Random Thoughts on Life and Work

June 5, 2007

Change And The Complex System

Filed under: Charities,Charity,Management,Non-Profit,Software,Strategy,Work — Darren Mullenix @ 8:36 am

I recently read this post on the Freakonomics Blog written by Stephen Dubner that got me thinking about the processes that we put into place to accomplish our work.  In his post, Stephen discusses complex systems and how they evolve due to the variety of inputs.  In his post he posits the exercise of asking ourselves, “if we were making this system up from scratch today, what would it look like?” 

I have been working on documenting procedures for a variety of activities within our department lately, and I suspect this post struck home due to this exercise.  In addition to the “process” of creating procedural documents for those that come behind, we are working with our software provider to develop new systems for how our database presents information and tracks donor relationships.  All this makes me ask the same question – if we were doing this from scratch, what would it look like?

It is a scary thing to think about demolishing our existing structures and starting from scratch.  But maybe there are times when that is a better solution than continuing to limp along doing the same things time after time and expecting different results.  I tend to think that non-profits are particularly prone to this thinking.  After all, to start from scratch demands a certain level of financial commitment and an acknowledgment that resources spent on the existing systems may be perceived as wasted.  (False perspective but that concept is for another time.)

Our organizations are complex systems in themselves.  Breaking down the organization into its component parts (Finance, HR, Information Systems, Development, Programs), we can see smaller subsets that are complex systems as well.  Realistically, any entity that involves more than one human interface is a likely candidate for defining as a complex system.  Mid to large size non-profits will be especially complex as they start to deal with a multitude of human inputs. 

Periodically asking ourselves what the system might look like if it was designed from scratch is a worthwhile exercise.  It may be that nothing new is generated.  But how often have you said to yourself, “If I was doing that I would do it this way”,  or, “If only we could handle this this way.”  I believe the concept of strategic planning is changing.  The globalization of our world, the speed at which we are forced to make decisions and operate is forcing us into a new paradigm for planning.  I believe that in the context on ongoing strategic planning we need to be asking ourselves the following questions:

  • What are we doing that we need to keep doing because it is the core of who we are and what we exist to do?
  • What are we doing that we need to do for a short time longer to complete and then toss it out?
  • What are we doing that we should be doing differently because the original design and purpose has slipped?
  • What are we doing that we should not be doing anymore because it is outside of our core mission and purpose?

Then take a look at the systems that are in place to support your activity and in light of the answers to the above questions, evaluate which systems should remain and which should go.  Which systems need tweaking and which systems are operating at best efficiency.

If you had to do it over again from scratch, what would it look like?

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