The gift of a new pair of glasses
In 1993 in Johannesburg South Africa I was gifted a new pair of glasses – a new way of seeing the world and a new lens on change and organisations.
I was working as the People and Organisation Development Manager in a public listed company that manufactured and distributed chipboard and laminate products. At the time the company was set up as three independent businesses. We had over 70% market share, but the three businesses were competing, and profitability was declining. The existing business model was unsustainable. The CEO needed to merge the three businesses and create one integrated entity. He understood that this was the right business strategy, and he knew what the new operating model needed to be. Technically and ‘on paper’ the business case was a no-brainer, but he also knew that mergers had a dismal success rate in terms of actualising the return on investment outlined in the business case.
Strategically and commercially it made sense, but he understood too, that the merger represented an adaptive challenge for all involved. It would mean a fundamental shift for all roles and how they connected across the whole organisation. It required shifting boundaries, dissolving entities and creating new ones. He had tested the idea with his executive team and whilst they all rationally knew it was the right thing to do, and said yes, he knew that not everyone on the team was ‘delighted’. They all sensed how big a challenge – getting this new operating model wired across the whole organisation – would be. The CEO needed help, a partner from outside the organisation.
He had heard of Dr Irving Borwick, a consultant based in Brussels, who had developed a systemic approach to organisational change which was yielding transformative results. Irving, who had been the Head of Leadership and Organisation Development for global corporates for many years, had now set up his own company. His wife Bella Borwick, a family therapist had introduced him to systems thinking, and he had seen first-hand the results they were getting with healing patients and assisting families to change. As a result he had through experimentation, trial and error developed a systemic approach to organisational change. He had adapted the family systems interventions to be relevant for organisational systems, which he understood were fundamentally different to family systems. After exploring this methodology with Borwick and understanding its potential impact, the CEO was a lot more confident that he could achieve the results he was looking for with the merger. He made the decision to go ahead and engaged Borwick to partner with him. The work would begin on his return to South Africa by appointing his new executive team and giving them the role to lead the change with him in the company. A date for the first kick-off strategy and planning workshop was set.
The change had to be leader-led
The new senior leadership team – the CEO, his executive team and their direct reports – was invited to the offsite. We were to spend five days designing the new organisation, crafting our strategies and developing our change plan. However, there was a new unexpected piece. As part of the five-days we weren’t only going to work on what we were going to do when we went ‘back to work’, we were also going to work with Borwick on our ‘leadership system’. Our first day was called ‘painting the future’, where we crafted our vision for success together. Borwick’s three-day change program kicked off the next day. As part of this we all got to do a one-hour 1:1 consult with him or one of his team, exploring our roles and our ‘mental maps’ of the system. As a change manager I was intrigued. It was my first experience of this type of exercise.
Through this very powerful 1:1 mapping consult so many layers of how I was constructing my world were revealed to me. Firstly, I discovered I had a ‘mental map’ which I didn’t know I was navigating the world through. Secondly, I ‘saw’ my map and how I was ‘seeing’ the organisation and my role in it; and thirdly, together we uncovered new possibilities for the role I could play in the system going forward. Starting to see through this lens was confronting and liberating at the same time. I was untethered.
In the opening to the program Borwick explained this was a non-traditional program based on systemic principles and very different assumptions about change. He introduced us to ‘The Systems Triangle’ and talked about his idea of ‘Change without Change’. I didn’t know it then, but the introduction to this systemic frame and its connection to organisational change (I had been introduced to other systemic models previously) was to fundamentally change my life personally and professionally. It helped me enormously in how I took up my role in my family system, and it transformed by work practice. I was to go on and work with Borwick in his company and later independently, but in partnership, intermittently for the next 15 years, culminating in our final piece of work together at a bank in Australia shortly before he passed away. Some of his ground-breaking ideas and programs, integrated with others, are foundational to my thinking, methodology and work.
The ‘Systems Triangle’
‘The Systems Triangle’ is based on three key components which function as an integrated circuit:
- The System: a system is ‘any set of relations with a boundary’. All organisations are systems.
- The Individual: every organisational system is made up of individuals, and subsystems with each individual or subsystem holding a ‘mental map’ (their construct) of the system and how it works or ‘should’ work. This ‘mental map’ is not the organisation (or the ‘territory’ as Korzybski says) but our understanding of it.
- The Role: every individual or subsystem is in the system by virtue of the role (function) we take up in, or on behalf of, that system. The role defines our behaviour.
To the degree that individuals or subsystems are constructing their roles in aligned ways there is flow, however if there are different constructs held in relation to each others’ roles then there will most likely be ‘noise’ in the system.
He introduced us to the paradox that if you subscribe to these three principles, and see organisations as systems, one could bring about change in behaviour and how the system works, through changing the role, without changing the person – their character, style, personality or values. This was a fundamental challenge to my assumptions, and really is a challenge still to this day to the majority of current change, leadership and organisation development, theory and practice. We are mostly trying to ‘do change’ at the wrong level of ‘logical type’ – trying to change the individual (optimise the person or the part) but not adapt their role in the system, or the patterns of interrelationship between roles and how the system functions as a whole.
If you think about it, every day we take up multiple roles in multiple systems. For example – if I wake up in the morning the first role I’m in, is partner in our system of marriage and in that role I behave in a particular way; if I go down the hall and engage with my children, my behaviour changes as I step into role of parent (mother); if my mother is visiting from South Africa I step into role of child and my behaviour changes again. Each of these different systems and contexts require me to take up a different role and behave in a different way in relation to others in that system. Every time I shift role and the system I’m part of, I change my behaviour. I maintain who I am fundamentally but I am also redefined by the other and the context at that time. The same applies in organisational systems. So if you can change the role you can change behaviour. It is not always easy, but it is easier to change the role than to change the person.
As he spoke everything started making sense in a whole new way.
As my eyes opened to this relational way of making sense of behaviour, change and organisations, my understanding was deeply challenged. I was confronted, my worldview ‘disrupted’. Over the next three days I remember feeling ‘at sea’, as I watched Borwick and his team applying ‘The Systems Triangle’ and wielding their magic.
As leaders we all went into that program holding our old ‘mental maps’ of the system, taking up ‘old’ roles and relating to each other in our traditional ways, and after three days we emerged our way forward as a different system. Their program and systemic methodology helped us to redraw boundaries, in our minds and in the system, create new subsystems and align on new ‘rules of engagement’ and patterns of relating between the parts. Different neural pathways in our minds and in the organisation were mapped and co-constructed. Borwick’s program created the space and the container for us to emerge in a new form of our network. We rewired our system. It felt like alchemy to me.
Over the year we continued to develop and learn our way into this form, reframing and re-aligning our roles and repatterning our relatedness, but we were one leadership system and one business doing this cohesively. We had a new shared systemic language and framework to be deliberately adaptive together and we grew profitability by 70% despite this fundamental change in business model. It broke all the research trends of change and mergers. We had managed to change in very complex ways with very little ‘noise’, turbulence or resistance. I was hooked! This wasn’t a once-off. I have gone on to repeat results like this with clients multiple times applying this program.
Through that business transformation, I discovered too, that a whole different universe existed, one which was right in front of me, but which I could not see before. It was like being gifted a pair of ‘magic glasses’. For these systems glasses, and the possibility of transformation that goes with them, I am forever deeply grateful to both Irving and Bella.
As Irving said to us that day in 1993…
‘systems are like gravity, they exert a very powerful pull on our behaviour, just because we aren’t wired to see them yet, doesn’t mean they aren’t there’
Learning to ‘see’ ourselves in systems, know how we ‘know’ them and in so doing change them is a gift beyond measure.
Do you know how you know?