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Creating Unity Through Systems Thinking - Southern Cross Case Study.pptx

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Slides from my session at LAST Conf Melbourne 2023. A case study on how we tackled multiple interconnected, complex, challenges when working with a client.

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Creating Unity Through Systems
Thinking
Southern Cross Case Study
Noah Cantor
Working in Tech (1999)
Agile (2008)
Systems Thinking (2010)
People (2010)
Coach
Consultant
Tech Leader
Trainer
Size: 6-150,000
Non-profits, start-ups, enterprises
Have you ever suggested an improvement
only to have it fall on deaf ears?
The Engagement
Conduct a diagnostic of our Technical Practices
Identify areas for improvement
Provide actionable recommendations
The Problem
People don’t know how to make progress
Hard for people to do their jobs
What Would You Do?

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Creating Unity Through Systems Thinking - Southern Cross Case Study.pptx

Editor's Notes

  1. I am Noah. I help tech leaders and aspiring tech leaders better understand themselves and their organisations, so they can be more effective, less stressed, and their teams can do better, more joyful, work. I do this through extensive use of systems thinking, filtered through a lens of caring deeply about how people experience their work. I have been doing this for close to 15 years. I have done it as a coach, embedded tech leader, consultant, and trainer. I’ve worked with organisations as small as 6, and as large as 150,000. They have been non-profits, start-ups, enterprises, and more.
  2. Have you ever seen a problem really clearly, suggested an improvement, only to have it fall on deaf ears? Why do you think that was? <pause for a minute to discuss> Today, I’m going to talk about some work I did at Southern Cross, and how we tackled that problem and got everybody to see the same problems and solutions. Feel free to ask questions as we go along. I have a presentation, but it’s there to provide illustration to the points, not to constrain us.
  3. In 2022, Southern Cross asked HYPR (my employer at the time), whether we could come in and help them with their technical practices. They asked us to: * Conduct a diagnostic of their Technical Practices * Identify areas for improvement * Provide actionable recommendations
  4. When asked why their Technical Practices were the focus, they told us that their exit interviews indicated that: * People didn’t know how to make progress * Southern Cross made it hard for them to do their jobs. Their conclusion was that improving their Technical Practices would provide people the support they needed to grow and progress.
  5. <5 minutes> I know how we did it. I’m curious what you all see, and what you might do in similar circumstances. Take a minute to write down your thoughts. Then we’ll then come back together, and you can share your approaches. Once that’s done, I’ll talk about our approach, why we took that approach, and the results. Before you go, I’ll answer any questions you have about the brief. Given this information, what would you do? <a few minutes pass> Lets come back and review what you came up with.
  6. As we go, there are a couple of questions I would be interested in finding answers to. So, if you see something as we go that could be improved, please let me know when we get to the questions portion at the end.
  7. I use a 4 step process to create the unity necessary to effect change. Each step has an associated tool. Underpinning the steps and tools are 4 questions that I’m trying to discover answers to. What’s the biggest barrier to people working together to solve the right problem? <click> In my experience, if I ask 20 people what problems they’re having, I’ll get 50 responses. The biggest challenge isn’t coming up with a solution, it’s agreeing on what the problem is. But how do you know what to pay attention to? Before you can learn what’s wrong, you have to know what right would look like. This is because, even more fundamental than the question of “What’s wrong,” is, “How are things supposed to be?” Without an answer to this question, it’s impossible to agree on what’s wrong, because everybody will have different ideas of what right looks like. We need a way to separate what’s important from all the data available to us. The 4 questions I mentioned then, start with, <click> How should things work today? We then follow with <click> How do things actually work today? (The answer to the question, “What’s wrong?” Is simply the delta between these two questions.)<click> Next, we ask “How do we close the gap?”<click> And last, we ask, “What experiments should we try?” These are the 4 questions I mentioned earlier.
  8. <Maybe use this?> <edit> Have you seen this sort of isolated approach to solving problems in your organisations?</edit> Knowing what we do, we suspected that the proposed solutions and focus areas did not capture the whole picture. So we said that we would be happy to help, but that the work would have to be shaped slightly differently. Experience told us that Technical Practices were only part of the problem that exists in a bigger context. In order for us to help them, we needed to understand that bigger context. In particular, what things impacted Technical Practices, and what did Technical Practices impact? In other words, we needed to look at the wider system, in order to understand a) how to improve it most effectively, and b) whether improving Technical Practices would help. We told our sponsor that if we came in and focused solely on improving Technical Practices, we were sure we could improve them, but if it turned out the problem originated in a different part of the overall system, improving technical practices wouldn’t keep people around. If that happened, we could predict a few effects: * Southern Cross would not think we had done a good job * We would have wasted a lot of their time and money * We would effectively be improving people’s skills and making it easier for them to get a better job elsewhere - in other words, we would make things worse for Southern Cross Our sponsor agreed, and we got started.
  9. If people can’t agree on the problem, then it is impossible for them to agree on the solution, because they’ll be aiming to fix different things. Even if you understand the problem and the surrounding system, it doesn’t matter if nobody else sees what you see. So, how do you help them see what’s going on? Humans are visual creatures, driven by stories. We seek meaning and connection between things that may or may not be connected. This is one of the keys to bringing people along on the journey. By visually telling people a story, which is backed by logic and data, and which shows how their problems are interconnected, you can shift their view of their isolated issue to a more holistic, complete view.
  10. Our sponsor for this work was responsible for the technology ecosystem, so that was the system we were interested in. At Southern Cross, we used several tools from Theory of Constraints for our work. How many people here understand what an Intermediate Objective Map is, from Theory of Constraints? Or, as I prefer to call it a Goal Tree. (Draw it on a whiteboard if people don’t know.) Every system has a goal. Most people in most systems can’t state their goal. So the first step is to help people identify it, because if we don’t understand the goal of the system, it’s incredibly difficult to separate signal from noise. In the case of Southern Cross’s technical systems, what they settled on was, “Effective execution, now and in the future.” ‘Now and in the future’ is something I always add, because otherwise the risk is that the entire tree will focus on short-term value, potentially destroying the organisation over the long-term. Once the goal was in place, we asked people what was necessary to achieve the goal. We took what they gave us, refined it, and then validated it with them. <click> The Goal Tree acted as a foundation on which the rest of the work was built - it made it so that arguments about how things should have been stopped, and arguments about problems achieving the goal could start. In essence, we moved the argument up one rung on the ladder. We were still pretty blind, but we were making progress. We agreed on how things should have been.
  11. The next step was figure out “How are things today?” By sharing the Goal Tree with people, and asking how it diverges from their lived experience, we get a really good picture of how things are. And the delta between the two answers the question, “What’s wrong?” We took our Goal Tree, and shared it widely, including with new people who hadn’t interacted with us before. We talked to new people for a few reasons. First, We wanted to involve as many people as possible in the process, in order to ensure that people were heard and had a chance to contribute. We knew we wouldn’t be able to talk to everybody, so we asked teams to choose representatives that they trusted to represent their experiences, because it was important to us that even people who weren’t there felt like they had been represented. Engaging people this way makes it more likely that any change that comes as a result of our work lands in fertile soil and is more likely to take root. The other reason is Catharsis. People often hang onto their unhappiness when things don’t work. This could be for many reasons. Sometimes they don’t feel safe. Sometimes they’ve gotten in trouble for speaking. Regardless, most people have complaints about work. By listening to them, people gain catharsis, which creates a feeling of optimism, peace, and hope.
  12. Our next step was to take what we’d learned, further separate the signal from the noise, and represent it in a way that would help people identify the interconnected nature of their problems, and the things that it would be constructive to focus on. We visualised these connections in a Current Reality Tree (CRT), again from Theory of Constraints. One of the reasons I like the Current Reality Tree is that as you explore it, things tend to converge. From myriad initial problems, a small number of causes almost always show up. Would anybody like me to go over what a Current Reality Tree is and how it works? <draw fire on the whiteboard> <click> We kept working on the tree, building connections, questioning them, tearing them down, building them back up, until we had a tree that captured a) all the ways the system wasn’t working, and b) had a small number of underlying causes. We then validated our Current Reality Tree with new people to iron out the kinks, before taking it back to our sponsor and other senior stakeholders. Walking through the Current Reality Tree provided a combination of visualisation, story, logic and data that led to several different, visceral, reactions. The most frequent response from anybody not in a senior leadership position was, ‘I feel seen. This is my day to day life, and I feel like someone has finally validated what I’ve been feeling.’ Leadership’s response was, ‘This looks bad, but right. I can’t argue against it. How do we fix it?’ And ‘We need to share this with peers outside technology, so they can understand what’s going on and the impact that external factors are having on us.’ I felt great satisfaction when I got these responses, because it meant the process was working. Catharsis, fair process, and unity all show up in the way people responded to what we showed them. We ended up taking much of the senior team through the Current Reality Tree, along with their DRs. Responses were very similar to the initial responses. But what happened next is why I think this process is so valuable. Once everybody saw and digested the Current Reality Tree, they largely stopped disagreeing about the problems. Instead, they talked about possible solutions. We moved up another rung on the ladder.
  13. For the record, this is where technical practices turned up. A small area that was affected by, and contributed to, other things in the system. It turned out that had we tackled technical practices directly, we would have ended up in exactly the position we feared.
  14. Let’s recap quickly: Steps 1 & 2 enable everybody to agree on the problem Steps 3 & 4 will enable everybody to agree on the solution
  15. Once we agreed on the problem, it was time to figure out the answer to question 3, “How do we close the gap?” Wouldn’t it be great if we could test changes without any cost, without any expense, and without having to go through an approval process like CAB? It turns out, there is. In a similar fashion to the way we build a Current Reality Tree to see what’s happening now, and why, we can build a Future Reality Tree, to see what’s likely to happen, and why.
  16. We sat down, and looked at the underlying problems identified by the CRT. Everything up here in green, was an entry point. Entry points are either underlying causes, or things we and the customer accept axiomatically. An example of something axiomatic would be, ‘Not all work delivers value.’ No matter how hard you try, some work won’t be valuable. The trick isn’t to prevent it, it’s to know whether work is valuable or not and react accordingly. After accounting for the axiomatic things, we were left with a small number of things<click> which, if changed, could have a significant impact on the system. One of the underlying issues we found was that separating build and run had unexpected long-term consequences. It meant that load on support teams continually grew in ways they hadn’t anticipated. Because they didn’t anticipate it, they didn’t ensure they had the right staff and knowledge in place for it to work, which meant people who weren’t doing support were constantly pulled away from what was considered their day jobs to provide support. This extra work wasn’t planned for when project plans were created, which meant that projects fell behind, people felt pressure to deliver, and no time was available for growth, experimentation, or learning. There were lots of other effects, and a few different causes, but I wanted to take a minute to link what we were hired to fix with the problems we found.
  17. After gathering all the potential starting points from the CRT, we took a look at the Goal Tree. We took the Goal Tree, removed the parts that worked, <click> leaving only the parts that didn’t. We then combined the extracted data from both Goal Tree and Current Reality Tree. The remaining bits from the Goal Tree went at the top, as they were the things the system was not achieving, but needed to.
  18. The entry points from the Current Reality Tree form the potential bottom of the tree. To build the tree, we took one of the problems from the CRT, and predicted what would happen if conditions around it were changed. For example, if we currently don’t identify success metrics for a lot of our work, what happens if we change that? What impact will it likely have? What impact would we want it to have? After all, we would be introducing change and extra work into the system. How would it be likely to play out? Are there any ways it could go wrong? If so, how do we prevent those from happening? An intervention would sometimes have multiple effects. Whenever a change ran out of momentum, we would introduce a new change. The aim was to introduce the smallest number of changes that would get every part of the goal tree working as they wanted it to.
  19. This is the completed Future Reality Tree. As you can see, it is much simpler than the Current Reality tree, and consists of far fewer entry points. Our final version required 12 conditions to change. As part of building the Future Reality Tree, it was really important to us to introduce only changes in conditions, and not introduce specific actions. What’s the difference? Every change is introduced to achieve an aim. For example, automated testing might be introduced in order to reduce regression errors in software, or speed up the development & release process. If the goal is to reduce regression errors, there are other ways it could be achieved. The simplest, by far, is to stop changing software. If the goal is to speed up the development and release process, we might improve the capabilities of our developers, or create automated pipelines that release software on demand, or reduce the size of releases. For any new condition, there are many different ways to achieve it. By focusing on conditions, the Future Reality Tree remains robust. If a particular intervention, aimed at achieving a particular change, doesn’t work, we can try something else. We refined the Future Reality Tree the same way we did the Current Reality Tree, shared it with the same people, and told its story. Once everybody saw and digested the Future Reality Tree, they mostly stopped disagreeing about what had to change. Instead, they talked about specific interventions to try. We moved up another rung on the ladder.
  20. Once it was clear what conditions to change, we need to agree on ways to change them. This brings us to the last step: Experiments We devised a set of sample experiments that would hopefully change some of the conditions we were seeing. We came up with a hypothesis about what impact a given change would have, how we would know if it was working or failing, potential unintended consequences, and what was needed to make them successful. We then sequenced some of the experiments. Not all changes had to go in a particular order, but there were a few that would be very difficult to do first and easy to do later. With a cross-section of people from the system, we added and removed experiments, and agreed on the order to tackle them. We then set about introducing them, measuring their impact, discarding ones that didn’t work, and adding new ones when the time was right. Our aim here was to introduce experiments that would affect multiple conditions simultaneously, in order to reduce the number of successful experiments we would have to run to achieve success. Not everybody agreed with the specific experiments, or the order. But because they had a timeframe, it was easy to support things that might not have been a first preference. Once the experiments were agreed, most disagreements about what to do stopped. Instead of disagreeing about specific interventions, they used data to run experiments… and sometimes argued over interpretations.
  21. We did it. We got to the top of the ladder. We had successfully helped Southern Cross shift from disagreeing about things that could never be resolved, to things where the foundation was all agreed. That’s not to say things were smooth sailing from then on. There’s a lot of work that goes into implementation that’s required to ensure success, but that’s a conversation for another time. The entire process, from start to identifying experiments, took 3 months. A quick recap: Using systems thinking, and tools from Theory of Constraints, we created unity. Everybody shared the same views on How things should be today, How they actually are today, how to close the gap, and specific things to try to get there. We took what looked like a variety of disparate problems, showed their interconnected nature, and united everybody in understanding what was happening and what to do about it. That was a pretty wonderful place to end up.