understanding the work part 1

Understanding the Work 

 “We humans are first of all beings in a situation, we cannot be distinguished from our situations, for they form us and decide our possibilities”

My interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s (paraphrased) statement is that the environment shapes the situation and our possible choices are governed by the situation. Kurt Lewin the famous psychologist outlined the following equation to describe this.

Behaviour = ƒ(environment, personality)

When we think about organisation and how they operate the default position for most organisations is to focus solely on the person as if the person needs to be fixed.  Very few organisations understand that working on the people is working on the 5%. There is so much more leverage in working on the system.

Systems Leadership succinctly says, “Systems drive behaviour”.

I often refer to a fish tank analogy to make this point. You can keep polishing the fish when they appear “sick” or perhaps unmotivated, send them on a training course etc,  but unless you fix the water (i.e. environment) that is making the fish sick in the first place, you will at some point end up with fish floating around belly up, or they might make a break for it and jump into another fish tank.


To do a good job as a manager you must understand the system of work that you are accountable for. How else could you improve or transform it? Understanding and knowing how a system operates and why it behaves in the way it does is fundamental for good management. So there is no surprise that the first part of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) is: appreciation of a system.

With all these assertions that understanding systems is important you might ask why this is and where is the evidence for these outrageous claims?  Why can’t we just keep going as we have been? Surely it is all about getting good people in place?  And what do you actually mean when you say system, another IT “solution”?

One would be foolish enough to think we could start with defining what a system is. This task, however, is bigger than Ben Hur. The fantastic LinkedIn group Systems Thinking World, has a great number of remarkably bright thinkers in the field of systems thinking. Yet they cannot agree on a definition of what constitutes a system. Unfortunately the discourse about this often ends up being a competition of who’s smarter than whom and the language often becomes violent (from a nonviolent communications perspective).

I am of the school of thought that considers systems to be mental constructs; we choose what we define as a system by the boundaries we set and what we choose to include and they can change depending of what we are trying to achieve by doing so.

Having said all that, we still need to understand what it is that we are supposed to appreciate if we are to get a handle of Deming’s first point.  Since we are dealing with organisations we need a definition that is pragmatic for this field.

The definition of a system in Systems Leadership Theory is:

“A specific methodology for organising activities in order to achieve a purpose”

This involves directing flows of work, information, money, people, materials and equipment. The system provides the framework within which these flows take place.  An addition to make here is that we are discussing Organisational Systems not natural systems, so there will be a defined purpose for the system, be it the organisation as a whole, the recruitment system, or an operational system (if the defined purpose it is achieved or not is a different question).

A more general definition of a system:

1. A set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.

2. A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.

(a quick point to make about the second definition is that there is a huge difference working on a mechanistic system and a networked system)

For a definition of what systems thinking is about, the host of STW Gene Bellinger makes a very succinct statement and explains it with one word – AND!

There are many reasons why a shift in thinking is required. For one, we now understand that the mechanistic view of organisations, where analysis (without synthesis) and improvement of the parts in isolation, is not a good fit with the reality of organisational life.

Deming demonstrated the importance through the Red Bead experiment. The Red Bead experiment shows that performance (in this case quality of output) is a function of the system rather than the skills or capability of the individual. Deming even went as far as claiming that the variation in performance was to 95% down to the system, hence the 95-5 rule. Even if those numbers should not be taken literally for every single system, they certainly provide some insight to where the greatest leverage for improvement is.


Image Courtesy of Gaping Void

This is obviously a very simple system but it ought to make the point pretty clear and more complex systems have even more complex behaviour. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework (pronounced kuh-nev-in) is very helpful for framing your thinking on how to best proceed based on the type of system you are operating in.  We will come back to this later but before we do let’s get some sage advice on what constitutes a system and systems thinking in this video of Russell Ackoff.

Ackoff is an authority on the topic of systems, and systems thinking in particular. He focused mainly on systems thinking in an organisational context so his thinking is very relevant.

To further elaborate on Ackoff’s point about shifting our thinking and the value of this shift. I cannot remember where I came across this equations but I think it is a great way of highlighting the importance of how our mental models influence what we see in organisations and how we think about performance and productivity.

Organisational Performance = ƒ(organisational mindset)

What I hope becomes clear with the function above is the validity of the old (paraphrased) Einstein statement:

“the problems of today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”

John Seddon from Vanguard Consulting makes the point in the simple model below.


In most of the organisations I work with there is a pretty poor understanding of the work. I don’t mean that people have no idea what customers want or that they lack technical competency in what they are doing. It is more in the sense of why things are happening the way they are.  In my next post we will dig into this a bit deeper as understanding the work is fundamental for all good Managers.

I’m ok, you’re ok – let’s fix the system (borrowed from Michelle Malay Carter)

task assignment model

Task Assignment

Systems Leadership defines a Task as:

An assignment to achieve a specific output within a given time, with given resources and within specified limits.”

In simpler terms a task is a one-off defined piece of work.

A well-developed task assignment provides clarity around expectations and sets the limits of discretion (the boundaries); the path chosen to reach the objective is up to the individual.


A quote I came across on Twitter articulated the need to allow people discretion when it comes to how the work will be performed.

“Hiring smart people is pointless if they aren’t allowed to make any decisions”

If there is no judgment required what so ever, then a computer is the ideal candidate for performing the task. Furthermore, if no judgment is required it is likely to be a pretty boring mindless task. Dr Deming teaches us that if we want someone to do a good job, then we need to give them a good job to do.

Since the Manager sets the boundaries (not to say this cannot be done collaboratively), the Manager is ultimately accountable for the performance.  The Manager is the one controlling the resources available, the utilisation of these and makes judgements regarding what tasks to assign to which individuals etc.

There is in the agile community (or at least the one I am connected with) much talk about self-organisation and some are questioning of the role of Management altogether. The models provided here are still applicable as a leader can emerge rather than be appointed and whichever way people decide to work together, clarity about is to be achieved.  So, even if teams can self-organise and choose tasks, some constraints are required is essential.


This was the first Task Assignment model I came across and I stick with it both because I have not come across a better model nor have I developed a better model myself.  I must admit that before this model I had never really given Task Assignments much thought.  I do know how important it is to cover off on all elements of the model. When I was around 10 years old my mother gave me some money to go to the shop and get milk. In today’s money it might be the equivalent to $20. Failing to provide specific instructions in terms of quantity I happily purchased $20 worth of milk and dragged home some 15 litres of milk to a very surprised mum.

CPQQRT might not roll off the tip of your tongue but it is a great mnemonic for understanding and clarifying the required elements of a task, both for the person assigning the task and the person it is assigned to. The task at this point is in the Mind of the Manager and the model is a tool to support the communication of this to someone else. If the Manager cannot write down or articulate what they want from the task – then how can anyone else be expected to deliver on it?


Just as I described in the decision making model, Context aims at setting the scene and provide clarity about what brought about the task, linkages to other tasks, and anything that could in any substantive way influence what we are trying to achieve. Depending on the size of the task at hand the context could vary in length and detail. Sometimes there is already shared understanding of the context but it is a good habit to always check this by assuming it is not.


This is the reason for the work – not the work itself. It clarifies why we are we doing this and what do we hope to achieve by doing so?  A common mistake is to confuse the Purpose with the Output.

Quantity (output)

This can be tricky for more complex tasks but it refers to the output in numbers and answers the question: how many? Quantity can be specified or scoped, i.e. no variation from what is set out or quantity can be within a prescribed range.

Quality (output)

Answers the question: What will the output be like?  The quality of the output can also be specified or scoped. Quality can also be described in more general terms e.g. within industry, safety, or environmental standards. Quality can also have a relationship (social) angle as in: achieve xyz and establish a working relationship with stakeholder ABC. 


Clarifies what I have available to complete the task. These can amongst other things be:

  • Money
  • Equipment
  • People (internal)
  • External support (if applicable)
  • Manager’s availability
  • Central support (e.g. a Project Office)


The time element refers to the latest required completion time. There is nothing preventing the task from being completed at an earlier time. Your obligation as task assignee is to inform the manager as soon as you realise that the time cannot be met, not at or after the deadline has passed.

Remember that Systems Leadership is about clarity, a Time element that says ASAP is NEVER clear enough.

All the basic elements of a task assignment are now covered, however, as a Manager I need to consider the social process holding them all together.

Before assigning a Task I have to decide and plan:

  • Who I am going to assign the task to?
  • How I will communicate it?
  • When will I communicate it?
  • How does it fit in with other priorities?
  • How will I monitor progress, regular meetings, milestone reports etc?

Once the Task is assigned (and accepted) I have to fulfil my obligation as a Manager to:

  • Be disciplined in monitoring results and progress
  • Have continual performance conversations
  • Communicate changes in context
  • Be adaptable to changes to plans
  • Be aware of how the team is working together

For additional information on this topic please read Phillip Bartlett’s paper Task Assignment as a social process.

I will cover more on Work as a Social Process in the next post.