Caring for the system

Generally speaking, caring is a fundamental human quality that involves recognizing the needs and feelings of others and taking action to support their well-being. It encompasses empathy, compassion, and a proactive approach to fostering positive relationships and environments. Caring is not merely an emotional response but a series of intentional actions aimed at nurturing, supporting, and uplifting others.

When working within a human system, what does caring look like? Moreover, how do we demonstrate our care for the system as a whole?

As an Organization and System Development (OSD) practitioner, I’d like to share my perspective on this matter. We can learn to leverage a concept often found in intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships and apply it at a systemic level.

My team and I recently concluded our engagement with a Japanese client: we assisted them in adopting the Objective and Key Results (OKR) framework. The OKR journey began with an online workshop, where we provided participants with OKR fundamentals, including conceptual knowledge, case studies, and exercises. Insights and key takeaways from the workshop can be found here.

The workshop was attended by key team members of the company, including the Leadership Team. It was a unique experience because:

  1. Geographical distribution—participants were spread across various locations, with one person calling in from France and others spread across multiple cities in Japan
  2. Language barrier—the workshop was conducted in English, but not all participants were fluent, which added a layer of complexity
  3. Varying levels of OKR exposure—while a few participants were familiar with OKRs, for most, this was a completely new concept
  4. Limited experience with synchronous collaboration—participants rarely had the opportunity to work together synchronously as a group before this workshop

Based on this data, we knew that relying solely on our expertise in OKRs would be insufficient. Therefore, we felt compelled to bring an additional element to the table: our understanding of the human system—i.e., System Work—which enabled us to provide care for everyone involved.

The combination of OKR and System Work allowed us to deliver an engaging experience, one that is also nurturing and inclusive for our client.

“Thank you for making me feel seen and heard throughout the workshop. As a result, I felt much more comfortable to share my thoughts.”

How did we provide care for our client?

There are two important aspects to explain first.

First, the content and flow of the workshop. In the workshop, the OKR framework provides the content—what we discuss, such as "OKR in a nutshell," how to write Objectives and Key Results, distinguishing between KRs and tasks, creating alignment, etc. The structure of these topics also determines the flow of the workshop.

Second, the human system in the workshop. During the course of the workshop, we expect to engage with each topic together, as a system. In this context, the participants, myself, and my team formed a human system specific to the OKR workshop.

To successfully navigate and guide any human system, it is crucial to diagnose and intervene properly.

Diagnosis refers to the ability to observe and understand what is happening within the system. It's a means of collecting human data in real-time. For example:

  • What is the current headspace of the participants?
  • What are the impediments to their learning?
  • Who among them is falling behind?
  • Is there any tension between the participants?
Without distinction, it’s impossible to see.

Only after a proper diagnosis can we develop appropriate interventions.

For most people, these well-considered interventions can be perceived as a form of care.

What does care look like?

Below are 3 examples of care—highlighting our diagnosis and intervention.

Example no.1

Diagnosis: The language barrier: not all participants are fluent in English. 

Intervention: The intervention first came as a suggestion from one of the Sponsors. Recognizing the language barrier, she volunteered to translate all the instructions into Japanese.

An instruction to write 1 Objective and 1 Key Result

An instruction for a smaller group discussion in the breakout room

Additionally, we also implemented the following measures:

  • We gave participants the flexibility to write their discussion items in Japanese. We then used Google Translate or enlisted help to translate these items into English.
  • We intentionally spoke slower and louder, enunciating more clearly, as we identified a listening comprehension gap and limited exposure to different accents among the participants. Our accents might have been unfamiliar to them.

Example no.2

Diagnosis: We identified that one or two participants were falling behind, particularly having difficulties differentiating Key Results from tasks. 

Intervention: To support their learning, we implemented the following measures:

  • We intentionally allocated time to pause, allowing participants enough time to absorb and digest the material.
  • We offered to facilitate smaller group discussions–wherein they could converse in Japanese— enabling peer support to help bridge any learning gaps.

Example no.3

Diagnosis:  There were challenges in creating alignment between individual and top-line OKR. Some participants were unsure how they could contribute to the top-line OKR and had difficulties identifying their own outcomes. Meanwhile, other materials were waiting to be presented.

Intervention: We decided to prioritize learning over sticking strictly to the curriculum, by intentionally allocating more time for the alignment section, allowing participants to thoroughly grasp the matter at hand. This included iterating their individual OKR and asking questions to clarify the company's direction.

The approach we took succeeded in making the workshop engaging for participants. We were pleased to receive positive feedback at the end of the workshop, some of which is shared below:

To recap, there are 3 takeaways:

  • OKR as a standalone concept—OKR can be effectively utilized independently. However, relying on content mastery when facilitating discussion at a system level carries inherent risks.
  • System Work and care—from the outside, System Work can be summarized by one word: care. Genuine care, however, requires a comprehensive thought process involving diagnosis and intervention.
  • Developing skills in human systems—you can acquire and refine skills in diagnosing and intervening within human systems. This allows for more focused and deliberate actions, instead of relying on chance.

Genuine care, however, requires a comprehensive thought process involving diagnosis and intervention.

Thus, if you’re interested to learn more about System Work, there are 3 upcoming classes I’m excited to share with you:

Thank you for reading.


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