|COMM-ORG Papers 2005||
A Six-Step Development Framework to Build Successful
A Framework to Develop a
Trans-Organizational System (TS)
Russell Ackoff, one of the originators of systems thinking, calls the intractable problem sets we face in our chaotic environment “Meta Problems and Messes” (Ackoff and Emery, 1972). These are the intractable problems that as a society we can’t address very easily.
Meta Problem: The set of all problems that make up a single problem-- the one you have to solve.
Messes: What they are not is merely problems. Problems have solutions. Messes do not have straightforward solutions.
- are more than complicated and complex. They are ambiguous.
- contain considerable uncertainty – even as to what the conditions are, let alone what the appropriate actions might be.
- are bounded by great constraints and are tightly interconnected, economically, socially, politically, technologically.
- are seen differently from different points of view, and quite different worldviews.
- contain many value conflicts.
- are often a-logical or illogical.
Messes are the meta problems of drugs and gangs, poverty, obesity, ethnic conflict and international crime syndicates; messes have strong links to civil wars, international small arms trade, globalization and the rapid advance of technology.
All the TS members eventually need to have the same mental model of the mess. This is can be one of the objectives of using a large system methodology later on in the development process.
Questions that help distinguish a mess from a simple problem
1. Who are the players?
2. Who has responsibility or ownership of the problem?
3. What are the individual problems?
4. What are current initiatives to address the problems?
5. What are the causes of the individual problems?
6. What are the constraints or barriers to building solutions?
7. What might be the underlying systemic issues?
8. What are the values and motivations of the system participants?
A TS may be required when there is a mess to address. If several stakeholders have a vested interest in the meta problem or mess (I use the terms interchangeably) and are willing to work together developing solutions, they can move forward confidently to create a TS. A TS is even more appropriate if there is a history of incremental or sporadic efforts to deal with the problem set that have not produced satisfactory solutions to date and the problem seems to be unsolvable or exasperatingly persistent.
Environmental scanning tools can be as simple as a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) exercise, to activating a newsbot on the internet to monitor internet traffic around a trend or topic involved in the meta problem. In politcalese, it is called opening a file.
In our current environment, rapid decision-making is necessary to adapt to rapid change. But the issues to be decided are often extremely complex. To enhance complex decision-making, to help us deal with uncertainties and new responses by others, we need multiple inputs. The intelligence or knowledge found in single organizations is often inadequate.
Independent organizations are motivated to seek additional expertise and capacity beyond what they themselves can produce. The intelligence gathering and sharing of many organizations can provide the additional knowledge needed to produce a more effective response to a problem set such as homelessness or poverty. The shared capacity and resources of housing, counseling and education providers can provide a more effective program to address poverty, for example, than any one agency or type of intervention operating alone.
Once you know you are dealing with a mess, assessing whether a TS is the appropriate tool, and its likelihood of success, is the next step.
Simple problems are better addressed with an in-house program or project and do not require a TS. Why build a mansion when a cabin will do?
Whoever is the initiator of the process, does so because he/she is motivated to act. What are those motivators? Often the key motivator is that there is a great likelihood of success in moving ahead and enrolling others into the process.
The likelihood of success can be determined through a brief analysis. Here are some questions you can ask to determine the likelihood of building a successful TS.
A simple feasibility assessment tool for the TS task/ problem focus:
- Are other individuals and organizations likely to be concerned about this problem too?
- Would they be willing to commit time and resources towards the work involved on a long term basis? What assets and capabilities might be exchanged in a partnership? What might our organization provide and expect to receive?
- Are there opportunities for solutions to be found and or developed? For instance, are there sources of funding we could access?
- What kind of work would the group undertake(In the non-profit sector, think beyond broad descriptors like revitalization and community development)? Is it more likely to be advocacy, education and awareness, social marketing or programming? In the private sector, is the solution likely to be a marketing or a supplier focused TS?
- What kind of commitment would my core group and I need to make to get a TS up and running?
- How would this process help our organization to:
- Serve our clients/customers?
- Reach our strategic goals?
- Achieve desired results?
- What risks might this alliance involve? What risks to each other's reputation? What financial risks?
- What other benefits might this partnership bring, to my organization, to the community, to my industry?
Given this preliminary assessment, is there a strong potential for a
partnership that will further our organization’s mission and serve our
If the assessment does not seem to bear out a substantive case for partnership then ask what is in your span of power to undertake to better conditions for a future partnership or to undertake a project in house to explore the problem?
3 Ways of Incorporating Knowledge Resources into a Trans-organizational System (TS)
1. Expanding Network Model
In this membership selection process you begin with a small core group of organizations. As your learning about the problem and its environment increases, you expand and recruit organizations and resources into the process. These resources can be specific experts and leaders in problem relevant fields who can be integrated into the TS or invited to participate on a time limited basis when appropriate.
2. Stakeholder Analysis Model
In this process you identify your TS participants at the beginning of TS formation. Participant selection criteria can use of any of these approaches:
- Positional approach-invite key staff in organizations that are connected to the problem and have a stake in the problem
- Reputation approach-the community is asked to suggest persons (interview or formal electoral process)
- Social participation approach-stakeholders are identified with respect to their previous and current participation in efforts to solve the problem
- Opinion leadership method -identifies stakeholders on the basis of their leverage or influence in relation to the TS task
- Demographic method -participants are selected on the basis of demographic characteristics that can affect the problem
- Referent group (a core group of organizations) maps out the wider environment and identifies stakeholders
3. Self Selection
This is the most common model. An Issue Champion calls a meeting of concerned persons and organizations. Whoever shows up and volunteers for a task becomes the new organization.
Until members agree to a common vision, TSs are rudderless and directionless. The common vision acts like a route outlined on a road map, informing all who participate where the process will try to go. In this visioning and strategic planning phase you will develop the following:
- Member commitment
- Sense of mission
- Shared values with which to work together
- Collective vision
- Goals that can be translated into action and be measured.
This is the major trust-building and direction-setting phase in building a TS. It is wise to use a neutral person (without a vested interest in the outcomes) to facilitate the development of the common vision.
How are older methods being adapted for the large group framework?
Organization development consultants use large system interventions to get a whole system learning and making decisions at the same time. The objective is to have all the expertise and information pertaining to the system and its focus in the same room, able to make decisions in real time by exposing all the parts of an organizational system to the big picture. This enables people to make better decisions, incorporating not only their area of expertise, but also an understanding of how all the parts influence the whole.
This chart details some of the most popular in use today.
Name of Process Tool
Appreciative inquiry is currently popular. At its core is a process of reframing issues and problems positively when developing vision and strategic plans.
AI process includes:
1. Definition: Frame the problem positively
2. Discovery: identify what works, connect to positive moments
3. Dream: Create shared images of a preferred future
4. Design: Innovate and improvise ways to create that future
5. Deliver: Implement the preferred future
This is the most theoretically grounded intervention. SC is a two-and-a-half-day strategic or policy planning tool, involving environmental scanning, system scanning and strategy development in a democratic structure. It is the best tool to adapt to a turbulent environment and deals openly with conflict with a rationalization of conflict process.
This is a popularized quasi–search conference methodology and search tool that was well-known and popular a few years ago. The traditional Search Conference is modified with mind mapping and value identification exercises.
Institute of Cultural Affairs
This world wide organization provides facilitation training in their Technology of Participation.
Their strategic planning process is usually a 3 part process involving a collective vision, identification of obstacles to that vision, and a strategy to deal with obstacles. Through the International Association of Facilitators, ICA has a worldwide organizational structure to support and promote the methodology.
This is the most popular large system intervention at present. A Open Space leader sets ground rules for free form discussions to take place. Topics are identified by participants and gatherings form around posted topics in the village marketplace. These gatherings move into discussion space and participants self –organize around exploring the topic. Many great ideas can be generated but the methodology needs sufficient time and a trained facilitator to move the groups into idea selection and prioritization.
It is also good at bringing covert conflict into the open and allowing participants to work it out.
This is an easy process for facilitators to learn and apply. Uses similar exercises to Search and Future Search including value identification and historical scans Not a lot of theoretical understanding required on the facilitator’s part. It is flexible and adaptable to fit in available time frames. It brings the values of participants to the surface and encourages effective communication and trust building.
Many TSs are stymied by this phase, in which members need to decide how to implement the vision and strategy developed in Phase 4 to address the problem. TSs are often built without members ever considering what they need to do to survive and carry out the agreed-to strategy. Instead of addressing that question and determining how much structure is needed to ensure continuity and survival, members’ energy is invested into implementing the strategy until conflict or lack of participation grabs everyone’s attention or simply kills off the process. The group’s architecture is neglected and the creation of the form (of the group) fails to follow the development of the function (the strategic response to the problem set).
How much structure is necessary?
The extent of structure necessary depends on four factors:
- The time period the strategy is designed to cover — The longer the time period, the more structure is needed to maintain the TS.
- How much system or organizational change is required by the strategy — Is there a need to have a broad coordination function apart from the projects or programs the strategy encompasses?
- Who has the resources to accomplish the change — Are the staff implementing the strategy hired by the TS or by the partners?
- How much management is necessary — Are there funds or staff that the TS has to manage?
A model of organizational effectiveness
Many academics and government experts exhort community developers, practitioners, and private sector managers to partner and collaborate. Although some inter-organizational systems, such as industry councils, have been around for many years, there are few primers that explain how to do what the experts are urging. The few experts who do give some directions often focus on only one part of the process (such as governance) and ignore the other processes components. This stumps people trying to implement these new group processes.
The model of TS organizational effectiveness I present here consists of three process components, like three legs of a stool; trust-building or people processes, governance or power processes, and coordination or management processes A group builds a new TS organization through conversation and by making decisions about the various options available to them at choice points along the way. Those choice points need to be articulated in a conceptual model so the decisions that are made, build a solid foundation and structure for an effective TS. All three legs — trust-building, governance, and coordination processes — need to be addressed. If a stool is missing a leg, it will fall over when you try to use it. In the same way, a TS will be less effective if it is missing one of these process components.
Examples of tools for each process leg
1-Trust building processes
Trust-building processes are used to help build relationships among the individuals who come together to form a new group. Many of these tools are from the OD consultant’s tool kit.
- Ice breakers-openers or closers-round robin
- Value discussions
- Visioning and strategic planning processes
- Adult education principles
- Roles of group members
- Social events
- Storytelling and myth building
- Process consulting
For the purpose of creating an effective TS, I consider governance processes to be the processes that are focused on using the power mandated to or assumed by the TS. Governance processes are organizational structures, decision-making processes, and communication strategies.
- Discussions about power
- Terms of reference
- Establishing roles (for the chair and for members)
- Policy making
- Decision making
- Regular meeting management
3-Work co-ordination processes
This set of processes and tools is essential for the work that must occur to form a TS and keep it operating and implementing its vision and strategic plan.
- Note or minute taking
- Logic models
- Work plans
- Communications mechanisms (i.e., e-mail, listserv, internal newsletters, meeting agenda packages)
- Large group meetings
- Work groups and subcommittees or virtual teams
- Hiring staff or contracting with a consultant to coordinate the work needed to keep the TS going
This phase is not necessarily the end of the process, but can signal renewal and moving thorough the development cycle again. All groups ebb and flow, achieving goals, then defining new directions. Some TSs end and permit something new to arise out of the ashes. The capacity built in member organizations and individuals always makes it possible for organizations to transform into new processes and strategic plans.
One point I make to my students is to separate the evaluation of the strategy (the plan developed by the large system methodology) apart from the evaluation of the effectiveness of the TS process. Process evaluation should be done much more frequently and informally and can be sued to keep the process on track. What I find when they are combined, the data becomes intertwined and confuses the environmental intervention with the organization process. A detailed TS effectiveness evaluation based on this 6 phase model is available in my book.
TS s are not a really new form of organization. They are in fact a federation of organizations similar to a federation of governments known as the federal model. Most nation states have adopted the federal model for their political organizing principle. What is new is that this federal organizing model is now being used at the organizational level in government, non-profit and business sectors. The development of this organizational form is an adaptive response to rapid change and environmental turbulence in our collective environment.
Ackoff, R.L. and Fred Emery. On Purposeful Systems. Tavistock Publications, 1972.
Cummings, Thomas G. “Trans-organizational Development.” Research in Organizational Behaviour, JAI Press. Vol. 6 (1984), pp 367–422.
Cummings Thomas G and Worley, Christopher G, (1996) Organization
Development and Change, Chapter 19, Southwestern College Publishing,
Drucker, Peter F. Post Capitalist Society.HarperCollins, 1993.
Emery, M. and Ron Purser. The Search Conference: A Powerful Method for Planning Organizational Change and Community Action.
Hesselbein, Frances, Marshall Goldsmith and Beckard, Richard eds.(1997)
The Organization of the Future, San Francisco, Jossey Bass.
Lippet, Lawrence L. Preferred Futuring.Berrett-Koehler, 1998.
Owen, Harrison. Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Abbott Publishing, 1992.
Spencer, Laura. Winning Through Participation. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1989.
Rackham, Neil, Freidman, Lawrence, and Ruff, Richard, (1996)
Getting Partnering Right, New York, McGraw Hill
Roberts, Joan, Alliances Coalitions and Partnerships, Building
Collaborative Organizations, New Society Publishers, 2004
Roberts, Joan, (1998) Perspectives on Partnerships, The Social
Partnerships Project, Caledon Institute of Social Policy June Page
23 “The Community Economic Development Advisory Committee for the City of
York: A Municipal Government Partnership” www.caledoninst.org/perspect.pdf
Weisbord, Marvin, R. Discovering Common Ground. Berrett-Koehler, 1992.
Joan Roberts has over 20 years of experience managing projects, developing organizations and advocating for change. As a housing consultant, city councillor, health promoter and government relations specialist, Joan has developed and led many TSs including one that won a national award.
She completed a Masters Program in Human Systems Intervention at ConcordiaUniversity in 2001. Currently, she is self employed as a consultant and trainer, working in the non-profit sector. Workshop topics include building partnerships, capacity building, governance, community economic development, and advocacy.
She contributed an article to the Caledon Institute’s Perspectives on Partnership and has co-authored articles in the Fieldbook on Collaborative Work Systems published by John Wiley and Sons (March 2003). Joan’s new book entitled Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships, Building Collaborative Organizations was published by New Society Publishers and released in the fall of 2004. More information can be found at http://www.joanroberts.com/.