Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Making musical sense by email, special feature

One of the primary reasons to publish this series was to suggest that system dynamics, one methodology in the larger systems thinking field, could be applied beneficially in a low-key way to help make sense of complex situations. Instead of making a big deal of talking about system dynamics as a useful approach, getting buy-in to try it on a particular case, and then doing it, we can just apply it naturally when and as the need arises. Sure, those of us doing the work need to educate those seeing such models for the first time so they know what they're getting and how to understand them, but I think this series has demonstrated that it's possible to do that as part of the process, not up front.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that I'm not alone in having these thoughts. Friend and colleague Dr. Glenda Eoyang has been having similar thoughts regarding a different systems thinking methodology. Glenda started exploring nonlinear dynamics and social systems in 1989, received her doctorate in Human Systems Dynamics in 2002, and founded the Human Systems Dynamics Institute in 2003. She teaches, consults, researches, and writes. She helps people see patterns that emerge from the chaos of human interactions and take adaptive action to increase coherence, health, and sustainability for individuals, teams, institutions, and communities. Her profound understanding of the many theoretical streams of complexity science and her gift for clarity make her an excellent guide into the world of human systems dynamics.

Because she's using similar approaches in a related field, I invited her to share her thoughts with us.

Dr. Glenda H. EoyangTechnology matures and, thank goodness, we do, too. In Seattle there is an elegant hotel that was built by Ford Motor Company early in the last century. Gentlemen would live in the hotel while they learned the basic skills of car ownership, including driving and auto mechanics. Six months after the hotel was built, Ford found more efficient ways to meet their customers’ needs. I, too, have been seduced by the new. Fully one quarter of the first computer course I wrote covered binary arithmetic and the history of computing. Today, only the mathematicians and historians find that stuff interesting. In the dawning phases of a technology, bridges to the past are critical. As the technology emerges it integrates into our other intelligences, and we return our focus to the work at hand. The technology becomes a means rather than an end in itself. In future I hope we will be as amazed that people spent days learning “systems thinking” skills as we are with Ford’s hotel and the history of computing as a core competence for users.

When I discover a new technology it seems complicated and exotic. I want to understand its secrets and plumb its depths. For a short time, the technology itself is a preoccupation. I focus on it as if it were an end in itself. Over time, though, I become accustomed to the new ways to think and act. I absorb the new views and tools into my repertoire. They become a part of me, and I am able to see through them rather than focusing on them directly.

Today, my clients are more ready to think systemically than they are to learn about systems thinking. I believe this is the transition Bill and others are seeing in themselves and their clients. For example, a colleague who is a professional evaluator doesn’t design and implement “evaluation systems.” Rather, she works as part of the management team to generate and present meaningful data in response to specific strategic and tactical questions. Another Human Systems Dynamics Associate works in a school system, using the language of education and educational reform to spark conversation and action about complex human systems dynamics. I’m supporting a strategic planning process for a fast-growing international consulting firm. I introduce tools and techniques only in service of the conversation toward the organization’s business goals and improved performance. I add value not because I bring an exotic set of mysterious tools but because I use powerful tools to help them think and act with more insight, intention, and collaboration.

This transformation isn’t easy for me. I like binary arithmetic. I feel powerful when I hold the keys to a mysterious new discipline. On the other hand, my clients find the transition quite appealing. We work together on their concerns, leveraging their knowledge and expectations, rather than asking them to leave their world views behind and align with my arcane methods and visions of reality.

I am beginning to think of myself as a “praxis partner”—one who works with others to blend theory and practice in the service of effective action. As the technology of systems thinking matures, I hope my clients and I can, too.

Glenda H. Eoyang, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Human Systems Dynamics Institute

What are you seeing in your organizations? Are people doing more of this blending there, too? Is that helpful, or do you miss something in the process? Both Glenda and I would enjoy hearing your feedback. Comment here, or contact Glenda or me directly.

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Blogger Elana said...

talk about serendipity! Glenda is a former client and I have attended the training for Human Systems Dynamics. Given that I am a marketing communications person I will say I was "challenged" with mental models but marveled how they other conference attendees gravitated to these tools. Glenda is absolutely one of the most insightful people I have ever met!

I very much resonated with Glenda's thoughts on reinvention and while I appreciate the "grief" that classical musicians must feel when consumers are not responding to their concerts in the same way they used to, I also find it invigorating at the potential of music fusion --- that is from a consumer point of view.

As I shared in an earlier comment I am fascinated by organizations that are up against the wall not because of the quality of the work but becuase technology and the society has changed. Reinvention is what its all about and the ability to do that is very rare.

I work with faith based institutions that are facing similar challenges to the classical music business. While they want to change(have more members) they don't want to do anything differently.

It is extremely difficult for organizations that hold strong beliefs to adjust or agree to change.

But as Greg shared in his blog, classical music has only been performed the way we know if for a very short time ---


29 March, 2007 04:36  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Elana, thanks for your comments! First, it's good to see connections such as this spring up. Glenda and I have collaborated on a couple of workshops, and she is indeed a great person to work with. While she can go deeply into the technical side of the systems ideas she works with, she has great ways of explaining those complex ideas in ways most of us can pick up and apply.

You've done a nice job of generalizing the classical music problem to faith-based institutions, which leads me to think about similar issues with all sorts of organizations. Are there things orchestras can learn from successful organizations in other fields? Are there things those organizations can learn from orchestras?

In particular, what can you do when you really like (or believe in) what you're doing now but the rest of the world seems to be going in a different direction? How does an organization decide when it's important to stand firm and when it's time to reinvent? How does an organization learn to live with the consequences of that decision?

I suspect it's more challenging for faith-based institutions, for they probably perceive they have a longer time horizon than a consumer products company. I suspect orchestras and other arts organizations share a bit of that feeling: they're showcasing important work that may have been around for centuries, and they no doubt fear they're losing something if they give up Beethoven and Brahms for contemporary music.

There are business examples, too; look at the problems some photographic companies have had as the world moves from film to digital photography. Or read Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma. I think those ideas may pertain to orchestras, too, and they may have at least some relevance to faith-based institutions.

It sounds as if you've checked out Greg's blogs, too. Great; he's got a wealth of information there.


29 March, 2007 08:54  
Blogger Glenda said...

Great to hear from you Elana! You mention trying to translate the human systems dynamics OD language into your own communications context. I think that is a great example of what we're talking about. When a bridge needs to be built between theory and practice, the theory expert is the one best suited to build it. Our goal should be to translate the new tools and methods into your language, to minimize the stretch and maximize the power of the ideas. As I remember, that happened in one-on-one conversations in that class where the OD folks were talking their talk, and you and R were translating into metaphors (we call them mid-level abstractions) that were useful for you. Great example. Thanks for sharing. How do others experience being on one side of the line and the other?

30 March, 2007 05:20  

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