Overcoming System Blindness

Written by 
Semco Team

At the beginning of May we kicked off our UK Certified Expert programme with an immersive two days in London. We don’t want to give too much away for those of you who are yet to experience the programme, but some of these insights are too powerful not to share.

These are themes that emerge when we talk about change. Even more so when we begin to experiment with self-management and more democratic ways of working.

Now some of you may be familiar with our Semco Style Experience Game – it's a fun simulation of how the vast majority of us experience work. Hierarchy. Rules. Underperfomance. Lack of impact. The unfortunate culmination of conventional organisational design and management practice.

Our goal within the programme is to then take the ‘game’ a step further and invite our cohort of pioneers to begin to change the system by experimenting with Semco Style practices.

Considering all they’ve experienced it’s their challenge to collectively decide what changes they will make to improve how they work.

So, how did they get on? And what are the lessons they learned on the journey?

Take one thing at a time

Semco Style has over 100 practices, which means that when the cohort began to consider the practices they might experiment with first, there was quite a long list.  

While the team shared their experiences of their roles, and the tensions they had felt, they began to match up their frustrations with practices that they believed would alleviate them. For example, which practice would help them break down the literal and figurative barriers that had been imposed upon them and caused such a slow response to getting sign off on a client proposal etc.  

Finally, the team decided to implement three practices;

Defining Roles & Responsibilities (who’s responsible for what?)  

Creating Space for Participation (how can we create a safe space and involve all levels in relevant decisions?)

Remove Unnecessary Controls (What are the controls we need to remove to be more effective, and if anything, what boundaries need to replace this?)

Once the foghorn sounded (yes it’s loud and you REALLY need to experience this!?), our cohort was back in the simulation to change the system.  

But, it didn’t quite go as planned.  

Customers took projects to competitors.  

Little work was completed.

Some individuals felt more frustrated in the new system than they had done in the old system.  

So, what went wrong?  

The team tried to change too much too soon.  

Sound familiar?  

Despite their best intentions, and equipped with the Semco Style practices, the cohort were attempting to change a lot of the fundamental things about how the system functioned in a very short amount of time. Plus, they hadn’t considered how these changes would impact the clients in the day-to-day. As we say at SSI, they didn’t “bring the clients in”.

The key lesson here is to take one thing at a time.  

It can feel tempting to change everything all at once when you’ve discovered the gaps and pitfalls in the existing system. But as discovered by our cohort, when time is tight the new practices are the first things that get dropped. There’s no room or space to become aware of what’s needed to be done, because suddenly we’re defaulting to what we’ve always done.  

People’s capacity to “do work” and “work on the system” is limited, which means you need to explicitly identify what teams will let go of, find changes in the context of work, and experiment with something that isn’t going to feel like it’s completely alien.  

Meet the need of all stakeholders

Back in the action of the game, something became very clear – the team hadn’t considered how their customers would interrupt their best made plans. As one team member joked - “we’d get further if we had no clients!”  - and that soon happened when one client left!

This all began when the cohort decided to have a team day and close the business. But they hadn’t told their clients. So, clients arrived to find a closed office with no communication. The team ‘closed’ the business for a company offsite to get organised, but quickly found themselves pulled back into the day-to-day when clients were banging on the door. The demands and pressure were even greater.

Isn’t this familiar? Change initiatives often happen away from the business, not considering all stakeholders or the realities of the work itself.

There’s also the old belief that we must stop the work to change the system. But that only further impacts productivity, and gets us into a vicious cycle of things never really taking hold.  

Change has to happen in the reality of the day-to-day. And consider the needs of all stakeholders. With our cohort, they tried to focus on the internal people needs but without managing the customer expectation. For many of our clients, it can be the opposite.

‘Customer-first’ has become one of the staples in organisational values. And for obvious reasons. The evidence around the value of customer experience is overwhelmingly compelling. However, if in the course of being ‘customer-first’, our people are working extremely long hours and weekends to deliver, the system is not working.

System-wide change has to integrate the needs of all stakeholders so that the system functions better for everyone. Far too often, systems inadvertently prioritise the interests of one group over the other, which throws the balance of the system out and fails to deliver on the symbiotic relationships and needs of the whole.

We have to balance the needs of all stakeholders. Be customer-centric AND people-centric at the same time.

Gain Alignment

When the team stepped out of the simulation and began to review how it had gone, they realised the first thing that was missing  – there was no alignment. Yes, they were changing the system because it had failed and caused tensions, but what was the goal they were all trying to achieve? Why change the system in the first place?  

There is a tendency to try to change the system just to reach the goal of being more ‘self-managed’ or more ‘democratic’, however those are not goals. Ultimately, we’re changing how we work to reach a goal. We want to create a system that brings about a greater impact, not for the sake of just doing it a specific way, otherwise the way we work could end up being detrimental to what we need to achieve.  

Having clarity would have supported the cohort in getting alignment and taking the first pivotal step in what needed to be changed first.  

As with any journey, we need to know what the destination is.

Everyone experiences the system differently

Did everyone in the team enjoy the changes that were made? No.  

Despite the intention of creating greater participation, some of the team felt even more frustrated and unable to act. Some even shared that they felt like the team had become less participatory.  

Just because we remove traditional power structures does not mean they no longer exist. Natural hierarchies can begin to emerge, and this is where much deeper work must be done to support people in the transition.  

It also begs a common question we often hear at Semco Style UK. Does everyone enjoy self-management?  

With self-management comes greater autonomy but also accountability. As the saying goes – with great freedom comes great responsibility. However, our traditional workplace conditioning can lead us to not take ownership or step in and make a request. Many of us are used to someone else leading and making decisions, so when the space is opened, it doesn’t mean people are instantly ready to step into it.  

Building individuals confidence and capabilities is just as much a part of the journey.  

Want to learn more? Join us for our next simulation game webinar, or join our waitlist to receive the brochure for our Expert Programme.  

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