Organisational change is hard at the best of times, and one ‘warning sign’ I’ve learned to look out for is when people position a chosen ‘solution’ as logical, straightforward and somehow ‘easy’ to implement. This is typified by the following statement:
“But we’re just <<insert nature of change here>>, how hard can that be. It’s not rocket science is it?!”
These types of statements are often hard to rebut because they are built on logic, from the perspective of the person that expresses them. However, they rarely embrace the complexity of the situation and environment that is being changed. Let me explain, with a bit of a curve-ball example… the tricky issue of weight loss.
Ever Tried To Lose Weight?
One thing you probably don’t know about me (unless you’ve known me for a very long time), is I used to look quite different to the way I do now. Going back a few decades, I was somewhat overweight. If you saw a picture of me from back then you almost certainly wouldn’t recognise me.
At the time, I wasn’t happy with my ‘stocky’ physique, and from what I recall neither was my doctor. I had high blood pressure and some other health complaints that were almost certainly exacerbated by my size. If we take a perceived problem like “Adrian’s weight”, the parameters for a ‘solution’ can be stated fairly simply: Increase calorie expenditure (exercise) whilst reducing calorie intake (eating less and more healthily). I mean, seriously, what can be simpler, right? And there are so many useful strategies to achieve this today: diet plans, diet clubs, gyms, exercise equipment—how hard can it be. Someone lacking empathy might even be so blunt as to say:
“But you just need to lose weight by moving more and eating less, how hard can that be?”
The answer, as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight will tell you is extremely hard. Having tried to lose weight many times (and failed) the issue wasn’t (for me) a lack of understanding, or will, it was that there was a whole bunch of environmental constraints and ‘noise’ that made this really difficult. Looking at a ‘problem’ like being overweight in isolation does the patient a major injustice. A patient is more than a sum of their symptoms and conditions. There’s far more complexity beneath.
Doom-Loops: Time For Some (Rare) Self-Disclosure
You’ve probably gathered that I did lose weight, and by all accounts rather a lot of weight. This isn’t intended as a ‘weight loss tips’ blog (LOL :)) but I did want to share with you the patterns that helped—because I believe they apply to other organisational problem situations too.
Firstly, I needed to understand the reasons for over-eating. This (for me) was crucial; ironically the issue wasn’t so much with weight, it was with self-esteem and mental health. For a whole range of reasons, I’d got caught up into a comfort-eating doom loop1. I was literally filling a void in my life with food. Strong words, but I’ll bet many people reading understand what I mean.
But the doom-loop was even worse than this… the heavier I got, the worse I felt about myself. This, of course, triggered more comfort eating and we go round again.
Understanding The Doom Loops
Now, I won’t go into the long and boring story of how I ‘improved’ this chicken-and-egg situation but suffice to say it wasn’t just eating less. For me, I had to understand the roots of my insecurity over self-image. Building the self-esteem first, step-by-step enabled me to address the physical health second. It was also necessary for me to pay attention to the environmental constraints. This required thinking about where and when I’d eat, when and where I’d exercise and lots more besides. But crucially, I looked for seemingly small sustainable changes—and tried them. Some didn’t work, but luckily some did. I stuck with the ones that did.
I’m pleased to say, over time and with a lot of experimentation, it worked. Looking back, I now realise I created a virtuous circle—as I lost weight my self-esteem improved even more, which inspired me to lose more weight. This, incidentally can become a problem too, if it becomes too much of a perpetual flywheel. It’s an important balance—equilibrium—for each of us to decide.
But This Blog Isn’t Really About Weight Loss
However, as you’ve probably gathered by now, this blog isn’t (just) about weight loss. The ‘patterns’ from this story apply to other situations too. Perhaps you’ve seen a fire-fighting doom loop in your organisation? Everything is ‘important and urgent’ so there’s no time for preventative maintenance…. Which means the organisation will be perpetually fighting the same (metaphorical) fires.
Organisational fire-fighting is important, of course, but we should also ask ourselves “Who or what has the matches” and “why do they keep starting fires”. By looking more holistically, zooming-out and embracing a range of perspectives we can help highlight and work our way through these tricky issues.
(1). This would more accurately be called a ‘reinforcing causal loop’, but I have refrained from using Systems Dynamics terms here. However, I’d highly encourage folks to take a look at the wide body of knowledge that exists around this subject, e.g. the work of Jay Forrester, Donella Meadows and others. Donella H. Meadows ‘Thinking in Systems’ (2008) is an excellent and accessible read, and is also available as an audiobook. A very brief introduction can be found in Rosenhead & Mingers (2001) ‘Rational Analysis for a Problematical World Revisited’, pp.276-284). If you are in any way interested in the environment, ‘Beyond the Limits’ by Donella Meadows (1972) is a classic read.
A similar, slightly simpler example is included in Emma Langman’s chapter of Archer & Pullen (2013) Business Analysis & Leadership: Influencing Change. (pp.188-189). This chapter is a useful overview of some systems thinking techniques as they might apply in business analysis.
Systems Dynamics is of course only one ‘flavour’ of systems thinking, and has its own pros/cons. Plus there are many other aspects/environmental factors than I could hope to cover in this short blog!
(2) The term ‘doom loop’ is drawn from Collins (2001) Good to Great. Collins discusses ‘doom loops’ and ‘flywheels of growth’.
(3) This blog describes my personal experience of self-esteem and weight loss. It is absolutely not intended to imply anyone else should lose (or gain) weight; this is just my story. Stay healthy and stay happy 🙂
What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com