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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Emma Langman on Systems Thinking

Emma Langman on Systems Thinking


1. I’m Manuel Pais and I’m here with Emma Langman at QCon London 2014. First I have an obvious question, what does a change magician do?

Ok, well when I was growing up in my career I never knew exactly what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. I just wanted to help people and some years ago when I decided to go into change, I was thinking: “Is my job title change facilitator, is it change manager, what’s it going to be?”, but actually what you need to do when you are helping organizations and individuals go through change is different every time, so I didn’t want to have like a recipe, so I thought well I’ll just think of all the titles and once I was helping a client and they said: “Emma, what you’ve done here is like magic”, so I thought ok, I’ll be a change magician, and so that is why I chose that job title.


2. Makes sense, can you share with us what kind of work you are doing now in Kuwait, right? And why you chose to go there?

Yes, sure. So the company I work for is a small oil and gas company, it’s the only independent oil and gas company in Kuwait. Our CEO is a national hero, she is a Kuwaiti lady and engineer, and she was one of the people who put out the fires after the invasion of Kuwait. She’s a massive national hero, so she was part of the inspiration, but also Kuwait Energy was one of my clients, they are a very young company, only 7 years old, they’ve been going through lots of different change, so I went to help them with that. And then I kind of fell in love with the organization and I really enjoyed Kuwait, and so I sent my husband a text message and said: “How do you fancy living in Kuwait with all three children?”, and he texted back: “Why not?” and that is why we are in Kuwait.


3. It’s a great story. What are the differences you found, if any, between working in Kuwait versus Western Europe or the US?

I’ve worked in quite a lot of countries during my career in Northern Europe and done some work around the States in various things. Well so Kuwait is really interesting, particularly Kuwait Energy is very interesting. We have about a hundred and eight people currently in our head office and that is 22 different nationalities, so it’s not really just one culture. I think for me some of the main differences are just about how people talk about things. I’ve always thought that I’m a fairly tactful person, so if I speak to friends who are Dutch, they think that I’m very indirect, the British are very indirect. In the Middle East turns out that I’m very direct because they tend to be very sort of story telling in the way that they get to things. So I’ve just had to learn to be more patient and more tactful, but actually what sometimes seems to be a slow way of doing business is sometimes more efficient because in the Middle East it’s all about relationships and getting to know people really well and about developing trust.


4. You mentioned your CEO as an example. In general what is your view on the current status of women in technology and do you think positive discrimination is needed at all or not?

Right, ok, so when I first started my career I was a civil engineer and I did not believe in positive discrimination and I did not believe that the glass ceiling existed at all. When I had children I discovered that it definitely did exist, so for me it’s not so much a question of gender, more about how do we help people to balance the responsibilities outside work and their responsibilities inside work. So quite often it’s women who’re bringing up children, quite often it’s women who are caring for sick relatives or elderly relatives and the like, but not always, and in my case my husband is a stay-at-home dad and that works really well for us but there is going to be a challenge when he goes to pick up his career again. So I think it’s not so much just about gender.

Having said that, in technology there is definitely a bias right from school or even before school that encourages boys to build stuff, do stuff and fiddle with whether it is Lego or computers or whatever and there is a bias that I observe of girls still being given the dolls and you know all that sort of playing mom type stuff. So I think it’s still there, I don’t agree with positive discrimination as a way of dealing with it, I think it’s just about being more aware of it, being more supportive and I also think that women can do more to help other women in the workplace, because I have noticed that sometimes some women get very senior but they don’t support other women in coming along behind them and it’s almost like: “I’ve made it, why should I help anyone else?”. So those are the things I think would make a difference.


5. Speaking of the topic you are talking about at your presentation at QCon: Systems Thinking. How would you define it in a nutshell or, if it’s easier, what would you say is not Systems Thinking?

Ok, so the current way that we tend to manage organizations is not Systems Thinking. Looking only at teams, putting in place incentives that encourage people not to work together, is not Systems Thinking. So for me Systems Thinking is about understanding that everything is connected to everything else and that often the cause of something may be far away from the effect of it, so it may not realize that actually something that happened a long way away or a long time ago, is having an effect now and it’s just about being aware of all of those interconnections and realizing that when we think in systemic ways, we can actually make the whole be greater than the sum of the different parts and that is what Systems Thinking is for me.


6. And can you summarize some of the Systems Thinking models and their benefits and drawbacks?

No. Well Systems Thinking is an absolutely huge, huge topic and I’ve presented on this topic for business analysts, for testers, for enterprise architects, for nurses, for police, all kinds of different people. There are a whole load of different techniques and tools within the System Thinking vault, so to me Lean for example is a linear approach within the System Thinking family. Agile, you could consider to be slightly more iterative approach within that group, but basically to me almost everything if you really think it through and notice the connections is a form of Systems Thinking. The one that I’m going to be talking about, well I’ll be talking about three key thinkers tonight, during the keynote speech.

One is W. Edwards Deming and he told a theory of profound knowledge, sorry The System of Profound Knowledge, which includes how people think, how we learn, how organizations learn, how we use data and all those types of things, psychology and an understanding of variation. And then I’ll be talking about Russell Ackoff and Idealized Design and how we can innovate by realizing what it is we can do now, so kind of living in the present and creating the future in the present. And the third person I’ll be talking about is Ichiwaka who developed or brought together many tools that are used in System Thinking. But it’s such a huge spectrum and you can come to it through data, through process mapping, through how people think, through how people learn, there are a lot of ways in and there aren’t any one model. The one thing I would say is really important is to recognize that all of those models are useful at some point or another, but there is no one magic bullet.


7. A question about the surge of DevOps and Lean. There is a comeback of Quality Management and Optimization principles by those people that you were mentioning before. Do you think as an industry we are still catching up with maybe some accumulated debt in those areas?

I think all of society, you know this is just the kind of the joy and the tragedy of humanity, is that we kind of learn something and then we forget it again. So if you look at these principles, principles of Systems Thinking, you’ll find in the religious books, you know if you go to the bible you will recognize there is the hand and the eye, you know, we all have to work together as a system. So that is 2000 years old and you can go way back into the Tao. So these concepts none of them are new concepts, they are almost about us rediscovering and constantly rediscovering. What happens is that people think that they learn these at some very shallow level, so we have this like false learning curve, where we think: “Ok, so what is it about?

If we do Agile or if we do Lean, this will help us with this problem” and there will be some people in that movement who really deeply get it at a very emotional/philosophical as well as practical level. But then in the teaching to others it becomes necessary often to codify it, and then when it’s codified people learn the code, the rules of how to do Agile or how to do Lean or how to do DevOps, and often the original ideas and concepts get lost. So it’s not just about the ideas, it’s about when individuals and organizations and teams are developmentally ready to take those ideas on. So I don’t think we’ve got a debt to catch up on, I just think it’s a constant cycle of learning and forgetting, learning and forgetting and it takes some time before it goes beyond the false learning to a real deep intrinsic part of who you are and how you think.


8. And it is fair to say that might be also related to some periods like with the internet boom that bring along a lot of technical changes, that in those periods there is more forgetting?

I don’t know, I mean if you look at the drivers for major changes and thinking they usually are kind of disruptive periods of history. So quite often war for example leads to technological advance and also to changes in thinking and my hope is that the advent of the internet and of better communication means that we’ve got more ability to avoid wars and [we have] mechanisms for learning. I happen to believe that quite a lot of the instability that we are seeing in the world right now is due to people in power feeling frightened and if you look at Lean, if you look at Agile, if you look at these sorts of methodologies and ideas, it’s about delegating power down through the hierarchy and allowing people to make more decisions and work together.

That’s really very challenging in two ways: it’s very challenging to the people who’ve historically had the power due to hierarchy and it’s also challenging to those people who get given that [power] because they need to learn how to work together to make the most of it. So we see that happening in development teams, we see that happening in companies and we are seeing that happening in countries. Personally I believe that there is some kind of global shift in consciousness and pretty makes me sounds like a hippie, but I feel really optimistic that people working together locally and globally will actually lead to better thinking. And I think the technologies are a really important driver, but technology is agnostic, it’s neither good nor evil, it’s what we chose to do with it. But if we chose to use it well, I think we can take society forward with it.


9. You are mentioning self organization as an important attribute in organizations. Do you think that’s fundamental for achieving sustainable change in organizations, which is another topic you’ve researched, right?

Yes I have. I think it is fundamental and organizations over time tend to swing. If you look at models of organizational or individual development, for example the work of Bill Torbet, it’s clear that we tend to swing from an “I” mentality to an “Us” mentality, an “I” mentality, an “Us” mentality. If you look at organizations they will move in a pendulum almost from completely centralizing to completely decentralizing, centralizing, decentralizing. And governments do the same. So it makes sense to have a stable form of organization and self organization which is what nature does. And things tend towards less control, they tend towards chaos, but chaos is not necessarily a bad thing.

But what we do need to have is such frameworks in place that that organization is aware of what is happening around it. So whether it’s a single cell in nature or whether it’s a company, we need to be looking towards the future, we need to be understanding what is coming towards us, developing ourselves so that we can meet those future issues. And we need to organize some basic things, logistics, otherwise you start fighting over water and land and oil and so forth. One of the best writers on this is Stafford Beer about the Fractal Organization and a good friend of mine, Patrick Hoverstadt, which is spelled Hoverstadt, by the way I don’t take any money for his books, but he wrote a really good book about Fractal Organizations that really addresses many of these issues.


10. In your opinion what are the main areas both in business and software development, if you want to see them separately, that would require a significantly different way of working to be more sustainable?

So actually I believe the business and software development are very closely linked, other than software that is for fun which in itself it’s created by a business to make money. Software is there to help us to do things and so that link is actually really important. In terms of how we make things be sustainable I think it’s about an awareness of why we are doing things and how we do things, and software can actually lock us in to old ways of working or it can help us move to new ways of working. So when we are looking at the software that we want, we need to be clear about the operating model, the psychology, the principles of our organization. So if we’ve got an organization that we want to be able to be Agile and innovate and structure and restructure and change itself continuously to meet the outside demands, then we are going to need software that can do that for us. On the other hand if for example our business is really simple like it might have just a single purpose, then we know what that purpose is, we know how we want to do it and it might be sensible to buy a really well known, very consistent structured piece of software with the best current known way of doing that. So depends on your organization, your business model, how you also treat your software and that is almost a philosophical argument often.


11. Final question, you have a background in civil engineering as you mentioned. How did you get involved with the technological field and in particular with Systems Thinking?

Ok, well I said that System Thinking is, everything is connected to everything else, so therefore in some way civil engineering must logically be connected to Systems Thinking and to technology. Well when I first did my degree, I was going to be an engineer and decided I was going to build roads and all those kinds of things, and then I stayed on to do my PhD, which was an accident really. I applied for one job with a management consultancy and I didn’t get it , and I thought that is because actually I’ve had a first class degree and I thought I’m too academic, no one is going to give me a job, everyone knows that people with two-one’s and two-two’s are much better in the workplace. So I stay on to do my PhD and that was in the hydroelectric sector and I thought my research was going to be about the lifecycle of dams and how they perform in earthquakes and all these kind of technical questions.

And then when I go out there, I realized that it’s actually about how people work and how we get ideas from individuals and understand the asset from their perspective. Because actually people who work with a turbine or any form of technology know that technology really, really well and part of the management challenge is how do you get that information out of your teams heads and use it. So that led me straight obviously into System Thinking because System Thinking help us to answer some of those questions. And then in terms of why I come to technology events, it’s partly because I like being around technology people, I like the way they think, the way they ask questions. I particularly like spending time with testers, I like their logic and their tenacity. And in one of my first jobs after my PhD, I worked directly with a fantastically talented programmer on developing something for the organization, which was a performance management software piece and we were kind of just doing Agile methodology and developing kind of on the fly directly with the business. We didn’t know that was what we were doing, but it’s just that we really liked each other, we got on and it seemed a practical way of doing it. So I’ve just always stayed fascinated with this interplay between the different elements of Systems Thinking, between people and how people work, how people think, how processes work and how technology supports that. And to me engineering is just big technology.

Manuel: Ok, thank you very much!

Thank you. I really enjoyed that, thank you very much!

Jun 11, 2014