Systems allow people to clear their minds. It’s true! We don’t have to hold everything in memory. The information needed for sound decision-making is accessible to everyone. Systems of service are liberating, giving us the freedom to be fully present and in the moment.
Conversations go off track when observations, thoughts, and feelings are inappropriately sequenced and when the dialogue is positional—me versus you, us versus them—rather than structured for whole-system growth and transformation. If you haven’t been getting the results you want, systems are the answer.
Having robust systems in place enabled me to broker trust between DFO and Area D fishermen. Nobody questioned whether the right work was being done because they knew it was. They had all contributed to the process! When people know what is expected, when to report, and what to do if a problem occurs, situations get addressed appropriately.
Sequencing is the act of doing the right things in the right order. Imagine baking a cake but omitting the flour, or trying to add icing while the cake is still in the oven. You’re going to have a disaster, not a dessert.
Follow my baker’s dozen checklist to get you to your ideal future more quickly.
1. Practice rigorous self-awareness. Be straight with yourself about your current reality. Get crystal clear about your ideal future. What habits, stories, and behaviour patterns are holding you back? We all have them. Facing our own deficiencies takes courage, humility, and trust. Ignore your fearful, skeptical mind. Check in with your gut.
Your mindset reflects off the people around you. If you have a history of using fear tactics and control, you may have some cleaning up to do. That’s okay. Are heartfelt apologies in order? Deal with them first. Clean up past misunderstandings, miscommunications, and hurts before you try to move forward. If you decorate a mud pie with icing, it still tastes like dirt. Likewise, you can’t create a new future without resolving the past.
Being truthful with yourself and feeling the emotion in your body are keys to your success. You are going to feel your way into the Possibility Zone. The discovery will seem weird and natural simultaneously. Be warned—the outcome may not look the way you imagine. Let go of rigid, control-based expectations. Be open to possibility.
Anyone can learn to recognize and manage emotional tension, anxiety, and concerns. You—and the people you work with—will make mistakes. It’s to be expected. But once you have made headway, you can create a space for others to step into their leadership.
2. Paint a picture of the future. Stakeholders must know the underlying “why.” Create a shared vision that is bigger than any of you could accomplish on your own. Then work backwards to put systems and processes in place to produce those results.
You can’t make people do anything. Compliance only gets you so far. But you can lead, teach, and inspire them to become better. Share openly. Invite them to join you in the Possibility Process and participate in your skunkworks project.
Only after clarifying the context for learning and optimal performance do I explain to people the work that needs to be done. In other words, first we establish an emotional connection between the participant and the project objectives and outcomes. This part is missing in the lion’s share of organizations. An emotional connection to getting the work done—to a standard that is extraordinary—boosts performance beyond assignment of any task. Trying to establish the connection afterward can feel like manipulation.
3. Assess the business reality. Before you can tap into hidden assets, first be truthful about the state of your business. Look at the big picture. Are operations balanced and integrated? Where do you have flat tires in terms of the sixteen dimensions? Are you running your business, or is it running you?
Instead of jumping straight in and “doing” the work, look at the bigger picture. Who else is impacted by the opportunity or challenge facing you? Those who are directly impacted must have a say in the outcomes that are produced. Inviting diverse points of view to the table early on leads to well-supported, whole-system solutions and unearths new talents and expertise.
4. Let the balls drop. Kerplunk! This step is a doozy. It’s the moment you say, “What we’re doing isn’t working.” Hit restart. What have you been tolerating? What are you tired of putting up with? How have people been cast into roles of heroes and villains? When starting a new game, people need to know the rules (the Code of Honour) and where the goalposts are.
5. Anticipate resistance. You face an uphill battle getting ideas implemented along the innovation curve. If you’ve never asked people for their opinions before, if you’ve never appeared genuinely curious about what’s happening on the shop floor or the front lines, people may look at you as if you have two heads. Roll with it! Your reaction at that moment will signal to them if your sudden interest is a flash in the pan or if you truly want to understand what’s going on from their perspective.
Hold space for something new to emerge. Sometimes people need to vent pent-up frustrations before they can get to the good stuff, just like the callers I spoke to when the west coast fisheries were restructured. It’s not personal. It’s part of being human. Lead, teach, and inspire to cut through that resistance and stay on track. Create ground rules that invite input among equals, explain them, and honour them as your word.
6. Collect the dots. Evaluate your team’s unique blend of competencies, not just what’s on their resumes. Listen to them to detect natural gifts and talents, the know-how expressed through tacit ability.
Start by looking at the overall state of their lives. Get to know everyone’s intrinsic motivation. Meet people where they are and tap, tap, tap them forward with Balloon Management. Internal motivation produces remarkably different outcomes than rule compliance. People who powerfully choose their profession, vocation, or career path are inspiring to work with. They are hungry to produce results.
When others speak, practice listening without judgement. You’ll get your turn to talk. Train yourself to stay quiet when someone expresses anger. Listen for the deeper source of that person’s commitment or frustration. Try not to react or take it personally—you’ll only slide into the yellow and red zones. Once the steam blows off, new opportunities will emerge if you allow the communication to go full circle.
7. Look for patterns. No one has it all together. Nothing is gospel. Question everything. As you move away from making snap judgements, you will begin to act with deliberate openness to possibility. Even shaking up your seating arrangement can produce different outcomes at your meetings. Small adjustments magnify across the system.
Wisdom emerges by removing barriers to innovation. What do your people need to do great work? Respect what others say as you challenge the current system, the current approach. Emotional tension, a fixed mindset, and limiting beliefs are invisible force fields that prevent creativity from bubbling up to the surface. Don’t be afraid to challenge what you know to be “true” or to shine a light onto something in your blind spot. Address the elephant in the room. It’s probably been there many times before, as a pattern.
8. Displace business-as-usual with a Possibility Zone. Embark on the process of thinking together, of moving through the groan zone and creating a Possibility Zone. Get people talking and sharing. Find the common denominator. Converge perspectives into a single action plan, something everyone can agree on and support—for different reasons.
Listen to concerns from every part of the system:
Ignore positions and personalities, and focus instead on the leverage points, the small tweaks that will have a big impact.
If your people are asleep at the wheel, wake them up! Harness their potential to create, innovate, and problem-solve. Understanding collective strengths makes people feel better about themselves. They view others more positively, appreciate differences, and learn how to combine talents to form high-performance teams.
Leading your people in solution-oriented inquiry can be challenging. It’s tricky to stay out of judgement when you’re walking into landmines of upset, concern, and unresolved issues. If your business is stuck and your people are in turmoil, don’t try to fix or strategize in a reactionary way. Instead, look beneath the surface at individual and collective patterns. Do you see how one person’s behaviour triggers a reaction in someone else? Sometimes just distinguishing the pattern among the team is enough to disrupt it permanently. “Oh look, we’re doing it again!”
Upset people are hurting—whether they admit it or not. You can respond with empathy only if you are willing to be present to their pain. Having empathy doesn’t mean agreeing; empathy is about feeling the emotion the other feels to understand that person’s perspective. Is the upset caused by a part of the system you are not seeing?
Ideas communicated respectfully are far more likely to be accepted. Conscious Communication will help you shape anything you want to say into a structure that can easily be heard.
Remember David Chalk’s win–win approach? Owner’s win: Engaged people generate more profit and growth for the business. Staff’s win: Effective functioning meets their professional and emotional needs. Sometimes giving a staff member a win can be as simple as offering acknowledgement for a job well done.
9. Connect the dots. Don’t look at the shortfall in people’s abilities as the problem. Instead, look for a lack of alignment between the task at hand and their goals or career aspirations. There is usually something specific, a skill to develop or a fear to overcome, that is relevant to the project and the person. It becomes clear that developing that skill would benefit the participant and the company. When someone’s personal goals are tied to the project’s success, a win–win solution becomes much more likely.
The company has functional needs. People have emotional needs. Lay out clearly what the organization needs (accountabilities, systems, processes). Find out how people think, make decisions, and learn best so you can cast them in the right role. Separate function from emotion so you can integrate and converge.
When you realize that people are stuck, ask different questions to come up with different answers. Be like Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery. Start with the basics, nothing too complicated. What’s working well? What isn’t? What’s missing that would make a difference?
If you want someone to embrace your solution, engage with that person as a partner. You don’t have to be friends, but you must learn how to work through difficult situations together. The more polarized your points of view, the greater the opportunity for a breakthrough. The trick is not taking the problem or conflict personally. See it as an opportunity in disguise and steer the current reality toward your ideal future: product innovation, leadership breakthrough, performance enhancement, economic growth.
I like to engage people in the study of complex problems that impact them directly. Their stories help me to better understand and define the problem. They understand the operational issues and can help formulate workable strategies and action plans. What may be an ordinary employment contract for you is their life. The topic is real for them. Their participation is fuelled by a sense of urgency to find practical solutions to the challenges they are facing. People who are directly impacted by the problem are vested emotionally in discovering a successful outcome.
Projects I’ve worked on with “experts” were rarely as rewarding. They’re too far removed from the pain and suffering. People who have been directly impacted by an issue or affected by its challenges appreciate the solutions and opportunities we’re creating together. They are more empathetic toward their peers. Equality and mutual respect blossom.
By digging into the problems together, we come up with better, more practical solutions. We’re not creating theories or acquiring information—we’re inventing workable solutions that make sense to people on all sides of the issue. Think of yourself as a matchmaker. Instead of dating, the outcome is human ingenuity in the form of bright ideas, creative solutions, and people’s deeper commitment.
10. Start small. As the new game begins, keep it small and manageable. Little hinges swing big doors. Set up your skunkworks project and run through all six steps of the Possibility Process to establish a foundation for success. As the team builds new muscle through experience, controlling reactions and upsets, take on bigger challenges and more challenging people.
Evaluate the results of your project using the wisdom of risk (action, feedback, correction). Get it figured out, then expand gradually. Allow forward momentum to displace another area of the business.
Commit to work on the business, not in it. Dedicate time weekly to improve your business systems, to think strategically. Notice what’s working well. Acknowledge the people who are producing the desired results. Tell them specifically what you appreciate and the positive impact they are making.
Some people understand systems thinking intuitively, unconsciously. For others, it can be a complex and overwhelming topic that makes their eyes roll in the back of their head. It doesn’t have to be that way. I believe systems thinking is the most empowering and liberating skill anyone in the workplace can learn.
11. Begin systems mapping. Map the flow of activities in your business, or a segment of the business, as the inner workings of an antique watch. Each cog drives the next, even when the motion passes to a different department or person.
Systems mapping shows how pieces work together to fulfill a need. I use circles because simple is best.
Your systems map should sequence all touch points and activities from, say, initial contact with the customer to follow-up after the sale. What’s missing? What’s deadwood, adding little or no value? Would operations flow more smoothly if the sequence were altered? Keep it lean, effective, and minimalistic.
Use your systems map in critical conversations to resolve costly team problems such as delayed customer invoicing, recurring quality deficiencies, or unfulfilled orders. Visuals help to orient new employees, resolve interdepartmental conflicts, and show the impact of deficiencies. Instead of laying blame on someone, use systems mapping to focus on improvements and establish benchmarks of success. Be sure everyone knows what those benchmarks are.
If you are an Entrepreneur systems archetype, digging into the details of a systems map may not be your forte. No problem. Build responsibility for documenting processes and improving the system into job descriptions. If that’s not feasible, hire someone to document the incredible work your staff does. The bottom line is—get it done! Someone on your team is a natural Manager, who enjoys thinking this way. Find that person.
12. Get the right kind of help. Outside experts such as facilitators, consultants, and coaches can help to solve internal business problems.
A facilitator manages the process and balances participation. An impartial facilitator can guide your team through an inquiry and strategy development session. Execution is smoother when people are implementing their own plan.
If you do hire a facilitator, check qualifications carefully. Many people say they can facilitate but lack one or more of these essential qualities:
The line between consultants and coaches is often blurred. As a rough rule of thumb, consultants provide information and expertise and coaches draw information out. Consultants can help to separate tangibles from intangibles, write complex policies and procedures, or provide specific skills to guide you through a process. I give examples of this type of external assistance in the coming chapter.
A coach can be an expert who has achieved a level of mastery doing what you want to accomplish, who has a system that enables you to learn the fundamentals and focus on what matters. For example, I hired a book coach to write this book. My coach has published many books and has developed a system to train new writers. Without a system, this book might still be an idea in my head. Structure resolved concerns I had in each of the Three Big Buckets (uncertainty, lack of information, loss of control) and allowed me to stretch beyond my expectations.
Structure, of course, is only part of what stretches us: emotional resonance with our coach is just as important. Coaches do not have to be experts in a certain field as long as they are experts at moving clients toward optimal outcomes. Look for ICF (International Coach Federation) certification. Professional and master coach designations provide assurance that competency-based standards have been met.
13. Document in plain, conversational language. To ensure results flow in all directions, the systems and processes used to train and develop talent must be easy to understand. Communicate and document everything in plain language.
Emotion moves and shifts in organizations like ocean waves. Ulterior motives and hidden agendas derail the best-laid plans; political tactics raise concern and cause emotion to run rampant. Clear and open communication gets emotions flowing in positive and productive channels.
Standardized processes are like rungs on the ladder of success. Instead of boxing people into dead-end jobs, well-defined roles and responsibilities help people learn a job quickly so they can advance to the next opportunity.
When drafting position contracts, specify both tactical and strategic work. The organization isn’t served by people who look only at the task at hand. They can’t see the forest for the trees. You want people to look up, look around at their colleagues, and contribute ideas on how everyone can work together better. Challenge your entire team to think differently, plan better, and act with intention.
Success tip: When I create a new position, I build into the position contract that the new employee will assemble the training manual for the job as we work together to train him or her. For a highly technical role where writing a manual is a challenge, I might have the new hire photograph every step. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The training manual allows me to “see” which concepts are understood and which were missed. When people flourish, the business flourishes.
Sequence matters. Once each person is confident and clear about his or her own function and role in the company, you can begin combining strengths to form a high-functioning, collaborative team, free from past constraints. As Stephen Covey said, we must first be independent before we can be interdependent.
Remember: You have an opportunity to rebuild your business (and your life), frame by frame. It’s never too late (or too early) to begin. Use the Possibility Process to manage yourself and lead, teach, and inspire growth in others.