The Concrete World of Human Systems Dynamics

The shortest distance between two points is under construction.
- Leo Aikman

What’s the Problem?

It is happening more frequently now. Large infrastructure construction projects get stalled by unexpected events. Residents don’t want it in their backyards. Excavation uncovers unexpected objects as ancient ruins, cables and pipelines. The project is not the only development in the area and (new) legislation on eco-systems and environment and the multiple stakeholders influence the project. Weather, politics, financing, supply chain all disrupt the best plans and divert the most promising projects. 

There’s nothing we can do about the unexpected events. They are usually much larger than our projects, and they are certainly beyond our control. What we can do is get ready for them. We can be prepared to respond when the unexpected happens. That is where I use HSD in my consulting practice in support of large-scale construction projects.

One case tells the usual story. The project was very large, so it had been broken up into segments. The project engineers found a very logical plan for each of the streams of work to be accomplished and integrated over time. Sounds like a good idea, but the work turned out to be less logical than the plan. Each team built a boundary around their own work, hoping they could ignore the craziness of changes outside their roles. Those boundaries quickly turned into silos that blocked communication and confused relationships. When the unexpected happened, the project was not able to see, understand, or respond to the shock.  

So What’s the Pattern?

When everything goes according to plan, communication across silos isn’t very important. Everyone does their part, and the whole project moves forward. The problems start when something changes—and something always changes.

This project involved many specialty teams, including specialists for groundwork, roadwork, and bridge construction. It was thrown off course when another big project got started down the road. You wouldn’t expect a separate project to mess up a perfect plan, but it certainly did. With the two projects, there were new infrastructure requirements, planning interfaces, new stakeholders requirements. With more new traffic like new public transport, new ways to reach stations by car, bicycle or walk in the area, there was no space for team members to only look at their plan without interfering other plans of other stakeholders.

In the middle of all this change, each group was working as hard as they could, but they kept running into roadblocks. Blueprints needed to be tweaked to fit real constraints. Some groups were running behind schedule. Each team made their decisions, based on local information and the urgency they felt to get the work done on schedule and under budget.

The problem was that the near-term solution for one generated a long-term problem for another. Then the feelings started to rise: Frustration, anger, bias, and resistance. It was easy to blame others working in silos that seemed disconnected and out of reach.

My client called and asked me to straighten out the project, so I reached into my HSD bag, pulled out the Architectural Model, and called the major players together.

They didn’t need to see or understand the model, but I used it to inform my questions:

  • WHAT makes a project go well and what makes it go badly? (Beliefs)
  • SO WHAT are the similarities and differences between that and your daily work on this project? (Functions)
  • NOW WHAT is one thing we can do together to shift our patterns away from the bad and toward the good? (Structures)

Human systems dynamics is not magic, but sometimes it seems to be. This was one of those. By the end of the meeting, team leaders were ready to get back to work and break through their barriers together. I could use many different team-building and problem-solving approaches, but I choose HSD because it tells me not just what works, but why it works. The complex dynamics of human systems are reflected in simple tools that shift the conditions, so that people self-organize effectively and efficiently.

Now What Made the Real Difference?

With this team, the Architectural Model helped me shift the patterns in five ways.

First, I was able to focus on the tensions that blocked the natural flow of the work. The client told me lots of stories about all the things that were going wrong and the personality conflicts that had long and complicated histories. Rather than getting distracted with superficial patterns, I was able to hone in on the differences that made a difference. What do people believe about their work? So what functions are required to fulfill those beliefs? Now what can be done—right now—to embed those beliefs in shared practice? When they focus on what they believe in common, individuals begin to experience and express empathy for the challenges others face, and they get empathy in return.

Second, there is no space for judgment in the stories. People tell their own stories. No blaming is allowed. Beliefs about good projects draw upon subjective truths that are beyond argument. We can all agree on a list of things that make good projects good and bad ones bad. We don’t have to use this current project as an example as we define the pattern we want to build together.

Third, we come to a shared assessment of what is same and different between that model pattern and our experience today. This isn’t good or bad, it is focusing on a pattern where the tension lies. In the context of this pattern, we can compare and contrast our own behavior, as well as the behavior of others, with the productive pattern we agreed to. Of course, if we are assigned to different roles, you are concerned about different things than I am concerned about. We have to be different to do our work, but we can also be aware of how we depend on each other for easy, smooth project flow. 

Fourth, we end in shared action. We are not trying to solve the whole problem or “fix” what is broken. Instead, we are looking for one thing we can do that will shift the pattern we have and move us toward something better. As we look for actions we can take together, we are conscious of the trade-offs we make, but we are also mindful of how those trade-offs affect others. Together, we can find a more equitable and sustainable solution.

Finally, we realize this one conversation is not a solution. Before the meeting ended, we agreed to a simple follow-up process. One week later, I would send them each an email and ask them three questions for their next Adaptive Action:

  • WHAT was different in the past week?
  • SO WHAT tensions do you feel or see in the project today?
  • NOW WHAT will you do to shift the project pattern and relieve the tension you feel?    

Advice for Consultants in Chaos

To thrive in the Age of Uncertainty, the winning strategy is to make a plan and hold it lightly. Keep asking questions outside the boundaries of your own silo. Support others in their plans, and hold them lightly, too. In school we learned that you should make a plan and stick to it, but that is a losing game when you are faced with unexpected events. In the coming Age of Uncertainty, you have to be resilient and creative as you work with others to find your most Adaptive Action.

What difference does it make? What are the impacts of HSD? Well, in this case,  

  • People felt less stress, and they are more successful because they moved beyond old habits of mind and action.
  • Teams used differences to make better decisions together, rather than seeing difference as a threat and a barrier.
  • The final product was more fit for function because the plan, and the people driving the plan, adapted to change as it emerged.

Glenda and I will be holding an Adaptive Action Lab in September entitled Consulting in the Age of Uncertainty. Join us and continue this conversation!

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