Systemic issues influence all or a substantial part of a system. They are generally long lasting and have significant impacts. They are like earth tremors causing tidal waves and like a bowling ball effecting the pins.
There is controversy about the need for systemic change. It is currently most prevalent in the realm of policing and race relations but has great importance in project and organizational management.
The controversy is about two things - 1) If and how much change is required and 2) whether any system exists to be changed. As to the first, it depends. As to the second, a systems view is a solid foundation for understanding the world.
Vision is linked to systemic change. It is the picture of how things can be. There are many possible visions - how I want things to be, how things may be, how I don't want things to be. Also, there is the absence of a coherent vision - a blank space within which everything will unfold without a sense of what that would be like.
The vision is of systems, their behavior, how they relate to one another and to the active people, places, things, and processes that bring them alive.
Our organizations, communities, economies, projects, operations, families, selves, bodies, are all intersecting systems. They exist within an overriding system - an ecosystem. All systems are in continuous change. The descriptions and boundaries of systems approximate the nature of the environment.
Recognizing the interplay among the systems' parts (including oneself), one is better able to influence change and promote effective performance and quality of life. Assessing the system objectively, while one is part of it, promotes clarity.
Systemic Issues - An Example
There is great power to both appreciate and amplify parts of the system that work well, and address what is not working. Here is an example.
Imagine an organization that regularly has project performance issues. Projects are rarely done on time, there are cost overruns, project performers are burning out, clients are dissatisfied with product quality, there is discord among stakeholder groups.
The system in this case is the project, program and portfolio management (PPM) environment.
Within it there are stakeholders - the project, program and portfolio managers, sponsors, clients, functional managers, performers, etc. There are PPM tools and processes, for project selection and prioritization, planning, performance, etc.
Analyzing performance across multiple projects over time, the performance improvement team discovered that poor project performance is caused partially by over commitment made in the selection and prioritization process. Executives enable and even promote a selection process based on political haggling between heads of different divisions. Estimates are allowed to be overly optimistic or pessimistic to sway decisions.
The performance analysts discovered that errors and omissions are regular causes of project slippage and failure. Performers are overworked and lack the skills to perform their jobs. A few are lazy, relationship-challenged, and get in the way. Client representatives charged with defining requirements are not getting the feedback and cooperation they need and lack business analysis skills.
There are systemic issues. For example, the impact of the prioritization and selection process. Ignoring them or thinking that changes at the project level will resolve performance issues misses the mark and perpetuates the problems.
Now comes the fun part - convincing the people who identify with the parts of the system requiring change that their systems cause poor project performance. It is one thing to identify systemic causes; a whole other thing to accept them as real and commit to change.
Will the people who identify with their systems, roles, and departments, be motivated enough by the care they have for the overall system - the organization - to take a hard look at their performance and to change? Are they motivated by the desire to continuously improve by candidly and objectively analyzing past performance? Do they disbelieve that their actions effect other parts of the system? Do they believe that admitting fault is a sign of weakness or a sign of strength? Do they believe that systemic changes are too hard to make?
This is where vision comes in. Change comes easier if on the highest levels of the organization there is a clearly stated vision. Particularly one that includes continuously improving performance based on candid, accurate and constructive assessment of past performance and a sense of what level of performance can be practically achieved. On lower levels the visions result in performance measures, relationships, tools and methods, work space, and transition paths and expectations.
Making Systemic Change
Making systemic change begins with the recognition that there is a system and that it is a complex of interacting subsystems (for example, departments and processes).
A critical factor is sustained executive level sponsorship. Without this, the ability to make substantial change is limited to the good will and rationality of the people in charge of the parts of the system that require change.
Then, the rest is a project or program.
What can you Do?
It is important to recognize that the past is not subject to change, but we can learn from it. Overcome the tendency to want to hide the ugly part of past performance. Make sure stakeholders understand that talking about the errors is not an attack. Make sure everyone understands the interconnectedness of the parts of the system.
Depending on your position in your "system" you can influence the process by establishing and beginning to actualize your vision, while considering all stakeholders' places in the broader system. Then communicate, collaborate, and take appropriate action within your scope of control and influence.
In the last resort, if you realize that your organization will not change in your lifetime, then you can accept things as they are and either stay or find a new organization.
Effective leaders recognize the power of a systems view and a realistic vision to enable performance improvement through systemic change, when it is needed.