I recently went to the New Zealand Better By Design CEO summit (http://www.betterbydesign.org.nz/ceosummit/) in Auckland. First point - it was a success; seriously good work guys.
Second point, I _really_ enjoyed the presentations by two eminent American chaps who came over… the first was Alan Webber, Founding Editor of Fast Company Magazine and author of http://rulesofthumbbook.blogspot.com/. The second was Peter Senge, author of the seminal book on management, The Fifth Discipline http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifth_Discipline.
Both guys talked about systems thinking and systems doing in organisations - Alan told a story about his days working for Baltimore City in the early 1970’s, as it was teetering on the brink of becoming a giant parking lot - primarily on account of growing automobile use. Young families were moving out of the city, out-of-town shopping malls were taking over, air pollution was rising dramatically and proposals to demolish 10% of city housing to make way for a concrete superhighway were in place. The town was sleepwalking towards self-destruction.
But a young major came along whose thinking wasn’t institutionalised like the old guys before him - he said, “what if we changed Baltimore into a place where people wanted to live?” So they did. How?
- They worked out the true cost of not changing and made people aware of it (essentially, not changing was not free - it resulted in losing working-age people and young families, which resulted in less tax & less human resources for the future, which resulted in the erosion of the fabric of Baltimore’s society, which resulted in no more Baltimore)
- They applied systems & design thinking to the problem… 2 core components of this being ‘if an answer you come up with addresses more than one problem at a time, just do it’, and ‘if we ask the people who live here to be involved as active participants, we can drive change from the bottom up’
…Alan then effectively challenged Auckland City council (which is currently at a crossroads, having amalgamated 9 separate councils into one super-council) to use this moment to transform itself & drive home the concept internationally that New Zealand is a world-beating place for people who want to raise families safely, stay in touch with the outdoors and generally think differently.
Peter Senge on the other hand talked about how important it was to understand that it is never possible to fully understand and control a system in a hierarchical sense - especially one where people are an important component. So what do you do if you want to change/improve it?
Peter’s conclusion to this question, arrived at through many years of thinking & doing, was to create an environment where the system both recognises that it wants to improve itself, and is also empowered to make this change happen.
He also talked about the incremental nature of change, and how there was effectively no such thing as ‘revolution’ or ‘evolution’ in a systemic sense… that change is made up of lots of small things coming together over a period of time to drive new behaviours & corresponding new results. He used an inner-city outreach programme as an example of this, to illustrate how even people with very ingrained criminal behaviours can be transformed to instead contribute positive behaviours back into society - given the right environment, the right insight and time.
Both of these presentations are now colouring my thinking around how to implement the strategic roadmap I helped develop over these last few weeks… thanks for the insights, Alan and Peter.