Part 4 - Business as a 'system'

This article is Chapter Four of TACSI’s Innovating Us series. Innovating Us is a look inside TACSI’s ongoing journey towards decentralisation. Each of the 11 chapters covers a different aspect of our experience, and some important things we wish we’d known before we started. The series was created over a number of interviews with CEO Carolyn Curtis and organisational development lead Euan Black, drafted by copywriter Cam Sullivan.

See your business as a system.

Very early on in the journey, it became clear that there was a big disconnect between the way we envisaged our organisation and the outcomes we were producing. Even with new frameworks and ways of distributing power, we were running into the same problems, over and over again. Just delivering ‘the work’ felt like a constant sprint. Our people were burning out. It wasn’t just that we weren’t performing at our best; we were utterly failing to look after our people in line with our central mission.

We knew we needed to completely change the way we were thinking about our organisation. But we didn’t know what exactly needed to change – we had competent, dedicated people doing everything they could to deliver exceptional results, and it wasn’t working. Financially, culturally and personally, we were struggling.

The turning point came when we realised that our organisation was functioning precisely as designed. These outcomes weren’t arising due to individual poor performance, or bad time management, or market forces (though it was tempting to blame all of these things). The outcomes were the inevitable result of the culture and the processes we had put in place. Our people were delivering (and experiencing) exactly what our structures, practices, governance and resource flows enabled. The cause of the problem was systemic.

We realised we were still looking at TACSI in a very linear fashion, like a chain of production in a factory. Any failings were attributed an assumed cause and a solution devised. The problem with all linear thinking is that it easily produces a culture of blame and disempowerment by limiting our perspectives on the real context. People end up in a position of paradox, where they feel deeply responsible for performing their designated role, but also powerless to influence organisational outcomes in a meaningful way.

So, we began instead to look at TACSI as a network of complex, interconnected relationships. Rather than isolating individual functions of the organisation, we considered how each role supported – and was supported by – the rest of the network. Like a living organism maintaining homeostasis, a picture of an ever-adapting system began to emerge. And, like a living organism, it would only function optimally if considered as a whole.

The remarkable thing is that we are proficient and very comfortable applying this approach for our clients; systems thinking regularly informs our work. It was disheartening to realise we weren’t applying it to our own organisation. Again we were confronted with the question – how were we delivering on our central mission if we weren’t living it authentically ourselves?

Our priority became nurturing TACSI as a system. Rather than looking at behaviours producing undesirable results, we began to look at the mental models which gave rise to those behaviours, and then the forces behind those mental models. We gave stature to process and learning, rather than just ‘doing the job’. We prioritised and rewarded contributions to culture. We facilitated ways for colleagues to get to know one another meaningfully, for example through fortnightly ‘buddy’ time. Importantly, we also created ways for them to share more of themselves and their vulnerabilities through a ‘My Profile’ stress and support system (informed by the work of Helen Sanderson Associates, UK). Available to all members of a project team, it allows colleagues to share the things which make them feel stressed, their typical behaviours when they feel overwhelmed, and the things which help them to feel supported.

As we move into our fourth year of the journey, this is one principle which continues to serve us well, and which we wish we’d taken to heart earlier. Moving away from linear thinking patterns and nourishing your organisation as an interconnected system is an important step towards transforming your culture. The root causes of challenges become a lot clearer. People begin to start seeing themselves integral to the whole system, not just to a finite role. The constant sprint (while still a challenge) becomes something colleagues recognise in each other and help to mitigate together. They begin to think about where they fit and how they might contribute in ways that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s when the meaningful change really starts to happen.

Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.