Hello I’m Gareth and I’m an Organisation Development (OD) Practitioner based in the NHS in Wales. And in this blog I want to think about what helps or hinders us in doing great work.
I think improving quality happens best when engaged employees with the confidence to test good ideas get the chance to do just that in their places of work. This willingness to experiment, learn, adapt and move things forward in iterative steps, in response to local context and conditions, is at the very heart of making improvements that are fit for function, i.e. changes that lead to improved service experience and delivery in ways that fit with the local context and needs of the community being served.
So ok, that sounds all well and good and yet we know that creating spaces for people to sense, respond and adapt doesn’t always come easy, so why is that? I’m not sure I have a full and perfectly formed answer to that one but there is something about the psychology of the human aspects of improvement work that has to be considered…
One way that human differences can become stumbling blocks rather than sources of creativity is when they are held as the basis for mindsets (think set minds) as opposed to perspectives.
If my mind is set then I see the world as I see it, and don’t recognise that this is just my way of being in the world and not necessarily how the world actually is; from a mindset I am likely to filter out what you have to say if it’s too different from what I already believe and without necessarily being consciously aware of it will seek out confirmation of my ideas with like minded others. A proverbial case of ‘believing is seeing’. If however, I see my position as just a perspective (amongst a range of other perspectives, all of which may be equally valid and useful) then I can hold my views and beliefs a little more lightly and maybe even step into your worldview for a while and learn something new…
One useful approach for exploring how our mindsets or perspectives can shape how we orient to ‘the future in the present’ comes from the Three Horizons work of the International Futures Forum. In this simple model we find that improvement work tends to settle in somewhere between two particular perspectives on the future that often knock heads against each other:
- On the one hand there is the current experience of ‘business as usual’ or Horizon 1 as it is sometimes known – where we have to maintain at least some part of the system as it is so as to keep the lights on – and where the mindset/perspective is about the importance of gradual, incremental and continuous improvement, and where modification and refinement are key to success (we could tentatively call this the space of the manager)
- On the other hand there is the vision of the future as it could be; Horizon 3 – where our sense of the limitations and failings of the current system and our desire to create something significantly different push us toward an aspirational and values-driven future – and where the mindset/perspective is about how innovation, novelty and doing something wholly different become the defining features of what success could look like (tentatively, the space of the visionary)
So when someone occupies a H1 mindset they may well think of the H3 person as ‘off with the fairies’ and likely ‘out to lunch’, not at all connected with the hard facts and realities of having to keep things ticking over. A H3 mindset about H1 is all about ‘dinosaurs’ and people who want to crush dreams and stop progress from ever happening. A perspective approach however can allow people occupying a H1 ‘consolidate and stabilise’ space to see H3 as where sources of hope for the future comes from and for visionaries and radicals in H3 land to see those in H1 spaces as foundation setters and sources of learning and experience gained through hard won practice.
The space in between H1 and H3 – Horizon 2 (the space of the improver) – can be a somewhat ambivalent place to find oneself in – both trying to bolster and maintain H1 systems and processes whilst also looking to explore, nurture, test out and enhance those ‘pockets of the future in the present’ where H3 innovation is already happening at the edges, in what Mary Uhl-Bien would call ‘adaptive spaces’.
Think of someone who has to look in two differing directions at once – backward to what has been before and still tends to be the main part of what we currently do, and forward to a future that is not quite yet ready for primetime but promises big, big things – and you get a visual image of the improver’s lot. This is a balancing act for sure and one where you often feel the push and pull of competing demands and differing needs which are ultimately and intimately tied up together in what we could describe as interdependent pairs.
You know the deal – being asked to improve quality and drive down cost, act for the long term and deliver on the short term, innovate and consolidate at the same time…
And yet it is in this middle space that the future tends to be realised in the main. It is in the willingness to experiment, take risks and be entrepreneurial that we can engage in what Bill Sharpe (2013) calls the twin acts of sustaining innovation on the one hand (which bolsters H1) and transformative innovation on the other (which can usher in H3). It is in this space where managers, visionaries and improvers have to find a way forward together – where similarities, differences and connections all play their part in shaping the patterns of change and stability that emerge over time and have meaning and impact for everyone involved.
What I think we as improvers, innovators, coaches, encouragers and challengers can do to make a useful difference in this middle space of both/and thinking and of tightrope walking is to act as brokers and connectors of people. In the space in between H1 and H3 we foster relationships and connections by paying attention to what is currently no longer fit for function, to what needs to be instead, what needs to be maintained in what is currently happening, and what steps we can take to both sustain and transform at the same time. In this role we offer a bridging function that can bring different people into contact with each other’s ideas, experiences, enthusiasm, failures, learning, sponsorship and energy. This is at the heart of what allows adaptive spaces to flourish in organisations and enables them to take care of H1 business and also H3 aspirations through the actions and intentions of all of us H2 doers.
So in closing I would suggest we need to keep cultivating ourselves as a community of improvers who are curious and who actively look outside of their own areas of work, their own organisational spaces and into diverse and differing places. A tenacious band of question askers and inquiry-bringers seeking out new practices, new ways of approaching familiar challenges and new ways of taking daring leaps into the emerging future… people who are excited to bring back what they learn and feed it forward into their organisations so that novelty can act as a catalyst for trying things out – safe to fail experiments that allow people to adaptively act and notice the patterns that emerge from their actions so as to amplify those that move things forward in a useful direction.
For me this attitude and orientation can (with a little skill, a fair amount of graciousness and a sprinkle of good faith and humour) embody an approach to working with improvement that is about working with both continuity and change, stability and emergence, simplicity and complexity and all mindfully framed in an understanding that whilst we may be in charge, it is often the case that we are not in control… and in such circumstance, always local and particular to the time and place we find ourselves in, knowing that the most appropriate response is therefore to settle in, open up to what’s emerging, keep asking great questions, experiment, learn, adapt and look for that next wise action…
If you’d be interested in exploring Three Horizons further with me have a look at my Hexitime Request: https://hexitime.com/activity/exploring-three-horizons...
Gareth Evans, Organisation Development Practitioner, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Reference: Sharpe, B. (2013) Three Horizons: The patterning of Hope, Axminster: Triarchy Press