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  • Dean Williamson

Organisational change: Shallow and fast vs. deep and slow

A while ago I recorded a video about what we at Human Systems Co. call "cascading change" - using understanding of complexity and experimentation to nudge complex systems into other states.

In this blog post I wanted to explore one of the principles that we generally encourage our clients to work towards: deep and slow.

If there's one common experience that we have, it's coming into a place where it feels like everyone is running around with their arse on fire. Everything is top-right - urgent and important! And you know how you fix something - you fix it NOW! How do we know what is REALLY important to do in the middle of all of this craziness? The answer is EVERYTHING! In one place I talked to, a two-person team were holding 36 complex, multi-stage projects on their whiteboard. "Which of those are most important to get done?" I asked. "All of them have to be done this year" was the reply. No laughs, no smiles - dead serious.

Shallow, fast responses

One of the hallmarks of these reactive systems is that they prefer "fixing" solutions. Do you have a problem with an employee? Try to "fix" their behaviour by giving them critical feedback, or fire them, or issue them a warning - fixed! If there's an issue with an IT system, we need a fix right now so that our system stays operational. There's a crisis? Everyone jump onto it, band together, and then do absolutely nothing to prevent the next one.

Nothing in these reactive systems looks at a root cause, and they're so busy with their band-aid's that they never truly improve or change.

Nothing in these reactive systems looks at a root cause, and they're so busy with their band-aid's that they never truly improve or change. As a result, staff frustration and disillusionment are often sky-high, as the next "fix" rolls in like a wave and then disappears, while the tide stays high. Paradoxically, leaders are often just as frustrated - so everyone feels the impacts, but no-one feels like they have the lever to change anything.

If you know how to read the signs, you know the reactive organisations by a thousand small actions or expressions - I can see them in the foyer while I'm waiting for a meeting. It might be the clunky, legacy system the receptionist uses, the way the place is decorated as an after-thought ("us before our customers"), the way the chair I sit in is obviously a bit broken, but not quite enough to either be fixed or replaced. You might think these sound trivial, but you know that I'm going to hold onto these wonderings and go looking for the same patterns in your HR, or your customer strategy, or your IT systems. I bet they'll be there.

The contrast: Deep and slow

The contrast to this "fixing" approach is to get causal. This involves seeing repeating patterns and working out what might be causing them. I think about this like understanding an illness - there are symptoms, but then there's what's going on in your body that's causing these symptoms. For example - sore knees? Is it related to the knee joint - something like osteoporosis or arthritis? Is it musculo-skeletal, like over-using your quad muscles and under-using your glutes? Or is it that you have something else going on, like increased inflammation or pain sensitivity? Popping pain-killers usually isn't the best solution, unless you know that it's only a short-term issue.

In this example, it's easy but mostly ineffective to take painkillers. A longer-term solution will require investigation, experimentation, and probably quite a lot of discipline or work. But the results of this approach may be:

  1. Life-saving

  2. Allow you to intervene early in something potentially debilitating (e.g. staving off osteoporosis or multiple sclerosis for a decade)

  3. Produce a level of self-awareness and health that allows for increased future performance

  4. Or, all of the above at once!

Retention as a "deep and slow" example

An organisational example might be retention. If you feel like you have people exiting quicker than you like, you can assume that it's about pay, but it's probably not. An investigation will usually show that you have multiple, intersecting factors pushing people out the door. It might be things like team culture, team leader skills, pay equity, disempowerment, flexibility and other conditions etc. I know that feels like a lot, but you can do things that will advance all of these at once, and deeply and slowly change the underlying architecture or your organisation.

For example, working with team leaders on a more participatory leadership approach will likely advance team culture, team leader skills and disempowerment all at once. If you bundle this up in a wider "move", you can also probably use it to start seeding structural work and experiments which are about pay equity and flexibility.

However, if you REALLY want to get your head around "deep and slow", you'll also understand that this whole thing is a nested experiment itself - because if your

senior managers are managing team leads in ways that aren't participatory, it's unreasonable to expect team leads to pick this up. Modelling is an essential component of behaviour adoption. So we might have to do some moves there, too. And we'll keep looping through, investigating, consulting, hypothesising and designing together, deep and slow, as these things emerge at us.

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