Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Creating sustainability in complex ecosystems

I recently had the privilege of teaching a course in system dynamic for Willamette University's Sustainable Enterprise certificate program. The course lasted two days, with a follow-up two-hour web seminar. We focused on qualitative system dynamics, but we treated it at a somewhat more rigorous level than many such courses, I think.

I'm writing because of one particular lesson I learned—we all learned. Early in the course, we used a simulation game to help people have a common, shared experience of interacting in a challenging system environment.

As with many such games, the expected result is that people fail in making the system work. Typically, the debrief is used to help people understand the ways of thinking that led them into trouble and to prepare them for the material that's to come.

Unexpectedly, this class managed their challenges quite sustainably. While their skill wrecked the planned flow of that part of the session, I was really pleased to see their skill in action. We spent some time talking about what made them successful and how that might carry over to real-world situations. Their insights were useful enough that I wanted to share them (with the students' permission) with a larger audience: you.

I first asked what made them succeed in the game and what provided the most challenges.

Goals were the first. While the game tells them the goal they should have, they rapidly realized that focusing on the stated goals would lead to ruin, and so they decided to set a much longer-term goal.

Communications was the second factor. After the first round, they began to spend most of their time huddled in the center of the room, talking animatedly through their decision-making processes instead of working in isolated teams.

They noted that delays provided a key challenge. As they worked to establish trust in the social system they had set up, they were both trusting other teams' commitments and verifying that they were indeed living up to their commitments. That takes time: commitments made today may not show up for quite a while.

Those delay effects were complicated by the natural delays in the system. Without revealing the game we used, I will say that the dynamics of the game included natural delays between actions and results that complicated decision making.

Some noted this seemed analogous to the situation OPEC finds itself in. They rely on mutual agreement to limit production as a way to manage prices. If anyone in OPEC breaks that agreement, the system can collapse. OPEC's problems are complicated by uncertain demand and uncertain prices, factors that had no analogy in our game.

Math skills created another success factor, which some may find surprising. A subset of the players rather immediatedly began developing quite a useful understanding of their system based on a mathematical model they developed. Once others saw that their results were accurate, everyone became driven by the data. Without some in the group being able to pull that off, they would likely not have succeeded.

Interestingly, trust and math worked together. At one point, the analyst team made a numerical error and then made an especial effort to communicate that they had made that error to others so that the others would be able to differentiate that error from a breaking of the trust relationship. Apologies were key. Information and the lack of information thus played a key role in the group's success. Even then, it took time for the others to regain their trust in the analysts' team.

Playing into this was the lack of external shareholders. Everyone on the teams had a serious take in the workings of the game; no one was in it just for the "money." Similarly, there were no new entrants into the field who might have upset the cartel relationship they had crafted.

I then asked them what they'd advise people in the real world.

Collaboration was the first clear answer. Work together across groups to align goals and actions.

They then said, "knowledge is power." After a bit of reflection and revision, they revised that to "timely, transferrable, actionable knowledge is power."

They felt it was important for everyone to be clear on a vision.

They would encourage people to watch their egos and to be visibly trustworthy.

At one point, in an attempt to test the strength of their commitment (okay, as an attempt to derail their commitment), I as facilitator announced I was the government and was giving them something they really didn't want. (To be accurate, that idea came from Anne Murray Allen, the executive director of the program, who was running the simulation computer.) For a while, I felt as if I were about to experience the French Revolution, as some rather emotionally argued for standing up to government and refusing my help, a bit of resistance I wasn't accepting.

As a result, their last bit of advice was to "Don't trust the wisdom of government, of the private sector, ... of either." In other words, test the data and the reasoning yourselves instead of blindly accepting what others say is good for you.

This was an intense and very exciting two-day workshop. I think those in the class learned a lot; I know I learned as they taught themselves and me (and now perhaps you) how to make sustainability work.

Perhaps I'll see some of you there next year.

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Blogger imb3 said...

I can hardly leave a comment without chuckling :-) It was certainly a very interesting exercise to participate in and there were great lessons learned. I recently read another article that discusses the idea of 'Authenticity vs. Authority' with the questions posed to such folks as Seth Godin, David Scott, Brian Solis and Chris Brogan (http://marklolson.wordpress.com/2009/06/10/authenticity-vs-authority/) - FWIW, I think that this in part is what our class experienced - ultimately with 'authenticity' winning out. Had we only taken the existing rules and authority we would have fallen into the cache of the game - to fail. Authenticity in our relationship and desire to look beyond the transactional is what made us successful - along with Heather's great math mind!

Thanks Bill for the session, it was a great experience and HIGHLY recommended.

Ian Benson

10 June, 2009 09:10  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Hi, Ian, and thanks! Yes, chuckling works here. Thanks for the link, too; it makes a good point. As the person with the simulated authority role in that simulation, it was an interesting place to be. Thankfully you authenticity types didn't overthrow me, but you did ignore me, rendering authority meaningless -- or maybe moving the authority to you.

Now I wonder how we can carry this across into the real world. More ideas?

10 June, 2009 19:11  
Blogger Luminous Linda said...

It was fun reading your observations of our role-playing game. The group dynamics was exciting and successful on many levels. Honestly, much of what was learned through the entire Sustainable Enterprise Certification program was displayed during this game. I feel fortunate to have participated in this course. Thanks Bill!

12 June, 2009 09:55  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Hi, Linda, and thanks for the comment.

Say, seeing you and Ian respond and more behind the scenes directly to me, I'm curious: what would you in the class add to the lessons for sustaining sustainability from the game that might be applicable in the real world?

If you can, avoid mentioning the game. I still want to avoid creating a searchable cheat sheet; I want people who play it in the future to have a great learning experience, too.

12 June, 2009 19:11  
Blogger Tom Fiddaman said...

Sounds like a great session. Wish I'd been a fly on the wall.

One observation:

"Once others saw that their results were accurate, everyone became driven by the data."

For climate, this is problematic, because verification of predictions and disaster arrive together, after long delays. Somehow our decision processes need to be robust to that, and to recognize that validation can take more forms than point prediction of the future.

We should put this group in charge.

15 June, 2009 07:56  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Thanks, Tom. Your next-to-the-last paragraph holds the essence of the challenge: how can we do that indeed? I'm open to hearing from anyone, but I'm especially interested in any of the Williamette University class: what difference would that have made in your game, do you think?

As for the last paragraph, I second that. They now all presumably have their sustainable enterprise certificates; I hope they make good use of their skills in making the world better.

15 June, 2009 22:27  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Regina Rowland asked me to post this:

Hi Bill and everyone. Great to see some of you here.

As far as the data goes that was collected in our class that made all the difference in the dynamics, I remember I was one of those who wouldn't have been able to crunch those numbers myself in the time pressure we were in. I was focusing on the social layer (the sharing part) and that took all the energy that was available in my system for the task. Heather made some convincing arguments how she got to the numbers. I remember asking her several times and still my brain could not compute it, even though it seemed simple when she explained it. It completely baffled me that I could not do those calculations when they were needed.

The data was essential to my participation as it really built confidence that we were in control of SOMETHING, and yes, the fact that it worked for the first few rounds made a huge difference, too. It surprised me very much that it came out o.k., and that the number approach seemed to do what it was designed to do.

I remember that Heather was not on the "social team", that wasn't her strength and also not needed b/c others took care of it. So, another important point to make besides the fact that we focused on the social aspects and then had a data genius in the group, it was of high importance that we had a diverse team with diverse talents and things they could focus on and contribute with. So, I would add that one to the equation.

I am currently working in Paris with the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). We (information designers and researchers from various disciplines) are trying to figure out HOW to communicate the data the OECD collects all over the world in a way that can be understood by non-researchers so that the data is actually more widely used in evaluating and planning (right now, only a small number of people can make sense of it, so all this valuable data just goes to storage.)

My contribution to the OECD meeting is to show the participants how to merge cultural information with co-created data (artifact), reading it from repeated behavior that also shows up in the co-created artifact as a visual pattern. This is about making working teams more effective by having them expose their unique ways of thinking and making sense of the world to each other in a playful way and immediately (it's a facilitated thing). So, it becomes, again, about how to read that data, how to triangulate it in an instance in the midst of an action, how to interpret the thinking structure and use it best for the group. So, now I would like to add another part to the equation then: the ability to interpret cultural norms immediately through non-verbal actions--this becomes important when systems go under stress in the action.

Let's keep this rolling, Best, Regina

Dr. Regina Rowland
Sustainovation Strategist
Vienna, Austria - San Francisco, California

16 June, 2009 17:33  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Hi, Regina. Thanks; those are great additions. If I summarize, I see two characteristics: diversity that allows for specialization and social / cultural skills that work both with verbal and non-verbal communications. Is that it in a nutshell?

If it is, people should still read what you wrote, for it's richer than that.

Any others of you have suggestions? I'm going to see if I can dig up someone I know who is skilled in the communications side to add her ideas.

16 June, 2009 17:36  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Barbara Pirie of Pirie Associates in Lautoka, Fiji Islands and author of Some Speak With Silence: Facilitating Mixed Silent/Verbal Groups sent me these comments to post with her permission.

"Diversity definitely gives advantages for creativity and the effective use of a variety of skill sets.

"How to make diversity work effectively means first being able to be comfortable with a wide variety of differences.

"Regina mentioned patterns of repeated behaviors that are different - often by cultural groups. And reading these as non-verbal messages.

"Great point and sounds like she's doing great work making this visible around vast amounts of data that currently aren't absorbable.

"Yes, repeated behaviors are signs of non-verbal communication styles but they also reflect thinking patterns, etc.

"We are often limited in how we interpret these patterns of difference because we come from our own cultural preferences and expectations.

"What is helpful is to become aware that these patterns exist and can act as clues to enable us to be more effective.

"So developing observation and pattern recognition skills is critical and to me much more important that learning all the various potential meanings of different non-verbals (eyes, posture, gestures, etc).

"These skills are also critical (to me) in working with systems and their dynamics.

"It seems to me that what is also important is to develop comfort with these different patterns and also how they can change in different contexts.

"It's like learning to dance with a wide variety of music and dance styles."

21 June, 2009 19:46  

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