How can I have impact and reach my goals? While good people are able to do a fair amount on their own, it only gets them that far. For larger things to happen, you need the support of other people and make the system working for you. The system is the people you work with, your or other teams, your or other departments, i.e. your company as a whole with all its different interwoven elements. The possible interventions can be categorized in a two dimensional map.
The map of interventions is a visualization of my personal thinking about becoming effective in an organizational environment. It is heavily inspired by system thinking, in particular CAS (complex adaptive systems) – the x-axis – and various degrees of feedback loops – the y-axis. While system thinking helps to appreciate the underlying principles of various interventions, it is not necessary to understand the theory in detail. In fact, I believe that effective people have been applying system thinking implicitely all the time.
What it is all about
The map of interventions helps you to understand and categorize the leverage points you have in order to increase the likelihood of support from people and the system for your goals.
An organization is a complex system in which people are interacting. You cannot steer it directly like, say, a water tap, where you can control the flow of the water. Cause and effect are not coupled so closely. Rather, your actions will trigger some behaviour of the other people in that organization. Ideally with the outcome you want to achieve. Even more, an organization can be viewed as a complex adaptive system. It’s adaptibility is introduced to a large part by the people who can adapt their behaviour. The people are the agents of the system. In a complex adaptive system with agents, you have three points of intervention – the x-axis in the figure:
- The people: who is part of the game and in which place?
- Rules: like in games, rules set contraints or boundaries. They define how the game has to be played. They can be explicit or implicit. It is the way things are done around here. In general, people adhere to those rules. New people adapt to the rules, constant rule breakers are excluded.
- Goals and anti-goals: goals are attractors. They help to define direction and guide action and decisions. Think of them as a magnets. At the same time, anti-goals define places you must not go to. They define direction in an inverse way.
Now, each of those three entry points for interventions can be triggered in three different ways:
- Directly: you make a direct intervention. You immediately decide on the concrete matter at hand. You do the job. For example, if the task is about time telling, you tell the time.
- Second order lever: you make an indirect intervention that is still addressing a concrete problem. It is reflexive, a first derivative of concrete action. You help others to do the job, to learn, to become better. You help people to help themselves. You enable an organization to solve a problem by itself. For the task of timetelling, you don’t tell the time, but build a watch.
- Higher order lever: lastly, interventions can have impacts that are independent of a specific tasks. Rather they make contributions to the way people think and act generally. Cause and effect are not clear at all, there is only a very loose coupling. This is what we call culture. Regarding the time telling case, it is about the importance of time telling per se and the value and meaning you give it in your organizational context.
The figure now puts all the various, well known interventions onto this map. The more indirect interventions are, the less clear is their impact. In addition, the impact takes longer to evolve and is more fundamental. It’s a play with higher stakes.
The interventions are:
- Hire & fire (direct)
- Set personal goals (2nd order)
- Define role expectation (2nd order)
- Make team composition – who is in what position (higher order)
- Show praise & attention (higher order)
For goals & anti-goals
- Set team goals (direct)
- Define the budget (direct)
- Follow through of goals and budget (2nd order)
- Define a strategy (higher order)
- Live the values (higher order)
- Tell stories that write history in your organization (higher order)
- Make ad hoc single decisions – the rule is: I decide (direct)
- Definition of projects and focus initiatives (2nd order)
- Control on decision process (2nd order)
- Define structural and process organization (2nd order)
- Design information flow and degree of transparency (higher order)
- Design the way to handle rule breaking and rule adoption (higher order)
Why I find it valuable
The map helps me to make interventions more consciously. Whenever I am in a difficult situations the map reminds me that there is a variety of interventions I can choose to make. And that I should choose the intervention that fits to my challenge, i.e.: is the challenge about people, the way we work or about missing / wrong goals? Lastly, it reduces the likelihood that I go for the apparently quick fix: doing it or deciding it by myself.
Relevance for product management
Product management is about getting things done. You need to leverage people and play the organisazation well in order to do so. The intervention map shows the options you have.
Most of the time product people lead laterally. But make no mistake: you have more power than you think. All interventions on the map can be applied to a product team and used by a product manager. So for example: while you might not be able to hire and fire people on your team, you can have a huge influence on who is part of your team – at least in the longer run.
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Caution: don’t fall in love with a framework. They support, not replace thinking. Frameworks always have a point of view on reality. There are other views as well. Stop using a framework if it doesn’t help to create insights.