How can systems thinking help us deal with our environment?


It’s really important for systems practitioners to take into consideration the context in which their system sits (the environment). It contains things that are not necessarily part of the system per se but have an influence on or are influenced by the system. There are a number of challenges that can be posed by the organisational environment:


The world is ever changing, no matter what field of work you are in. Those of us working in health and social care know this all too well. To deal with this we need to be more flexible, maybe have a flexible workforce and our organisational structure needs to support ongoing change. Modelling our organisation using a viable system model (VSM) can help us gain an understanding that enables us to build such flexibility into our organisational structure. 


Decentralising decision making can help us deal with the complexity from our environment. It gives us flexibility and autonomy to make change (within given parameters, of course). Again, the VSM can help us to consider how we might configure our organisation to deal with complexity from our environment. 


This can sometimes come from the threat of competition. Two options we have are to co-operate with others and develop a status quo or we can be more aggressive ourselves and gain a greater market share. Either way, we need to be flexible in our approach, which modelling using the VSM can help us with.

A great book on the use of viable systems modelling is, ‘The Fractal Organisation’ by Patrick Hoverstadt . A brilliantly written book which makes the VSM easy to understand. It is always my first point of reference when I need a little extra help. Available on Amazon:

The benefits of working with epistemological awareness



“Epistemology, what’s that?” I hear you say. Epistemology is the history of you. It’s a philosophy thing – the theory of knowledge. Why do you think the things you do and behave the way you do? Why are your beliefs justified? Why is it that you know something, or don’t know something?

Whilst systems practitioners may not be epistemologists, we are aware of epistemology and work with an awareness of it. We are aware that everyone has limitations to their knowledge. Everyone’s image of the world is only partial. We know that people will often build a model of the world in their own mind as how they WANT to see it. This means that sometimes they will see ONLY what they want to see and not the other aspects of the situation.

Working with epistemological awareness helps systems practitioners be receptive to all information about a situation. It makes us more able to take multiple perspectives on board. That way, we aren’t intimidated by complex situations; we are able to embrace them.

More about complexity and epistemology can be found here:



How do we learn?



Sometimes we engage in single loop learning only. This occurs when strategies, tactics and assumptions are changed to remedy errors (; solving problems without really finding out their cause. There may be occasions where this type of learning is appropriate. However, there are more powerful ways to learn.

Where possible, systems practitioners engage in double loop learning. We look deeper into the cause of a problem before taking any action. We don’t just look at how to do something better, we look at whether or not we are doing the right thing. And, of course, once we ascertain that we are doing the right thing, then we look at how to do it better. This is where we consider at multiple perspectives. We are aware that a situation can be perceived differently by different parties, which is why we try to get to the bottom of what is really causing a problem before we take action. When we do this we are learning to change

There is triple loop learning also, which involves learning how to learn. We reflect on our ways of learning so that we understand them and can tell if we really are learning.

What is most important, I think, is that we are aware of how we learn. We are aware that there are different types of learning and we are prepared to challenge ourselves.

More on single, double and triple loop learning here:


How can systems thinking help your change programme?


SmallLogoWe are all aware of how difficult it is to deliver a change programme in our organisations. People don’t generally like change. Or, do they? Is it the change they don’t like, or the way the change is forced upon them? It is often more about the way the change is done, rather than what the change is, that is the problem.

You will find that systems practitioners do the following when they are leading change:

  1. We give people a safe space and an opportunity to react and articulate their feelings.

Many systems thinking methods and tools are aimed at allowing people to articulate their feelings. For example, we use “clean language” exercises so that people’s true feelings can be expressed. We try hard not to influence but to listen

  1. We respect different views and perspectives

We use diagramming techniques such as Rich Pictures to display different perspectives in a non-threatening way. They are made up of pictures and visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

  1. We allow time to accommodate conflicting interests and we help people work through their understanding of the situation

This is a very under-rated exercise. It is extremely valuable. In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not as valuable as someone else’s interest. We help people to work through this by unfolding the complexity in a situation so that we all get a good understanding of each other’s interests. Just knowing that the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

  1. We identify causes of failure in a situation

We don’t play the blame game! We use methods and diagrams to identify causes of failure in a situation. This takes away the usual blame game and puts the emphasis where it should be – on how they system is working (or not working, as the case may be). Blame is a trap that systems practitioners try very hard not to fall into.

  1. We believe in collective decision making

We don’t make decisions on our own. We believe in collaboration and coming to joint decisions (whenever possible). We don’t force our own views on others but work through the situation together with people so that we ‘learn our way forward together.’

That’s just a taster of what systems practitioners consider during a change programme. More to come in a later post!