Jennifer Kenny, CEO and co-founder of Social Thought Matters, is a geologist by training.  She notes that geology is systems thinking at its most fundamental.  She's spent the last 25 years integrating technology and business and this systems background has been critical to her success.   I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer this week about her experiences.  (Thanks for the connection, Queene!) We focused on how to help others understand and practice systems thinking, or in my words, how do you help them become TOP Managers - managers able to weave technology, organizations, and people together for effective solutions?JenniferKennyJennifer made it very clear that people don't learn TOP Management via training.  Training is typically about information people are supposed to learn - you know some information and they're supposed to learn it.  Systems thinking is better demonstrated through helping people "mobilize their own ideas." I asked Jennifer if she could give me an example of how you would do this in a real work situation. Her story: A friend had taken a new job managing a several-hundred person loan processing support group at a bank. Things weren't going well with the workflow and the group was working to implement a multi-million dollar workflow technology to solve the problem.  The project was having a rough time and her friend was frustrated with their progress.  She asked Jennifer's team to take a look as consultants. Jennifer asked, "What would happen if the people were involved?" Given the friend wasn't happy with the current work the loan processing group was doing, she wasn't sure that participation would have much to offer -- but ok, give it a shot.  They put a hold on the technology implementation work and instead looked at human cooordination.  About 10% of the group were asked (and agreed) to attend workshops on how to design their own processes.  Note that these were workshops about taking different perspectives (loan processors', salespeoples') and learning a new process (how do you learn about the different organizational roles and the related performance goals that people in the different roles work with?). This was not training focused in learning facts/information/details that someone else had prepared. Next step was for the full group to meet with the Senior VP of the group and Jennifer's team.  The SVP was clear: unanimous support was needed to move ahead, or the consultants would be out and they'd go back to the earlier approach. ...let the tension build...  Did the subgroup that went through the workshops really believe in the new approach?  Was the subgroup able to convey the same enthusiasm to the full group of several hundred? Unanimous approval.  The participative approach was rolled out to the full group and later on to three other groups.  They kept the hold on the technology and ended up with a minor modification to what they already had.  "350 people came back to us and said 'I'm enjoying work I've always hated before.'" Helping this group practice TOP Management wasn't about training -- Jennifer says these workshops were,
joint design sessions... We knew that they knew a 1000 times more about their actual work than we did -- training wouldn't make sense.  Instead, we helped them tap into their knowledge using the common language about their work -- mobilization of their own ideas.  Joint design, metrics and analysis.  Collaboration and co-invention is what's going on. We were precipitating versus leading...  Doing systems work is being able to listen.  Deep listening.
Deep listening was being demonstrated and supported.
[We showed that] the way that they've been trained to do was input-process-output.  They had no understanding of the bigger game they were playing in.  We [helped them see] that was how their work had been designed and that was why the handoffs were problematic, no context.
For example, the loan processing group hadn't understood that the sales part of the business had quotas.  Only by listening did this part of the context become clear.
We also brought the sales folks into design with them. Up to then sales had been the people who screamed when they didn't get what they wanted.  Next was to show all of them working across an entire system, rather than each person as a single cog.  Then they saw context upon context and why it all connected.  Once people begin to get context, they start looking for it themselves. Gave them the bigger picture.
The results speak for themselves (as measured by the bank's own customer satisfaction team):
  • 13% increase in customer satisfaction in a 3-month period
  • 4% increase in responsiveness
  • 10% improvement in quality of service for performance in documentation, credit and collateral
This was the first interview where I focused on how you teach others to be TOP Managers.  In prior discussions (here, here, & here) I've been more concerned about specific examples, or how people learned to become TOP Managers themselves (here & here).  My take away from Jennifer's story is that you don't train people to be TOP Managers -- you help them develop their own systems savvy by suggesting new lenses for seeing their own role, the situations of the people around them, how the policies and practices of their organization link to their role and those of others, and how technology can be intertwined -- or not.  Please comment below with strategies you've practiced or seen for helping others develop the systems savvy needed for TOP Management.