From Business Design to Business Change (#3) – The Learning Circle

Alex Hendriks
Posted by Alex Hendriks on May 15, 2012

Business Process Management

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Let us suppose you are to consult in the redesign of the ‘Incident Management’ process in a business-IT environment. This is not necessarily rocket science. But what do you do when the managers of the six different teams involved in the process have overlapping views on the roles of their teams? How do you avoid the pitfall of endless discussions on roles and responsibilities between teams and business units? And how do you take advantage of the involvement of the employees to arrive at a workable and acceptable solution?

The case I write about in this blog is situated in a governmental service organization, 15k+ employees, where a restructuring of the organization required this cross-business unit redesign. This case represents a nice example of how I recently encountered the content paradox.

A traditional design approach would start out by trying to define a design scope and process requirements by interviewing stakeholders. We assumed this approach would be a one-way ticket to views a world apart. We looked at other options and our good experiences with serious gaming came to mind. What I personally like about it is that participants are caught in the moment and have to improvise. Sensible decisions and behaviour just arise. We used this effect to kick-start our design process. We organised what we called a Learning Circle with participants from each team.

 The Learning Circle

We planned a full day for the Learning Circle workshop. We had one of the team managers as the sponsor for our approach. He asked all other team managers to send two or three employees to participate, in total about fifteen people. The participants had no idea what to expect and came without preparation. The workshop had three parts:

  • The first part of the session was the gaming-part. We started from scratch with a simulation, as if the future process was already there. The idea was to just see what would happen, to experiment and to harvest the issues that would naturally arise.
  • The second part of the session was the dialogue-part. For every issue teams were asked to share their view with the other teams. No discussion, just sharing of truths.
  • The third part of the session was the solution-part. The participants were split into two groups with all teams represented in both groups. The groups were asked to come up with a draft proposal addressing as much issues as possible. Issues could also be put in the ‘for management to decide’ box.

The gaming part

The participants were seated into a half circle, grouped in teams, facing a number of flip over sheets put on the wall. We asked the participants to imagine as if the process to-be was already in place and they were performing their future roles already – whatever that might be. In case of doubt we asked them to act the way they would find most logical or sensible for the organisation as a whole and its (internal) customers.

We triggered the incident process by presenting typical incident calls and handing over a marker pen to the team that first indicated they would receive it. The rules of the game were simple:

  1. The team with the marker pen decides how they act themselves and which team they trigger next by handing over the marker pen.
  2. The team with the marker pen is allowed to discuss among themselves what to do. The other teams are to remain silent
  3. The team with the marker pen writes down on the flip over sheet which activities they perform (if any!) and what result or information they pass on to which team
  4. All other participants are allowed at any time to come forward, in utter silence, with a sticky note with their initials. They can place it on the flip over sheet on the spot where they want to raise an issue (or question).

The harvest of the gaming part was rich. A process developed spontaneously and at the same time the astonishing number of 28 issues were already raised during the handling of the first incident alone – but no panic at all. The best and most fun part was the silence rule. With some small interventions from our side and some grinning of team members even the most control-freaky participants were able to zip it, just let it happen and use their - silent - sticky notes.

The dialogue and solution part

After the game we saw curious and smiling faces going for the coffee break. With the notion that each participant would get their turn on expressing their views the atmosphere had become open and calm. After the break issue per issue was addressed. Participants were amazingly patient with each other and interruptions were rare. The result was interesting: without making agreements it was clear that most issues could be resolved. The role of one team appeared to be almost completely omitted in the simulation of the process. Yet the dialogue part gave this team a great platform to position with their tasks themselves in a way that was logical and sensible for the other teams. After sharing six separate truths in a dialogue, the two groups had a good go at resolving the issues and their first ideas were presented. 

Follow-up of the Learning Circle

With just a few issues to be resolved, the overall result was a great kick-start. It brought about a good energy among participants who brought this feeling across to their respective team managers. Next we, as independent consultants, formulated a number of recommendations on the redesign for management. We based this on the results of the Learning Circle. We organised a management meeting to have them decide on these recommendations. We asked the participants to prepare this meeting with their team manager.  The managers were happy that a lot of issues were already tackled by their employees. The open energy was also present on this table. It took management two meetings to resolve all redesign issues and start the implementation. 

In conclusion

In a traditional design approach it is good practice to test a business process design when it is finished in a simulation workshop with employees. In the case above we turned it around! We used the Learning Circle as an open experiment to speed up the design process with a lot of parties involved. Each participant brought along their own mix of ideas, stakes, insecurity on the outcome, personal preferences and historical context. Still, we noticed everyone was in his or her own way committed to deliver a good service in the end. All in all it was not about “which team is right?”, but more about “how to bring these different truths together?”.

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