Last week I discussed one of the principles of systems thinking that is incredibly important – looking at the whole, and not just the parts. If you’re new to these kinds of ideas, systems thinking might seem challenging.  Like many things within nature, there are actually some simple ways to begin your journey toward a more engaged organization

The first step is to name the system you want to influence. In this case it is the quality and quantity of engagement by employees in your organization.

The second step is to look for patterns. You want to find patterns that help you understand the dynamics and connections within the system you’re influencing. In this case there are five patterns that employees demonstrate that create patterns. These patterns in turn influence how those workers show up to invitations of engagement. 

  • The Withdrawn. This pattern includes people who carry passion for the mission and issue they are being invited to engage in. However this passion has been dampened through misuse of that very passion. These people carry the disappointment and hurt of past experiences and withdraw not only their passion, but their engagement as well. Sometimes these folks display actual cynicism about the process and the invitation for engagement.
  • The Un-empowered. This pattern includes people who either don’t have the skills to show up in the circle of engagement or don’t believe they can influence the decisions or choices through their engagement.
  • The Disenfranchised. This pattern includes people who are not invited to the table. They aren’t seen as stakeholders or aren’t thought to have insights that would make the decisions or solutions better. Remember, however, that within a systems framework ALL people connected in the system have valuable insights that can help solve complex problems. Not having the perspectives of the disenfranchised limits many possibilities.
  • The Episodic Participants (1). This pattern includes people who are talented and capable. Because they are high performers, everyone would like them to be involved. However, this create constraints on the amount of time they can spend in the circle of engagement. Time constraints cause them to not show up in the circle of engagement.
  • The Episodic Participants (2). This pattern includes people who only show up when their self interest aligns with the topic or issue that they are being invited to engage in.

Obviously, the next step is to see how resolving these patterns can shape strategy and increase the quality of engagement in your organization.  In this case  each behavior pattern invites a strategy to get more people from that group to show up in the circle of engagement.

  • For the Withdrawn, the strategy is to help them heal from past bad experiences and give them hope that this time when they show up, they won’t be hurt by the experience.
  • The Un-empowered need to be helped to build their capacity to engagement and influence the choices and decisions surrounding the issue.
  • For the Disenfranchised, a strong strategy is to find gatekeepers that are connected to members in this group and intentionally invite them into the circle. A gatekeeper is a person who recognizes who is missing from the table and metaphorically “opens the gate” to allow people to move from one space to another through actively reaching out.
  • For the Episodic Participants(1) the strategy is to refine your processes for engagement so it is efficient and effective. Allow them to participate without time consuming commitments so you can still gain their insights.
  • Episodic Participants (2) need a strategy is to help align their self-interest with the organizational interest that all stakeholders have in common. Once these connections are understood they will show up and contribute.

Authentic or Inauthentic Invitations

The system also included one more critical point. It is the authenticity of the invitation of engagement. Imagine a small stick figure standing at the top center of the circle of engagement. Many times leaders invite people to engage but the invitation is inauthentic. This occurs when the positional leader asks for engagement for form or “organizational theater” – they don’t really want to hear people’s perspectives or recommendations. Over time this inauthentic invitation for engagement causes people to withdraw, or only engage when their self-interest is potentially threatened.

Lastly the system, patterns, and strategy are experimented with to see if the system of engagement needs to be refined to help achieve your goal.

This is a simple and practical way to use systems thinking to solve an important organizational issue. In our example here the circle of engagement is the system and the people reveal patterns around getting authentic engagement into our organizations. The system helps us see the connections. Once we see the connections, look for patterns that are occurring within the system. Strategy emerges from the patterns.