Uncovering assumptions

Think : Christian Weidinger via Flickr

I’m continually fascinated by what happens around change and why some things, that on face value appear to sound and look great and are perceived to be exactly what is needed to help things improve. But yet over time they simply fade away and people are left wondering, what happened to that piece of work? or what happened to that project? and importantly why didn’t things actually change?

Over the years in my previous role as Digital Lead, I often supported and created projects on the edges which on face value sounded good and for a period of time generated some positive buzz and some momentum, but as I sit here now I am left wondering why didn’t those things create the change I thought they would, why are things not changing.  I accept there have been some surface changes, but I’m not going to kid myself in thinking that those surface changes were worth it. After all, nothing fundamentally has changed. In fact, one thing has and that is ME, I’ve fundamentally changed.

The shift for me in understanding this systemically and conceptually has been the learning and practice within my new role. In this role, I am learning about Systems Thinking and Intervention Theory which is helping me to support leaders to see and think differently.

Over the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things I was involved in and whether I can, could or should re-engage but have struggled with this as I’ve not really understood how to do that in a practical way which helps. One of those things is LocalGov Digital – something which I dedicated a huge amount of personal time and energy into over 5 years.

When the network started in 2012 I was in a different head space. When I look back at that now and the decisions and motivations I had then, I can now understand why I did what I did and why I think LocalGov Digital managed to get the traction it did at the time and continues to do so.  We had a good narrative, we had a groundswell of support and recognition and were able to harness that to grow our collective visibility – things were looking good.

I thought it was a great way to connect to people but one assumption underpinning this was that collectively we (LocalGov Digital) were already thinking differently (more on this later) and therefore took an unconscious stance of “we were right and others were wrong”.  I now know this is not a constructive position to take and inevitably leads to conflict and tribalism.

I didn’t know any different and for me personally, the value the network created was one of support and connection with people which previously didn’t exist…I felt like I belonged and found a safe space. Finally, I was able to connect with others who thought the same as I did….but over time I was blind to the unintended consequences of the actions the network took, including actions by myself.  I’m not suggesting everything or everyone was wrong, in fact, what I’m saying is that I’m learning that actions I took then internally and through the network are having consequences over time that from my new point of view were not constructive or helpful.   I know the network did the same as a whole, but the network was simply behaving within the parameters of a public sector system which triggered those actions.

In terms of seeing this as a pattern of behaviour, I am now seeing this across many networks and can see this is essentially how networks come together – I can even see elements of the same spirit and determination of early LocalGov Digital being replayed albeit slightly differently through the One Team Gov‘s activity / messaging.

My observations are that both endeavours are coming from a place of good intent, (change public services for the better) however, there are some BIG assumptions sitting behind that good intent, those assumptions are currently invisible and therefore have been unchallenged.

For me, one of the biggest assumptions sitting behind both LocalGov Digital and One Team Gov is that everyone who engages or contributes with any of this work is already and actively thinking differently?

When I say “thinking differently” how I now understand that is that people are learning in a double loop way, resulting in thinking differently.  What I’ve learnt about myself is that I was not thinking differently, I was, in fact, thinking very much like everyone else, including the people I had assumed I thought differently from…that realisation was a pretty illuminating and painful one, but I am now able to learn from that and can see the journey and the power of that journey.

There is an excellent article on double loop learning here, it is quite a heavy subject but this post articulates it clearly in my opinion. I’d very much recommend reading it before continuing but just in case you don’t have time I’ll be quoting from it anyway throughout this post.

“For double-loop learning to occur and persist at any level in the organisation, the self-fuelling processes must be interrupted. In order to interrupt these processes, individual theories-in-use [how we think] must be altered.” (Argyris & Schon)

“An organisation with a [defensive] learning system is highly unlikely to learn to alter its governing variables, norms and assumptions [i.e. thinking] because this would require organisational inquiry into double-loop issues, and [defensive] systems militate against this…we will have to create a new learning system as a rare event.” 

When one applies to this oneself it has transformational impact, this is the journey I’ve been supported to go on in my new role here…

This next snippet sums up for me the nature of the journey i’ve been on…please note the wall they refer to in the snippet below is a barrier to double loop learning.

“The first task is for you to see yourself – you have to become aware of the wall…and Argyris & Schon are suggesting that you may (likely) require an intervention (a shake) to do this. Your current defensive learning system is getting in the way.

Let’s be clear on what would make a successful intervention possible, and what would not.

An interventionist would locate themselves in your system and help you (properly) see yourselves…and coach you through contemplating what you see and the new questions that you are now asking…and facilitate you through experimenting with your new thinking and making this the ‘new normal’. This is ‘action learning’.

This ‘new normal’ isn’t version 2 of your current system. It would be a different type of system – one that thinks differently.”

So when I say think differently, this is how I now see and understand that.

So coming back to the “assumption” of everyone already and actively thinking differently presents a number of questions for me;

  • How do we know people are actively thinking differently?
  • How do we know that the people who are looking at their work are able to legitimately change that work?
  • How do we know they are doing purposeful work and do they know what purposeful work is?
  • Do people know and understand the purpose of their work from an outside in perspective?
  • Are people able to have the current conditions that apply to their everyday work suspended?
  • Are the leaders who have the legitimate power to suspend those conditions engaged and connected?
  • How are we learning what good looks like through a new lens of thinking?

So with these questions and more in my head, I’m starting to wonder now whether we are simply advocating people do different things over actually thinking differently?  And what are the consequences of that approach?

If the purpose was to help people to think differently as defined through double loop learning, what would Local Gov Digital and One Team Gov do differently as a result of that shift in purpose?

I don’t have an answer to this but welcome peoples thoughts and opinions no matter how diverse they are.








7 thoughts on “Uncovering assumptions

  1. Carl

    Great post and seven excellent questions.

    I’m a long time fan of Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology (SSM) which recognises that the process of learning by relating experience to ideas is always both “rich and confusing”. SSM helps to build models of “human activity systems”. It enables the most relevant model to be chosen in exploring the situation. It also enables, for each selected purposeful activity, a choice about the perspective or “world view” from which the model will be built.

    SSM is concerned with “situations” that are regarded as problematical: messy situations. SSM builds models of concepts of purposeful activity which are relevant to tackling the problem situation. I think it might help to address your questions.

    There’s a helpful retrospective by Peter Checkland of SSM here – http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

    Take a look at Figures A1 and A2 – those diagrams bring the concepts and ideas to life. In A2, the “observer” is saying “I spy complexity and confusion; but I can organise exploration of it as a learning system”.

    Maybe we can discuss over a continental coffee or Tiger tea?

    Roland Pyle

    1. Thanks for commenting and sharing Roland…

      I will take a look at the A1 and A2 figures and look forward to a blend of something continental to discuss the learning 😉

  2. Another great – and somewhat brave – piece, given that you are exposing your own personal development!

    Without prying, it is hard to go into a detailed responses (“actions I took then internally and through the network are having consequences over time that from my new point of view were not constructive or helpful” is, of course, intriguing!)

    What I would say is that I see a continuing cycle – people being enthused by a new idea that they think will change the world (eGovernment, digital, service design, behavioural insight, ‘general stuff’ like Slack… etc… etc..) and in the early days meeting together for a combination of reinforcement (‘we can change the world’) and bewildered commiseration (‘why won’t they let us change the world?’). At this stage, the cynical voices, who might be able to recount some of the reasons why earlier such initiatives failed, or point out where the naive vision might predictably fall down, are rejected (ahem)…

    Though this phase is valuable, because everyone is, in a sense, a ‘happy toolhead’, and people who don’t know the limitations of their mindsets probably achieve 80% of the change in this world, it grinds to a halt – either in disillusionment, and the gatherings or fora become increasingly co-counselling sessions (turning many people off), or they start to learn and relearnt he lessons of the past.

    Implicit in this is that everything is there, in the past, to take us at least to start from the point where the last pushed fell off… but often, we start from zero instead. That’s a bit of a shame.

    I tend to agree with you that people thinking and acting differently is a really significant change! I’m not sure I have a good answer to your questions, I just know that I keep talking to people about thinking and judging differently and trying to work with leaders as much as possible – and sometimes creating the space to actually do that… but, as with your systems thinking friends, the success rate is really quite low. Building momentum is really hard and though there’s incredible innovation in the face of austerity, and a welcome openness to new thinking, I don’t feel there is real systems change on the horizon. But, we must imagine Sisyphus happy 🙂

    1. Thanks Ben,
      I hadn’t appreciated the bravery, but i guess sharing your learning and when you wrong isn’t something you see that much in the sector…

      I’m optimistic that given the right conditions, the right support all leaders can lever systems change…but i also accept that, as a challenge it is a huge task and endeavour for us all to see thorugh

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