Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

andy-lippok's picture

Systems Thinking

By Andy Lippok on June 21, 2022

Deming and others showed that when you look at the performance of an organisation (however you measure performance), about 85% to 95% (one can argue pointlessly about the precise figure but the scale is key) is due to the system, i.e. the way the work works and is designed. That leaves roughly only about 10% that is due wholly or in the total control of the person doing the work. How often have you heard people say in their 1:1 appraisal "that goal was out of my total control to deliver". Think about the profundity of what Deming discovered and taught for many years, but which we have ignored to our great organisational, societal and human cost. This is because we have focussed on the wrong problem. It's not the people but the system.

So what's the hack. Deming, John Seddon in Vanguard, Senge, Ackoff, Scholtes, and countless others have demonstrated many times over that you need to get people to begin recognising the organisation as a system, understand human motivation (Dan Pink), look at the design of the work from the outside in, and focus on what is the real purpose and what matters to the customer. Then you simply get the people who do the work to re-design the work in order to achieve purpose and what really matters, and what happens is almost magical! Service improves, costs reduce, morale increases, and the culture change happens for free. At no time do we do anything to the people, we simple get the people to work on the work.  

HR process being hacked:Performance Management

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fiona-savage's picture

Hi All Andy has suggested we use Google hang out to explore further. If I understand correctly we can have up to 10 individualizes linked with video via Google hangout, or we could use SKYPE which is limited unless you have payed to have conference facilities. If you interested pop down your your e-mail fmsavage@gmail.com

I creating a Google+ circule for HR hacathons, so if you wish to share your e-mail address with me that would be great

If you are unsure about how to set up Google+ hangout see video http://www.womenfordecency.org/google-hangout-instructions.html

Hi Fiona
My email address is dkea1598@bigpond.net.au
Davin Shellshear

andy-lippok's picture

Hi everyone, thanks for joining the team.
I guess we need to figure out how best to approach taking this further. I await some guidance that may perhaps appear from one of the hackathon leads, but I wondered whether in the meantime we could all get onto Google+ (I've only just registed and got started so am very much a novice), so that we can make use of the circles and then the hangout feature to perhaps do a hangout shortly (countries and timezones permitting). I will try to get you all into my network on Google+ and let's see what happens!

fiona-savage's picture

I think i ma in your circulars if not my e-mail is fmsavage@gamail.com, Google hang out looks great,if i understand correctly we can have up to 10 on a video call FREE of charge! With non of those dreadful adds that now invade SKYPE since it was taken over by Microsoft.

cheers fiona

andy-lippok's picture

As Fiona points out in her many comments on the topic of systems thinking, there is a considerable body of evidence, particularly from Deming, Scholtes, Seddon and others that when you look at the performance of an organisation - however you measure this - then around 90% to 95% (you can argue about the precise number but not about the scale) is due directly to the system, i.e. the way the work works. That means that around 5% to 15% of the performance is wholly due to the individual. That is not to say that the individual and team of workers are not involved in the work, but the level of total control they have over the design of the work and how their performance is measured, etc., is actually and demonstrably minimal.
It is little wonder then that when we try to manipulate people to perform better - whether it be through targets, rewards, punishments, rankings and rating, appraisals, slogans, and more - the performance does not improve. And yet when you get the people who actually do the work to study the work, then through analysis of the underlying root causes of the failure of the system to do better, and then have the people redesign the work, wonderful changes occur - service imporves, cost reduce and more increases. None of the change happened becasue we did anything TO the people, it happened because the people ACTED ON THE SYSTEM.
As Fiona points out, there is a stack of evidence and case studies to show what happens. Just go to to the Vanguard websites to see the evidence. The challenge for HR is whether the profession and the practitioners are prepared to chnage their thinking and adopt radical approaches that truly make organisations adaptable. I believe people are naturally adaptable, it is the command and control management paradigm of the last 250 years that has inhibited the people. I say ditch C&C and adopt systems thinking, you'll love it!

michele-zanini_4's picture

Hi Andy, thanks for sharing such a thoughtful perspective. It really resonated with me since I have a sense HR spends most of its time focusing on improving things at the "individual" level (e.g., how can we get person X to become a better leader/manager), leaving too little time to focus on the "institutional" level. There are lots of ways to expand on this hack, including:

1. Which existing HR processes and practices could benefit from "systems thinking"? How would such thinking change them?
2. How can systems thinking mindsets and skills be embedded across the organization? What should be the role of HR in building systems thinking capabilities?

Look forward to your thoughts on this important topic...thanks again


Hi Michele,

Here is a case study of systems thinking being used in HR: http://www.systemsthinkingmethod.com/downloads/Vanguard_Camden_HR_case_s...


fiona-savage's picture

Great study Sam and thanks for sharing .

Michele - systems thinking has profound impacts on the way we think about subjects that have been taken for granted. The most obvious one is Leadership, and rather than prattle on, I suggest you look at the books by William Tate (e.g. The search for leadership), or read the recent paper 'Managing Leadership from a Systemic Perspective' which can be easily downloaded through Google. Systems thinking is equally applicable to employee engagement, creativity and innovation, managing the shadow side, performance management, etc.

fiona-savage's picture

David I read William Tate yesterday , Brilliant, all on the HR hack should read this short to the point paper . Thanks for sharing. Here is the link for others to read


fiona-savage's picture

Hi David, Thank you for pointing me to William Tate book, I have just acquired a kindle so will at these book and also see if i can down load his paper.

We have seen some amassing transformation of performance in both public and private sector using the systems thinking method. Including a reduction in failure demand which reducing costs. Phenomenal outcomes, for public services waiting times, reduced from months to next day provision.

See Forget your people – real leaders act on the system, posted here on the MIX. http://www.managementexchange.com/story/forget-your-people-%E2%80%93-rea...

Aviva insurance in the private sector has been very transparent in their uses of systems thinking and these two videos below show the repose, I will let the story of Aviva speak for its self.

How do we change thinking?
Aviva Systems Thinking


If your intresed to find out more on Sytems thinking as discribed above do a webserch on any of these names Deming, John Seddon in Vanguard, Peter Senge, Ackoff, Scholtes.

fiona-savage's picture

Systems thinking and mole whacking

Have you played the arcade game where you hit moles on the head with a mallet? The moles pop up from their holes at random and you have to force them back in. As soon as you whack one, another mole pops up.
In command and control organisations, there are a lot of practices systems thinkers want to whack.

Some common moles are:
 Numerical targets
 Appraisals
 Forced ranking
 Bonuses
 Slogans
 Reliance on inspection
 Functional specialisation (or ‘silos’)
 Payment by Results (currently in the news)
 Outcomes/Results Based Accountability (a new mole on the scene disguised as something friendly and logical)
 Prince 2 (a very time-consuming mole)
 Endless written plans (a very hard mole to beat)

You think everyone agrees that numerical targets are damaging and then something identical, except for its label, pops up in its place. You think everyone knows performance related pay is nonsense. Meanwhile, your HR department is busily trying to introduce it as a new initiative. You wonder where they have been. Don’t they read the studies? Don’t they realise Dan Pink whacked that one into submission with his RSA animation?

Sometimes, it really is HARD TO BELIEVE. With all the evidence out there, why do the moles keep coming back? And why are HR and managers still inventing new ones?

Moles are manifestations of command and control management thinking. We forget that the moles are not the enemy. It’s the thinking that caused them. This is what we have to change.

Understand the purpose of the organisation from the customers view point and design a system to meet the customer’s needs. At the moment systems are designed for the organisation needs not the customer. Just think of call centers………….Managers and HR need to manage the system and remove the obstacles ALL the ABOVE which stop the employees deliver the service the customer want