Saturday, February 06, 2010

Get More Done with Less Effort: A Systems Story

Some people ask for examples of how systems thinking can be applied. Here's a story that I came across recently...

Imagine you are a headquarters-based training unit in a big organization and, among other things, you put out a two-page newsletter each month that features short paragraphs describing all the different training activities that the many field units are conducting. Collecting the articles is hard work, you need to bug people all the time to send something in. Finally you get your quota of news and you publish it. At the end of the newsletter, you write "For more information, contact ".

Early on, after you would publish the newsletter you would get a string of requests for more information that needed follow up, which took quite a lot of time - going back to all the various authors and asking them for information, or passing along the request and checking that they answered it. It would take a while for the author to respond to you, the central HQ unit, then you would send back the information to the person who requested it. It took so long to get the information, that the perception of responsiveness of the HQ unit started to be affected, and eventually no one asked for more information. It started to get even harder to get trainers to answer your news request, you might eventually need to cast your training news net wider, which would need more research and take more time.

You find you are spending a lot of time administering this information exchange. And actually from the lack of timely response from the trainers, and feedback from your readers, you are not sure what kind of impact this is having. As a result this newsletter might not be at the top of your To Do list. Is it time for the newsletter again?

So what are our opportunities here?

You are putting a lot of energy into making this newsletter work. Is there something that you could do differently that would drive this process for you? How could you get the system to do your work for you, rather than you having to do everything yourself? Maybe there is something in the structure of the system that is currently operating that is making it less efficient than it could be. You are clearly in the middle of it. Can you step aside, and shorten some of these information pathways?

What if, instead of putting "For more information contact:" at the very end of the newsletter, you put, "For more information write directly to Trainer" at the end of every article? What does that simple change do? Well, for one thing it lets people send their requests directly to Sam or whoever, and you don't have to get in the middle of all this correspondence. It puts a name and potentially a face to the training (can you put the photo of the trainer by his/her article?), and might encourage more contact between the readers and the trainers. Someone will see Sam now in the corridor on his visit to HQ and be able to talk to him about his training, rather than not knowing who conducted it.

Putting Sam's name on the article serves to raise his visibility as the owner of the activity. He now starts to get some notoriety for his articles, and when people contact him for more information he gets direct feedback on his work. His article might bring him some new contacts, new internal clients, or potential partners. People will start to know more about what Sam is doing and when they are conducting training on a similar topic, they might bring him in. Sam starts to see the value of this reporting activity, and this incentivizes him to use that opportunity and to get his articles in on time; it becomes a great marketing route for him and his team. He might even improve the quality of his article because his name is on it now, instead of some anonymous info-email address in HQ.

Now, when the articles come in to you on their own, the quality is better, and you have more enthusiasm from the trainers, your task putting together the newsletter gets easier and more enjoyable. Your admin time goes down, and maybe you can spend more time instead finding new authors, or starting a friendly competition for the best writer of the year, the most prolific writer, the one that receives the most comments, etc., or working with existing trainers on their writing skills, or maybe you can start to find photos (where you never had time for that before). Now instead of having to free up days of work to get the newsletter out, it might be more like hours, and the newsletter can move up your to-do list.

This process starts with a good question - asking yourself if there is something that you can do to trigger reactions in the wider system that can sustain the positive effects of your actions. That is using systems thinking. You want your effort to achieve progress without constant energy input from you; so you ask yourself, what can I change, even with a small strategic effort, that can create a situation where other people, those centrally involved, are happily doing this work (instead of me)?

In this particular case, incentivising the trainers by giving them more visibility and shortening the feedback time from their readers would be a good and simple move. You might consider as a next step putting your news on a blog, and cultivating a set of trainers who would get a kick out of blogging about their activities, and could even post their own articles instead of you (you could give them a set of guidelines and some support). Then if you still need to publish a newsletter, it would be as simple as going on the blog and pulling off the top articles (SiteMeter could even take the guess work out of that) and republishing them in hard copy for the field based staff. The biographical information on the trainers/bloggers, the instant gratification of publication, along with the instant feedback they would get in the comments section would continue to incentivize them to give you timely, high quality content. Now, your newsletter project is just a quick activity, instead of falling into the pulling-of-teeth category of work. And as a bonus you get a lot of happy higher profile trainers, engaged, proud of their work and potentially more productive as a result.

All that from changing the contact information? Systems thinking!

(NOTE: Of course systems thinking would also have you asking, what kind of resistance might I encounter when I make this change to my system? How can I curtail that before it gets to me? And the systems thinking goes on...)