Cross-organization Partnerships Create Systems Thinkers: an example from Australia where I saw a real native platypus


My work these days includes initiatives that create more integrated and accountable partnerships between organizations that provide services to individuals and families. The range of services across the different partnerships is exciting: food security, legal services, housing, early childhood development, primary medical care, dental care, behavioral health care, parenting skills and violence prevention, school systems and academic support programs.

There are many lessons to learn from these evolving partnerships. Here is one that I was not expecting, that helps people over a hurdle common to all change management work: Working between multiple organizations to achieve shared goals helps individuals move quickly to become systems thinkers.

Why does everyone need to be a systems thinker?

If you are reading this, you already know why systems thinking matters. Here’s the importance I assign to it: Out of all the common understandings required to get better results in complex environments, a systems thinking mindset is the most fundamental. If all people involved don’t adopt a systems thinking mindset, if they can’t see the big picture, they will miss the most powerful opportunities for better outcomes for their customers/clients/patients, even if they work harder and smarter in their own lane or their own organization.

It’s like that old story about a room full of blind men touching a different part of an elephant, with none of them understanding the whole creature they were meeting. “No, Dude Touching the Leg, it’s not a tree,” says Dude Touching the Trunk, “It’s a snake.” They think their partial understanding represents the whole truth. (I will now resist the obvious but tangential political diatribe. Resisting … urngh, hard to resist … okay, I’m good.)

Once everyone sees their work as one part of the large web of interdependent actions and interactive impacts (both intended and unintended), then the work of fixing and improving things effectively can happen. Also, let’s not forget the people that all this work is for. The system and the collective actions and impacts includes the customers/clients/patients of the work being done. The goals of change work needs to match the needs and values of these people, and be directed by them as much as possible.

How do cross-organization partnerships create more systems thinkers, more quickly?

Cross-organization partnerships put people in the shoes of their partners, and see their own work from that supportive and interested perspective.

Here’s what happens: As you explain your work and its goals to people who are like you (working as staff in service organizations, sharing your general vision for your clients/patients/customers and the larger community), you get more clear about the value of the work you do, how it connects to partner organizations’ work with shared clients/patients/customers, and how the different steps and services connect or not. The systems thinking perspective kicks in almost automatically. For people who are not born systems thinkers, partnerships with shared goals provide a perspective and an accountability that doesn’t exist when people are only focused on their own workplace or their own individual responsibilities.

I was in Melbourne, Australia, recently, to support a lively group of 30+ professionals who provide early childhood development services and early childhood education. These partnerships in Australia aim for all children to enter school healthy and prepared to learn, with a focus on the needs of children from Aboriginal and recently-immigrated families.

It was a fun and inspiring gig for me. They kept me busy, but I did get out to see a few things. One highlight was a platypus in person in his native land. He was in a glass enclosure in a nature park, not in the wild, but it was still fascinating to see that half-aquatic monotreme (egg-laying mammal). They are much smaller than I thought.

Back around the conference table, the Australian partners discussed what each organization wants to achieve through its services, what exactly its staff do to achieve these goals, and how their efforts contribute to the results achieved by the whole system of services. They identified gaps and opportunities and no one said anything about what they couldn’t do because of their organization’s specific lane. They stayed focused on the big picture, and collaborative possibilities from a systems perspective. They asked questions like: How can early engagement of families into pre-school programs support childhood development assessments by maternal and child health program staff? How should we engage families who visit the drop-in playgroups to the services they need, without scaring away those parents who are busy with multiple jobs and also understandably wary of government agencies? They asked, How do all the parts impact the whole?

The discussion between these early childhood services in Australia included a deep appreciation for each others’ mission and the value of the work to the community. This provided motivation to help them stay in systems problem-solving mode, to get to the sticky details of roles and activities.

How else might we create more systems thinkers?

If you aren’t engaged in a cross-organization partnership that is digging into the details of daily work to support shared customers/clients/patients, or even if you are, customer shadowing is another common activity that can switch on the systems-thinking light bulb. You put people in the shoes of the people they serve, so they have a customer or client experience that is close to real. This provides the closest thing to a true customer experience in the current system. (This is also a way to diagnose problems and generate solutions, in improvement and innovation work.)

With shadowing, people uncover issues like wait times and confusing communication and wasted process steps. The shortcoming with this activity is that people who are not already systems thinkers have the curse of knowledge of their own status quo. They see problems, but they can explain away system problems as inherent and insurmountable. Shadowing is still very useful. Don’t drop it from your change management work.

There are many ways to push the core principle of systems thinking as part of your change work. I hope my surprising realization that systems thinking can be a powerful and natural side effect of cross-organization collaborative change work is a useful one to consider.

Andrew Edwards