Unlocking Systemic Change through Structure and Reflection

How is it that with all the technological advances in the last couple of decades—with massive increases in processing power and tools to boot—individuals, teams and organizations continue to be overwhelmed?

In our current reality, one of the many casualties is reflection and the opportunity to step back, think, and move with intent. We often get stuck in a cycle of automatic response to inbound work. This dynamic is as old as time (with General D. Eisenhower codifying the matrix almost 70 years ago) and reaches far beyond the boundaries of corporate or public sector work and into all aspects of our personal lives. Everyone is just too busy and we can’t seem to help it. Without reflection and intent, our only move is to try and out-work the overwhelm, which is impossible.

I remember sitting with one of my favourite leaders some years ago as we discussed an area of strategic improvement we were looking to make, with me attempting to lead it. We were talking about improving the way we systematically (or didn’t, at the time) conducted account management, with a view to extending our footprint in a client organization through the basics of outreach, sharing successes, and disciplined follow-up. As we paused, it dawned on me that there were maybe a dozen or more similar exercises happening across different areas: accounting, hr, delivery, hiring, and so on. Each area was in need of improvement to make systemic and lasting change. I asked him how on earth he stayed positive in the face of such a massive challenge. He stated that, as long as he spent about 10% of his time directly focused on systemtic improvements, then the trend line would go up over time. The remaining 90% was all operational and tactical around business development, managing teams, fighting innumerable fires, and so on.

Ten percent of time spent working in the hallowed ground of the ‘strategic / non-urgent’ quadrant means the trend line is positive, not merely staving off chaos. Twenty percent wasn’t feasible given the load, but 0% was quite possible to given the operational load. So, forcing 10% was the solution in order to create the container for unlocking systemic change—a container for reflection, inspection, and ultimately improvement. How hard could that be to shave off a few hours a week?

For many people stuck in a blizzard of tasks, it turns out that swatting them away long enough to find their deeper brain and make some insights is not easy at all. This kind of time has special requirements, and adding up 12 five-minute blocks does not give you an hour of deeper reflection. It merely gives you the time to breath and consider which task you are going to crush next.

Invariably this magic time is in direct conflict with linear and valuable operational work. Make more calls. Write more code. Send more invoices. These are all valuable activities in their own right, and measured against the next day, week or month, will definitely provide good results. But, over the next year? Surely there are ways to do things more effectively, but we’re all too busy to consider what those might be.

So, as leaders in an organization, there must be an impetus to create the structured space for these kinds of reflections, insights and actions. The possibilities for these ‘Strategic / non-urgent’ spaces are vast and can include learning, strategy, reading trends, understanding new technology, or just plain thinking. Given the demand for this time will always outstrip supply, the key is to create the time on a regular basis, and then prioritize the most valuable items to work through. Only then will you be able to see clearly, think concisely and act intentionally.