A Systems Approach to Disability Inclusion


I have been having a refresh on systems thinking. I did a unit on Chaos and Complexity theories over 20 years ago, and that profoundly influenced how I thought about making things happen.

In some of my drafts for the blog I have been writing about why progress on Disability Inclusion is as slow as it is. Can it go faster and end the distress that staff with disability still report, midst a general spirit of good will, and genuine willingness to change?

The Joke

I have translated my learning on Chaos and Complexity as ‘strategic’ thinking, but I have realised that maybe that’s not as helpful as it could be. I want to paraphrase a story I encountered ages ago. Like any apocryphal story, the details don’t matter, so long as they honour the ‘moral’. It goes like this:

A business was experiencing a persistent problem in its headquarters. Periodically a long high-pitched sound would permeate the building, driving staff to distraction. The source of the sound was eventually tracked down – pipes in the plumbing system. High-end plumbing companies and engineering firms could not solve the problem.

A staff member spoke up about his uncle, an old plumber with a legendary reputation. He had retired. In desperation the company agreed he could visit. It held out no hope this now very old man could fix the problem, but it needed to keep staff in a good mood.

So, on a Monday morning the old plumber turns up, listens to the story of the awful noise, and what remedies have been tried. He asks questions that seem obscure and nonsensical. The company is exasperated. He is an old fool who has lost his marbles. But out of civility it accedes to his request to inspect the basement.

In the basement the sound fills the air. The old plumber walks around muttering to himself as he examines the exposed pipes. Finally, he stops, lets out an exclamation, drops the bag he has been carrying, takes out a small heavy hammer, and delivers a mighty blow to a section of pipe. The awful sound stops instantly; and does not return.

Two weeks later the company gets a bill for $5,300. That’s outrageous! The old guy was there for only 2 hours! Though grateful the sound has gone, the accounts manager approached the staff member who is the old plumber’s nephew and asked him to call for an explanation for the high charge.

The old plumber laughs when his nephew calls and says: “That’s a $300 call out fee, and $5,000 for knowing where to use my hammer.”

This is a systems joke, but that ‘old plumber’ became my hero. One of the ideas from the Chaos and Complexity unit that has stayed with me, because of its indelible simplicity, was ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. How you set something up determines how it will develop. It’s the reverse of the old plumber story. But in either case the moral is the same – and this has been epitomised in the so called ‘butterfly effect’ – a small act, in the right context, can have a system-wide impact.

Is it Possible to Think Like an Old Plumber?

That kind of insight does not come without a lot of experience – and a well-developed feel for systems. So, it’s an aspiration. We can get there if we put in the work needed.

After talking to a senior executive a few weeks back, I followed up on their mention of the fact that they had studied organisational psychology by checking available audiobooks. I hadn’t read a book on that subject for decades, so I was disappointed that there were none available on audible – at least specifically with the words organisational psychology in the title. I checked on Amazon for available titles on that theme and was happy to see that I had already listened to two of the listed books – The Fearless Organisation and How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. I also discovered Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I bought that as an audiobook; and listened to it. 


Aside from that, there were books with prices pitched at academic libraries. It does seem that since I first read on organisational psychology the field has evolved into myriad specialities. Getting a useful overview that acts as a primer seems far harder to find. On YouTube there is a selection of content searchable under organisational psychology and organisational behaviour. Some of it looks okay.


Then I realised I had listened to maybe 12 audiobooks dealing with some aspect of organisational psychology.  I looked closer at my reading list and started to better appreciate that the books I had categorised under ‘Professional Development’ included specialist sub-sets of organisational psychology. The field had evolved from being just a subset of psychology to being the parent of multiple knowledge and skill areas such as management and leadership, change management, organisational culture, internal consulting and emotional intelligence. But along the way the ability to see an organisation as a system, or, in fact, a being, has been lost. Specialisation does this. We focus on the parts and lose sight of the whole.


The challenge is to see an organisation as a complex system so that action intended to advance Disability Inclusion can be initiated in the right place, in the right way, and with the right energy to make lasting change. Knowing where to use the hammer, and how hard to hit is not easy, but putting in the effort to figure it out will be rewarding.


As I write this the NSW government has announced a reshuffle. I don’t know how that will pan out at this stage. But these things happen routinely. In my 19.5 years with various permutations that became the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), there were 3 definite reshapings that fused separate agencies together. Each time separate cultures were brought together in what were ‘shotgun weddings’, and there was a period of adapting – before the new culture settled.


DCJ is a very complex organisation. It brings together 4 major service systems (Corrective Services, Courts, Child Protection and Housing) as well as an array of other important services. It has outlets distributed around the state, as well as vital ‘head office’ functions. The organisation was created in 2019 and still retains distinct cultures among the 4 main service areas.


The division within DCJ with a key role to develop an oversight of the whole is Corporate Services. The only exception to that is the Board. The DEN is an outlier here. It must also develop an overview, as well as intimate knowledge – but it’s not a formal business area. When I was DEN Chair, the Board, the Inclusion and Diversity team (which sits within Corporate Services), and the DEN created an alliance to drive Disability Inclusion. 


Thus the 3-way alliance was the minimal foundation of a systemic approach to driving Disability Inclusion. Not only did this provide an organisational overview; it also brought specific knowledge to key parts of the organisation. In particular, in February 2019 7 DEN members spoke with the Board about personal experiences of bullying and discrimination. These ‘Roundtables’ have been repeated with executive leaders and business areas across the Department.


Since March 2020, the current DEN chair, and her leadership team, have evolved DEN meetings and events into high value focal activities with a level of professionalism and sophistication beyond anything I had imagined. 


That 3-way alliance means that all 3 members have a systemic impact in distinct ways.


Working With Complexity

Envisioning a large complex organisation as a coherent system is not easy, and it is not a solitary activity. In DCJ’s case the Board committed to funding the DEN Chair role as fulltime for 4 years. This was a critical decision because it creates an opportunity for the agency to be seen, as a whole, from an activist Disability Inclusion perspective far more quickly than might otherwise be possible.


When I joined the DEN in July 2010 as a founding member it developed a conventional approach to engaging staff – 4 formal meetings a year and not a lot happening in between. Change was slow, under these circumstances. This reflected the current thinking available to us. We did what we could with what we thought. 


Things changed courtesy of the Australian Network on Disability Annual National Conference in May 2018. Kate Nash from PurpleSpace was the keynote speaker and gave a coherent and sophisticated message of what she called Networkology. Sharing my experience (as DEN Chair) was Kerry Lowe, the Manager Inclusion and Diversity, and Anne Skewes, a Deputy Secretary and Executive DEN Champion, as well as an array of DEN members. We had a shared experience of the possibility of changing how we did things. That was vital.


You can’t bring real change to what you don’t know, and you can’t get to know anything without engaging with it. An organisation’s culture is something that that must be intentionally looked at internally, as a whole – and especially from an activist perspective of driving change.


I should point out that I use the term ‘activist’ in a deliberate way. Internal activism is sanctioned implicitly in a wide range of policies and strategies delivered through formal – and business-as-usual – channels. The goal is to create behavioural and cultural change. The DEN, as an employee resource group, must still function within a formal (professional) framework, but it has a degree of autonomy that fosters a higher level of innovation – if managed effectively.


In DCJ the natural partner with the DEN was the Inclusion and Diversity Team. It has to have a global view of the organisation. But even so, responding to the marriage of two previously distinct entities demanded considerable effort and time before a new global view could be had. A team whose core business was working across the organisation was being challenged to develop the perspective it needed. It was even more challenging for a part-time and voluntary staff resource group with existential skin in the game.


Accelerating the rate of change toward Disability Inclusion is something staff with disability want to see. The decision to make the DEN Chair role fulltime was inspired for two reasons. First it signalled a firm intent to back change toward greater inclusion. Second it created a wildcard plumber role of learning where to use the hammer, and how hard to employ it.


DCJ developed a Disability Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) that used a project-based approach. This meant that a formal project could be developed at any time in response to a newly identified need or opportunity. DIAPs are mandated under the NSW Disability Inclusion Act for all NSW government agencies and local government. They have a 4-year life cycle and tend to start off with a shopping list of things to do. That doesn’t suit complex cultures and environments subject to ongoing change. A DIAP project can become a hammer because it can be targeted to a precise spot with a precise objective, and with precise action.


DCJ has also been committed to the Access and Inclusion Index (the A&I Index) developed by the Australian Network on Disability. The A&I Index is a self-assessment tool using 10 key areas to help organisations identify how they are performing in relation to staff, and customers/service users with disability. An independent evaluation of the assessment is an optional, but vital, component.


These 3 elements (the fulltime DEN Chair, the DIAP and the A&I Index) create a synergy that allows the emergence of individual actions to address ‘pain points’ impeding progress toward genuine disability inclusion. There not just one spot to apply the hammer, but many. As these various tools are applied and promote Disability Inclusion, wielding the hammer can become a local matter – as part of a motivated network.


The response to complexity has been to create a responsive ‘wildcard’ process. The noise (the experience of exclusion of staff with disability) can be stopped only when there are enough ‘plumbers’ with their ‘hammers’ applying the right energy in the right place. 


A building’s plumbing system is an inspiring metaphor, but it does not translate to the complex cultures across a large department. Even though all staff are linked, interconnected, the ‘pipes’ are relationships – via the management hierarchy, skill/experience hierarchies, peer-to-peer interactions, and degrees of self-awareness and psychological health. There are theoretical connections in an ideal world that provide the model for how some imagine a work culture operates. But, in a ‘real world’ setting, the ‘pipes’ may be too wide, too narrow, blocked, leaking, misdirected or going nowhere – as well as normal and ‘just right’.  In fact, relationships are often the key impediments in ensuring Disability Inclusion objectives are realised.


Root Cause Analysis

I came across the idea of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) in the context of health care. It’s also referred to as the 5, or 7, whys. Ask “Why?” of a situation and then ask the same of each answer 5-7 times.


It’s a fabulous idea in theory, but it is rarely employed in practice. I think that’s because it gets very telling very quickly; if one is being honest – and that’s the only way this approach has any value. We are not good at looking closely when the somebody in the relationship chain responsible for something happening/not happening may be us. When it comes down to life and death and serious liability, it would be comforting that RCA might be applied to address failings in medical procedures. But bruised egos and confessions of screwing up are not popular.


Staff with disability on the receiving end of discriminatory and bullying behaviour would also welcome a reflection on the reasons why they suffer, despite assurances there is no tolerance for the conduct they experience.


How Can We Better Understand?

Complex organisations are staffed by people with vastly varying attributes. Some are genuinely committed to the organisation’s service mission. Others will pretend they are, but they are there because that’s where fate put them. It’s a job, and keeping it is important to them. Some are compassionate and caring. Others not so much – for a variety of reasons – from the burden of psychological injury to psychopathy.

There are formal systems in organisations through which flows a strong moral code, commitment to laws and justice, and policy to back them up. Now and then those ‘pipes’ fail to work as intended, and things need to be ‘hammered’ out.

But overlaying them is a relational system based entirely on how individuals fit together according to their psychological make up. Generally speaking, there is a close (but never perfect) fit between the system and the people who are part of it. Now and then the two diverge to the point where there is non-conformity that threatens the margins of tolerance between the ideal and the acceptable.

As organisations seek to reflect and embody principles and standards that ensure equity of engagement across a diverse community, that non-conformity can become a danger area that must be confronted and managed. This is what is not being done as well as it could be.

The Disability Inclusion strategies that work well must eventually come to the non-conformity problem and start asking “Why?”

Re-imagining the Challenge

In any large organization multiple strands weave together to create a coherent whole. Those strands are, themselves, complex. They can be named in many different ways – and grouped or subdivided in even more. Here’s four I quickly thought of, and I have no doubt that I would come up with a different four in a month.

  • Physical
  • Law, policy, and process 
  • Authority and cooperation
  • Relational

Because all these intertwine, picking out one, other than for a purely relative exercise, will not be helpful. It is not possible to be rationally holistic here. To develop a sense of the whole, imagination and intuition must be employed to assist. Over time, and with collaboration with others, it can be possible to get a good sense of how one’s organization operates as a coherent whole. 


When I took over as DEN Chair in late 2016, the DEN had made little impact across some of the major business areas of the Department, post the most recent restructure. I had to rebuild the membership, and that meant learning about a whole new department. In 2019, when DCJ was formed, I knew we had to quickly reach out to our Justice colleagues. That was difficult for a whole range of reasons. It simply takes time to get known, to be trusted and to understand the cultures. This was also certainly true of Corporate Services, which underwent an immediate and difficult transformation to merge key functions. I had ongoing conversations with the Manager Inclusion and Diversity about how to be most effective. Her insights were invaluable.

Promoting Disability Inclusion in a large complex and dispersed organization is difficult. No one strategy can work across all areas. Lots of local nodes of compassionate insight must be developed.

A systemic approach to driving Disability Inclusion is not easy. But it has two compelling advantages. First it is the best chance of delivering desired change efficiently and effectively. That is critical for a volunteer employee resource group and its members. Second, an organization can meet its commitments to Disability Inclusion in a way that not only gives the best value for effort, but improves the level of trust in senior managers, and internal processes.

The 2021 People Matter Employee Survey (PMES) has some telling results. In key topic areas, across the sector, some figures for favourable assessments look bad – Grievance handling is at 46%. Inclusion and Diversity is 74% and Health and Safety is 73%, and Wellbeing is 69%. These 3 figures look fairly good – until you consider that if 26% of your staff are not happy with the actualization of inclusion and diversity practice, that’s not good at all. That’s better than 1 in 4 employees. Likewise, if 27% are not happy with health and safety, that’s not good either. And 41% not happy with their wellbeing? You can check out the 2021 PMES results.

There might be a temptation to argue that staff with disability are a minority, and I am asking for a disproportionate effort to address their concerns. This is my response. 

Inclusion is a universal concern. Disability is a lens that brings a deeper and more concrete focus on a class of employees who we know have experienced persistent and severe discrimination. If action to address known and specific needs is taken others will benefit – because the change will be seen and will flow on to others. When I stepped down from being DEN Chair, I was given a t-shirt which had, on the front, the unofficial motto of the DEN – Solve for One, Extend to Many. We had borrowed this from the philosophy of Inclusive Design.

In DCJ, the DEN’s success has informed how the LGBTQI and Aboriginal staff resource groups operate. The Inclusion and Diversity team has a model in the DEN that it can tap – for how to do things well – and how to do things better.

Staff with disability may also be members of the LGBTQI and Aboriginal groups. The DEN’s success is permeating the organisation’s culture and precipitating positive change beyond disability.

Disability is a lens on, a gateway into, the wider concerns about Inclusion as a universal theme. It is not an extra effort of focus and effort. A commitment to Disability Inclusion is a commitment to Universal Inclusion. By fixing Disability Inclusion issues, other inclusion concerns will be addressed. There are 2 reasons for this:

  1. Those who discriminate against, and bully, staff with disability are highly likely to behave in a similar way toward other diversity groups.
  2. Other staff who are members of minority groups, and subject to discrimination, will be inspired and guided by evidence of success demonstrated by staff with disability.

My concern about DENs and their efforts is based on the fact that I am one on only 2 founding members of the ADHC DEN founded in July 2010 who survived the various transformations into the DCJ DEN to May 2021. When I became DEN Chair in November 2016, I was committed to moving the DEN from a part-time and amateur Employee Resource Group to a near fulltime, and professional, quasi business unit. That commitment led to the DEN Chair role being made fulltime.  

My view was that if we wanted to put an end to the ongoing experience of discrimination, bullying, and abuse experienced by staff with disability a low key, part-time and amateur approach was not going to be enough.

There is ongoing, and gratifying, positive change in favour of Disability Inclusion. It must be continued with added energy simply because the dynamics of positive change toward inclusion require constant commitment and support. But as this energy is applied it reveals nodes of resistance that are woven into leadership and work cultures. Unless there is an organisational commitment to identifying and addressing those node of resistance, all the efforts to initiate and drive positive change risk being undermined and delayed.

Organisations, as cultures and systems, will be measured by what actually happens internally, not by PR. Good news stories are important to signal commitment and intent. Stories of real experiences circulate; and tell the truth. The ideal is to have good news and experience stories match. Aspiring to attain that ideal requires a system vision and a system strategy.

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