A Systems Thinking Approach to Managing Stakeholders

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Previously I wrote a post on the use of Appreciative Inquiry and the role of coaching in managing individual stakeholders in an organisation. This is effective on a individual level, but as organisations grow the communication points increase and become highly complex

Often you need a way to view the entire landscape of stakeholders in order to develop a strategy for implementing design efforts. I have found that viewing organisations as systems can help identify the key stakeholders, their relationships, and help develop a strategy to implement design from an organisational perspective.

I have recently started using a set of stakeholder maps to model these relationships. These maps can guide our conversations in order to build trust and strengthen relationships. One of the key elements of systems thinking is that the complexity of can seldom be ‘fixed’, but only influenced or changed by providing leverage at certain points.

“You can’t “fix” problems with systems thinking, instead there are situations you could improve” - Peter Checkland

In the mid 1980’s Peter Checkland developed a model that divided systems into two groups - Hard and Soft. Hard systems are mechanical systems such as a thermostats or the motherboard of a computer - fairly easy to understand and predict. Soft systems are those that involve humans - a game of poker, a meeting, healthcare systems, etc. He developed the Soft System Model suggesting that most problems in systems are caused because ‘humans are hard to predict’.

In Checklands model, a problem situation is analysed with identified persons (stakeholders) and factors that influence this problem. This situation is graphically represented in a ‘Rich Picture’ which identifies the following elements:

Organisational Actors - people who work in the context of the problem situation

World views - what mental models, beliefs, and values does each stakeholder have.

Connections - what relationships exist between the actors?

Conflicts - where do the conflicts exist within the system?

 Peter Checkland’s ‘Rich Picture’

Peter Checkland’s ‘Rich Picture’

It is important to point out that this ‘Rich Picture’ was not meant only as a documentation of the problem.  It is also used as a facilitative tool to guide discussions with others to get their perspective which leads to a more robust view of the issue. In the real world, these discussions often lead you to update your stakeholder map to reflect the perspective of others - in fact this is a core part of Checkland’s theory.

A number of years ago I participated in the Coaching Beyond the Team workshop from Esther Derby and Don Gray (highly recommended), where they presented a Stakeholder Mapping exercise. I have used it successfully at a few engagements since then and found it quite effective. After reading Checklands book Soft Systems Methodology in Action I have merged some of the elements of Checkland’s together with their Stakeholder Map to form something that has proven really effective when working with design managers.

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Once the stakeholders are mapped with the relationships, connections and conflicts, one can begin to evaluate the situation, noting the persons with the most interest and influence. The grid helps visualise the situation. Based on where each stakeholder lies they can then be labeled on the Stakeholder Map for an overview of the situation.

Lastly, it is important to point out that like many system models this is a ‘snapshot in time’ and the map will change overtime. This will shift as the organisation shifts, and needs be updated with some frequency to observe the behaviour over a longer period of time.

Happy mapping!

Coaching and my Values

I first understood the value of coaching when I became a UX team lead over five years ago. I had no ambition to lead a team before, but for the first time I enjoyed the creative aspect of the work and the team members were top notch. I had no formal management or coaching training, so I just used my instincts and the values I believed should be part of healthy team. After doing this sometime and focusing on people's strengths I realised by using carefully phrased question people would could reach realisations and help themselves. This was a powerful insight for me and I decided to dig deeper into coaching.

Not long after this, I started to play with the idea of becoming certified as a coach myself and began looking at different coaching programs. If you have ever done this you know there is a wide variety and understanding the difference was difficult. Since part of becoming a certified coach, you need to have a coach yourself, I decided that this would be a good first step to understand the differences and in the spring of 2018 I met my first coach.  

There are many types of coaching and I chose a method based on value identification through a (sometimes rigorous) ‘co-creation process’. This last aspect is not small and means there is considerable investment from both sides which was sometimes that was at times quite uncomfortable for me. I won’t go deeply into how the coaching worked but it used a series of methods to facilitate conversations and thinking for me in order to make some honest and constructive conclusions.

I approached these first session with a very analytical mind - trying to reduce the process down to some distinct parts that would give me benefit (my perception) and a timeline. I was gently encouraged from my coach to ‘trust the process’ at which point I realised this is something I have been teaching for years in my various Design classes.

‘The real value of the Design process is the conversations and insights you have along the way - not always the artefacts’ - me

For the first time I could put myself on the receiving end of that advice which gave me unique perspective that I will carry with me for some time. Manage the ambiguity. Complex issues (by the fact people are involved makes most issues complex) cannot effectively be solved from an analytical perspective only. Yeah, I got it now.

I think one of the more beneficial parts of the coaching was the identification of my values. This is something one typically does not go around wondering  - ‘I wonder what my personal values are?’ so having someone help you really makes a difference.

After a good bit discussion this is where I landed.

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Overall I am pretty happy with list and will be revisiting it on a frequent basis to make sure things in my life are supporting this.

Thanks Coach J