FRAMEWORK FOR HIGH PERFORMANCE TEAMS

THINKING IN SYSTEMS

For more please refer to the "Systemic Nature of Teamleadsky Framework" section of the longread.

In this article we will look into the structures behind teamwork.

We have already talked about the anti-patterns of teamwork, that were repeatedly observed and generalized based on experience.

We can look at these anti-patterns on different levels. Let's take the One Man Bands anti-pattern as an example:
Events
On the level of events we can say: "It took ages to fix a bug while one of the team members was on holidays".
Patterns
On the level of patterns we can observe the following: "Team leader usually assigns the tasks during the planning, and team members don't know much about each other's part of the project."
Systems
On the level of systems we can state that "By assigning each team member a personal focus area, the team initially gains more velocity, however when comes the need for changes across several focus areas, the velocity drops significantly due to knowledge gaps and design discrepancies."
Mental Models
On the level of mental models we can recognise, that we hold the following assumption: "In order to move fast we must maximise the use of every team member's working time."
The deeper teams go in the understanding of the underlying structure, the better learnings team members can take, and the more powerful solutions can be designed. In the case above the solution based on the events level could be establishing an on-call routine for critical issues. While taking into consideration the system and underlying mental model could help the team members switch to a more collaborative way of working, leading to better understanding of the whole implementation and achieving the state of synergy in the team.

Systems Thinking encourages looking behind the patterns of events and discovering the underlying systems and mental models. The ultimate goal of applying Systems Thinking approach to teamwork is finding solutions, that create largest possible improvements with the smallest possible efforts.

These are several guidelines, that will help you in practicing Systems Thinking:

  • See topics as wholes, don't draw borders along the lines of the teams or roles. Thinking in terms of "our side - their side" or "my job - not my job" will not help you to get to the bottom of things. Mind, that dividing an elephant in half will not produce two small elephants. Systems Thinking is about seeing the whole, and understanding how the interconnected parts are affecting the whole.
  • At the same time do not allocate blame. We all have been to those team Retrospectives, where another team is blamed for the issues, and no action points are agreed upon because "the issue is outside of our control". System Thinking is not concerned with finding out who to blame. It is concerned with understanding how the reality is, and what is the smallest change, that can result in the biggest improvement.
  • Look for patterns rather than separate events, and focus on the underlying causes.
  • Take into consideration, that often there is a delay between cause and effect, that makes the relation obscure.

To describe the interconnected nature of things Systems Thinking employs the concept of causal loops. There are two types of loops distinguished: a reinforcing loop and a balancing loop:


A Reinforcing loop encourages the system to increase moving in the same direction (e.g. a dam leak becomes stronger as the water erodes the wall, which leads to more water flowing, causing more erosion).



Balancing loops keep the system in balance (e.g. eating will cause you to feel full and stop eating, while not eating will cause you to feel hungry and start eating).

The combinations of reinforcing and balancing loops and delays are used to visualize the dynamics of interconnected systems.
Let's take Tornado Management anti-pattern as an example, and describe it using causal loops:
By putting a constant pressure on the team, team leader achieves a short-term increase in performance, however the team members quickly get exhausted from working under the conditions of constant emergency, their performance starts to decline, which makes the team leader to put even more pressure.

Once the team members understand the systemic structure of the issues they are encountering, it becomes possible to discover and challenge the underlying mental models, and create efficient solutions.

Written by Aleksandr Zuravliov

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