I have been thinking about “tuning to the edges” of the system, after a wonderful discussion with Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes, the minister at Maple Grove United Church. Morar was a close friend of Brenda Zimmerman and was therefore an avid student of complexity theory. Who wouldn’t be after getting to know Brenda! In fact, I first met Morar at Brenda’s funeral during which Morar spoke of their relationship and the various ways that complexity theory has influenced Morar’s ministry. Morar graciously agreed to spend time with my DMin class at Tyndale, which was in the midst of a week-long immersion into complexity theory.
One of the key points was the importance of tuning to, or listening to, the edges of the system. In systems as in organizations, real change rarely if ever comes from the centre (or the top, depending how you view the organization). Many efforts at top-down change are made but meet with such resistance or apathy that they fail or simply fade away. The frequency of this is a reminder to heed Peter Drucker’s caution that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Tuning to the edges means listening carefully to the people who are doing the work of the organization. They often have really deep insights into small but significant process improvements that, when aggregated, can have huge impacts.
They key difference I have found is that when people generate their own ideas about what needs to change they are not only more accurate but they have a significantly higher level of ownership for developing, implementing and monitoring successful outcomes. They do this within a larger framework of strategic priorities, but they own the problem. This is far superior to the concept of “buy-in”, which is discussed at length at management tables. As my colleague Michael Gardom suggests, even the word suggests some sort of transaction (at best) and a form of bribe (at worst).
Michael is a leading expert in the concept of positive deviance, which has been used to great effect in a healthcare setting particularly in the area of infection control (which is Michael’s responsibility at University Health Network in Toronto). The basic premise is that in any organization, there are people doing the “wrong thing” but getting the right results. By wrong thing I mean that they are not following a standard protocol but have found a better way to achieve results that works within their local context. It does not lead to a standardized best practice but it is an approach that allows for multiple variations all focused on the same ends.
Leaders need to listen. They need to listen to people across the organization and then they need to provide the systems, structures, and supports that allow those same people to take ownership for the changes that really matter to them. The whole organization will be better served as a result.
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