to get a grip on the issues facing teachers”.

However, as we discussed at the session , ‘failing to get a grip’ is the hallmark of our housing, education, health, and energy secretaries too – and I’m sure readers from other sectors will add other departments. As I said on the day, I genuinely couldn’t list the last 10 housing ministers we’ve had and I frankly couldn’t care. It’s an irrelevant distraction. We are masters of our own destiny because we have to be.

Of course , generating improvement at scale often means abandoning ways of operating that you hold dear and tackling the system itself. But instead of tackling the system we often spend our time recruiting, restructuring or buying software.

Rarely do we tackle the system. As Deming outlined in his famous Red Bead Experiment any effect that the individual may have is generally swamped by the system they are a part of, in fact the variability they cause is just part of that system overall. As management owns the system, the workers themselves have little influence over the outcomes. When it comes to people vs the system, the system always wins.

Try this thought experiment. How much of management time is spent in your organisation optimising how the system works?

Now think how much time is spent launching new initiatives, HR ephemera, chasing KPIs for processes that shouldn’t exist, issuing colleague announcements and training courses for courses sake?

That’s the system that creates the duplication, the meetings, the bikeshedding, the heavy workloads.

Image via Chris Bolton

In his book Beyond Command and Control, John Seddon states the change HR – or any people function – needs to make is obvious. “It needs to work on the 95% of the system that governs performance, not the 5% that doesn’t.” I agree but I’d argue that’s beyond HR and beyond most teams as if they had that capability they would have solved it already.

In the session we talked about how we need to rewire our organisations so they don’t crave more and more resources and cash. That’s all central government hears from health, housing, social care, education, justice, defence. And yet we know that 30% of what we do is waste.

So we talked positively about moving away from craving resource towards optimising strategy. Focusing on essential core purpose and resisting chasing the latest fashions or sector trends.

Where to start though?

I’ll end as I began, with someone else’s words rather than my own, as I can’t say this any better.

The place to start is to really understand your system, from the perspective of how well it meets its purpose (as defined by its customers, not you), and then critically reflect on what this tells you, and why it is like this.

Then…think about what really needs to change.

This will be different to what you are currently thinking.

If not, you probably haven’t seen what you needed to see.


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