Practice excellence – A systems view

July 4, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

Practices are what we do. Achieving excellence in what we do mean consistently & repeatedly acting in a way most appropriate to the situation. As this applies to actions we take throughout the day, day after day and in all kinds of situations, the variety can be mind boggling. It would therefore help to look at the whole thing in a more generic way. Taking a systems view has a potential to give us some useful clues. I am sharing here my current thoughts which are open to support as well as challenge.

It would be quite helpful to consider our actions in three specific domains (family / education / work) that we are all familiar with. If we come up with some patterns which apply to these three domains, they can be fairly easily extended to other domains as well. Exploring the concepts with examples from these domains would also help us relate them to our day to day experiences.

Each of us individually can be considered a system. We interact with other individuals who are also systems. We do so while together participating in other systems. For example, as children we interacted with each other as also with our parents in the family system. As students we interacted with each other and with our teachers & principals while being part of the education system. Similarly, as employees we interact with our colleagues and with our supervisors & managers in an organization. So if we find something common in a way we take actions as children, students or employees; something common with the way we interact with other children, students & employees and the way we interact with our parents, teachers and managers; and the common way the family, education and organization as systems affect how we take actions and manage our interactions, it may give us some generic patterns. Such patterns would help us to improve our actions as well better predict & respond to actions of others leading to moving towards practice excellence.

Each of the actions that we take is not independent but is connected with other actions in a network of actions. The starting point is generally a goal like having a vacation with the family, getting a certain degree or completing a project. Each of these goals requires completion of many tasks. These tasks may have dependencies or need to be carried out in a sequence. We also need communication between tasks about their progress, status and outcome. Similarly, each task in turn requires many actions. There is a similar dependency and sequencing network with communication between different actions. Knowledge of these dependencies & sequencing as well as setting up a reliable communication network is essential for smooth functioning of the system. Similar to the goal tasks & action networks for a given system, there are goals transactions and action networks when more than one system is participating in a larger system. These concepts are applicable to all human systems and their interactions.

All actions are an outcome of decisions we make regarding actions. This is true for first time / one time actions as well as for repetitive actions. These decisions are of three types, conscious / subconscious / unconscious. We are aware of the conscious decisions, subconscious decisions happen without our being aware of them but internally follow similar steps whereas unconscious decisions get stored in our muscle memory and happen beyond our consciousness.

All decisions involve a mixture of logic & emotions to varying degrees and different for different persons. Some people are predominantly logically oriented whereas others may be strongly influenced by their emotions. Being sensitive to these variations and patterns we can understand our decision-making better as well as be able to predict how they will respond to different stimuli.

Most of our actions are repetitive in nature, hence the crucial decision is whether to continue an existing practice or to modify / replace it. Generally it happens subconsciously. It is heavily influenced by the attachment we develop for a set way of working as also the amount of risk we are inclined to take. If we play safe, chances are we will continue with same practice even though the situation has substantially changed. Our assumptions & beliefs which act as strong filters for the sensory information also have a strong influence in our decision making. Once we understand these patterns, we would be able to continue useful practices as long as they make sense giving us speed & efficiency and quickly adjust to the changing situations leading to our being more effective.

Whenever we act on our own or interact with others, it is always in the context of another system like family, school / college, work organization or any other human system. These systems provide the structures which could facilitate us or restrict us. We have freedom only within these structures. So it is useful to understand the types of these structures and how they influence us. These structures are basically of three types, institutional / legal / cultural. To take examples from our familiar domains, institutional structures are about the hierarchy and roles. Legal structures are in the form of rules, procedures & policies. They are legal in a sense that there are consequences of violating them. The third type is the cultural structures like traditions, conventions and what the members collectively value or care for. These are invisible but very powerful and have a long lasting effect. Members may change, even whole generations may change but they continue to influence. From the perspective of practice excellence, a culture of openness, freedom to voice concerns by different stakeholders and caring for other stakeholders in terms of effect of our actions on them is very important.

To summarize, looking at practices from a system perspective helps us see common concepts & patterns across a wide variety of domains and situations. What we learn from one domain can be easily applied to other domains. It makes sharing of experiences between practitioners from different domains because they can talk in the same language. All this will lead to practice excellence.

As always your views feedback and inputs are most welcome; please share them.

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