By Mark Hannum
This is the first in a series of posts on Systems Thinking by Linkage Principal Consultant, Mark Hannum. He admits that the series will probably reveal too much about who he is, and why he does what he does. However, his insights on systems thinking have been gleaned from decades of research and real-world experience…and you might just find his thoughts useful in ways you wouldn’t expect.—Ed.
One of the best and most ignored pieces of advice I ever got early in my career was: “Just think about who you are, what you are, and what you will and won’t do.” In all honesty, the advice seemed esoteric and theoretical and totally unrelated to the world I lived in…which was hierarchical, micromanaged, and very status quo. The leaders of that world wanted people who said “yes” to their commands, not people who were in the process of becoming themselves.
However, when I did take the advice and went from OD engagement to OD engagement, I kept hearing a distressing pattern of feedback. People kept saying that I wasn’t a real consultant. I wasn’t a proper facilitator. I wasn’t what they were expecting. It was more that I wasn’t doing the things that they expected from a proper consultant or facilitator. I did not make myself the center of attention. I did not write formal proposals with strict deliverables. I did not try to run or facilitate meetings with formal objectives and minute by minute detailed designs. I drove some client-managers crazy, I’m sure, but the clients themselves loved it. They loved being able to sit down and have a conversation about where they wanted to go, want needed to get done, who could really do it. No tools, no templates, just let the conversation drive the agenda and not the agenda drive the conversation.
As time went on, I did a bunch of things that seemed to only make surface differences and not real differences. I didn’t develop really clear action items coming out of meetings. I presented my clients with ground rules, but just a few around respecting each other. While the client-managers were occasionally frustrated, my clients loved the outcomes, and loved the value I was providing. The things that were getting done were real, and not manufactured action items. They kept telling me that I was different than other consultants in a good way. They were frustrated with “proper” consultants and did not seem to get the value they wanted.
As my confidence in my own self-definition and my own way of providing value to my clients based on my self-definition (and positive feedback) grew, my anxiety went way down. I stopped getting drawn into the little dramas of the workplace. I stopped blaming others for things going wrong and just as importantly, I stopped trying to read people’s minds. I stopped trying to change people and worked with them as they were by respecting them. I stopped being rigid and started to be more flexible. I started to learn how to push boundaries with a certain optimism and gentleness. I also started to ignore hierarchy and all the ‘junk’ that goes with it. I started to look to work with people who wanted to make a difference with the things in their control. I really started to hate bitching, moaning, and complaining—“BMC”—as a friend and client calls it. And as funny as this sounds, when I do get trapped into all these natural tendencies that organizations have, my effectiveness goes down…way down.
Staying true to who I am is not easy. But, I’ve learned that if you stop worrying about whether you’re going to keep your job, or if you’ll get the next promotion, or the right project, and you start thinking about and defining who you are, you’ll be approaching your work wholistically and you’ll lead a better life.
My father, who started out in life as a union negotiator, tried to teach me that life is about five things:
1. Being who you are/being yourself
2. Knowing and living your values
3. Knowing what you are trying to accomplish/having a purpose or a message
4. Having a point of view of activism or change
5. And, simply have conversations with people.
He didn’t believe in an agenda, or a structure, or a plan. The conversation organizes the plan. He was, even though he didn’t even know the term, a great systems thinker. He got me started down the path of thinking holistically, systemically and helped me learn about differentiation, a term I would come to know well as my education in systems thinking emerged.
In the next several installments, I’m going to go into more detail about my self-definition and how systems thinking has influenced it.
What lessons have helped you the most in your career?
To be effective as a leader, making connections between seemingly separate, unconnected events, factors, and processes is imperative. Click here to learn how Linkage can teach you to be a better systems thinker.
More about Mark
Mark Hannum is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. He has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, systems thinking, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions. He is also a frequent featured speaker at many training and education events.