National OD Network Conference


Faith Addicott has been selected, with Staceye Randal of Dallas, Texas, to be a presenter at this year’s annual Organizational Development Network Conference! Faith and Staceye will be presenting an integrated, experiential introduction to Appreciative Inquiry for practitioners, and framing the learning and conversation in how AI can bolster engagement, inclusion, and authenticity to create more resilient organizations.

Please congratulate Faith & Staceye on this awesome achievement! Confluence is proud to be sending one of our own to network and share with the vibrant community of OD practitioners.

Thinking In Systems

Almost everything which does work in the world is a system – a collection of smaller things or actions or relationships that together form a mechanism for self-regulation or creation or life. Understanding how these systems work, and that they follow finite rules and consistent patterns is incumbent upon anyone who wants to understand or change the world. Understanding systems is vital to public administration and organizational development (OD) work. Donella Meadows wrote the pivotal work on this subject, THINKING IN SYSTEMS; A PRIMER. This approachable and enlightening work is a must have for any serious OD practitioner. For it is only when “we see the relationship between structure and behavior,{that} we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns.”

Meadows explains that a system must include elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose (p.11). When we look around, we can see that so much of the world consists of systems- our cars, our clocks, our ecology, our institutions, and even our bodies. All of these things work because they have parts (elements) which work in coordination (interconnection) in order to achieve an end (function or purpose). They are so much a part of everyday life and the life of society that we hardly notice them at all, and yet they are perhaps the central element of all human endeavor and even of the natural world. Systems built well can be self-sustaining, reinforcing the energy and propagation of creation. But systems can also become out of balance, either through changes in circumstance, intervention, or because they have an archetype (structure) that is inherently perverse (p.112). Meadows refers to these instances as systems traps, situations that can become so out of whack that they must be changed or dismantled, not because there is any one actor to blame, but because the whole show is poorly written. Being able to recognize when a problem is really a systems trap can deeply influence the way solutions are found.

In the context of a discussion of systems thinking, we are reminded that the Constitution is a document or rule book for establishing a system, in this case of government. Any government, organization, or group which gathers and attempts to implement policy is creating a system, one which will succeed or fail based upon how it is defined, and how clearly and adequately its purpose is defined. Meadows is clear that purpose is “the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior” (p.17). In the Federalist Papers and the many writings contemporary to them, we can see the effort and energy put into trying to establish a working system, with stated and thought out feedback loops (checks and balances, three branches) to allow the system to maintain balance through time and changing circumstances. It is doubtful the founders thought in terms of systems, but it is precisely what they were creating. In this country, if more attention were paid to the purpose of our system than to the mechanisms of it, the implication is that the function of government would be smoother.

Similarly, changes in policy or changes in policy systems must be changes in purpose in order to affect real change and get away from reinforcing feedback loops (p.17). The goal of all policy professionals is to create or steward systems that work better and are more responsive to the needs of the people and governments they serve. In seeking to adjust or make changes to those systems, care must be taken not to move the lever (change) in the wrong direction (p.57). Only a deeper understanding of the system itself will allow anyone to push or pull in the right direction.  Systems thinking, being able to watch the history and behavior of systems and see what they really are as opposed to what we believe or are told they are, is a skillful tool for policy makers. Within this way of seeing the world lies the key to understanding our jobs, the limits of what we can do, and the factors that most need attention in work and crisis. Systems traps can be seen in action all the time, when multiple attempts to fix problems either create more problems or require constant intervention. In policy, most of these traps are related to what we call wicked problems (Head, 2008 p.101). Learning how to change existing systems and create new systems might be the key to solving these, just as systems thinking is the key to seeing them clearly.

Meadows shows us how in system dynamics, resilience and self-organization are intrinsic to system health but are too often sacrificed in the name of productivity and stability (Meadows, 2008, p.79). This is something that can be seen all around us every day, and reflects one of the arguments in policy circles about the management theory of administration. The third crucial aspect of  system health is hierarchy, which in public policy and all systems must “balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing” (p.85). This ability and need to balance multiple elements is integral in all levels of any system. Paying attention to the balance and health of a system, cultivating the will and ability to think within those parameters, is perhaps the best way possible to affect real change and make a difference in the world. We must endeavor to “design policies that build learning into the management process” (p. 177), so that we create dynamic, self-adjusting systems. And then implement them.


Head, Brian (2008), Wicked Problems in Public Policy, Public Policy, Volume 3,  pp. 101-118,

Meadows, Donella (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, White River Junction, VT

Mid-Level Leadership: The Art of Balance

Do you as a leader often find yourself between two or more bad decisions, and none of them are really your choice? When policy is written it is with the best intentions, but at times formed in a nascent way, leaving a lack of funding or specificity in how to make the changes necessary to comply. The practical implementation of policy can be messy. It is often left to individuals and teams who do not specialize in the type of work to be done. This can prove frustrating for all parties, particularly those who are made aware of the changes without specifics, and who then must pass along the message, and try to allay fears of the staff. This often falls on mid-level leadership.

Mid-level managers have power over their teams, but nothing beyond the scope of their immediate circle. They are often 4-5 layers down the hierarchy from the commissioner, or other executive leadership team members. This can often lead to vast gaps in information between people, and breakdowns in communication. Simply because the scope of power and realm of influence is limited, that does not mean that they (you!) have no recourse, or that the staff will always feel unsupported, or in the dark.

Below is a list of 5 tips that can help mid-level management feel engaged, and supported, in a way that enhances choice and decision making to support their teams and thrive in their work. If you are a leader, in any level, the following tips can be useful, especially if you are, or support, mid-level managers.
Five worthwhile Tips:

1. Be clear and don’t make excuses or skirt the issue.
One clear sign to employees that they are not getting the full picture, is if they cannot get a straight answer, or a commitment by when something will happen. It is important to set clear timelines by when you will follow-up on questions, or concerns of the staff and team. If you don’t have the information by the time the deadline hits, acknowledge that it didn’t happen, re-commit to a new time before the deadline hits, and give feedback as to why you were unable to get the information by when you said that you would. Vague statements about what will happen in the future can cause unease, panic, stress, and ongoing tension in the workplace.

2. Acknowledge you do not know if you don’t know.
If you are unsure about something, do not make up an answer. Always commit to a time by
when you will find out the information and get back to the person asking about it. If you
are not authorized to tell them, let them know that. Respect yourself and your team.

3. Have a regular check-in schedule with your manager, with set agenda items, and some time for open discussion.
Having set agenda items will help ensure that topics are kept in mind, and checked-up on, even if there is no progress on them. Hearing that there is no progress, in itself an update on the matter. This will also be a point that you can refer to with staff, that you are remaining up to date, even if there is no tangible change.

4. Set-up multiple pathways to communicate with your team.
With time-off, absences, and flex-schedules, it can be helpful to have multiple ways of communicating updates. Shared drives, white-boards, or group emails are all very effective. It is important to make sure each person on your team feels supported in the way they are communicated with. E-mail can be tricky, because of the fatigue that can happen with the volume of emails received.

5. Be proactive in addressing concerns, and keep an eye out for signs of stress, or frequent questions.
Everyone presents stress differently. It is common for people to continue to bring up issues, or ask questions about what is on their mind, or that is making them nervous. Keep an eye out for this and be proactive in following-up with people. It could be worth taking extra time each week to check-in and have a brief 1-1 update on what is going on.

The thing to remember is that ambiguity is fine and will happen no matter what. The way to empower yourself, and your team as a manager is to create structure within the ambiguity. Staff want to know they have an ally, and someone who is “on their side,” even though the situation may be completely unknown, or unclear as to how a policy will be implemented or will affect them.

Be clear, be honest, and remember to be a stand for yourself, your team, and your organization.