Blended systems thinking approach to diagnosis, design and/ or transformation of services/ organisations etc

smalllogoWell Christmas is over and my thoughts are returning to  my blended systems thinking approach to diagnosis, design and/ or transformation of services/ organisations etc.


It’s an 8 stage iterative process, where movement between the steps is not meant to be linear but each step chosen depending upon the circumstances and how the piece of work is unfolding.

Step 1: context, local rationality and identity

Look at the following:

  • internal and external context
  • purposes
  • needs and demands
  • current rationality
  • identity
  • applying/ considering concepts of user centred design
  • identify the rules of the game (meeting social and emotional needs of the people in your system as well as structuring the model/ transformation intervention in an effective way)
  • perception and motivation critique
  • culture analysis and how it is impacting the situation


  • SSM
  • CSH
  • User Centred Design concepts (in addition to the systems thinking methods)
  • Influence diagrams

Try to gain an understanding of:

  • Influence – identify the flows of influence: management, quality, objectives, budgets, performance measures, hierarchy, organisational culture, personalities, other departments, legislation, financial, SOPs
  • Motivations- is there a focus on imposed targets? What kind of culture does it indicate if there is (i.e. a fear culture?) Is one member of staff imposing views upon others?
  • Control – is there resistance to change on a scale that could be problematic? Do different professional groups in the situation have different opinions?
  • Knowledge – are certain personalities manipulating/ dominating the situation
  • Legitimacy – is the resistance and conflict hindering the quality of the process? Is it justifiable? Can you identify how alternative behaviours might serve the goal? How would a different perspective of the organisation/ people open up opportunities

Step two: the system of interest and boundaries

Apply SSM to look at:

  • the systems and its boundary
  • system definition (using CATWOE)
  • the required transformation process
  • identify the system of interest
  • build a conceptual model (if it helps at this stage)
  • look at the how what and why
  • consider efficiency, efficacy and effectiveness

Step three: system dynamics and variety imbalances

  • Look at the dynamics of the system
  • Identify the variety imbalances between the elements of the VSM
  • Identify internal and external complexity drivers, at each level and check for imbalances
  • Check for missing components and missing links
  • Identify flow and any blockages to the flows
  • How is the system interacting with the environment?
  • Identify any archetypes
  • Undertake a VSM diagnostic
  • Implications of the strengths and weaknesses/ barriers/ influences and “pain” being experienced in the situation.
  • Identify any critical imbalances.
  • Look for symptoms of the behaviour of the system and its interconnectivity
  • Focus on engagement and relationships
  • Look at the dynamics first, before the statics


  • VSM
  • Multiple cause diagramming
  • Systems dynamics
  • Archetypes
  • Requisite variety & variety imbalances
  • Traps: criticalness, blame, guilt, dogmatism, reductionism
  • Structural coupling
  • Attenuators and amplifiers

Step four: the statics of the system and VSM diagnostic

  • Unfold the complexity of the primary systems
  • Use the VSM as a template to match what is there and identify what isn’t there.
  • As you go along, identify where there are critical imbalances in the systems and management’s ability to handle the complexity each faces. (this is often the cause of organisational failure). Remember: structure drives behaviour.
  • Look for the symptoms of the behaviour. What are the symptoms, are they the root of the behaviour of the system.
  • Model the environment at each level
  • Look at the connections between the subsystems (the system 1s)
  • Look at the connections between the subsystems and the environment (system 1 to the environment)
  • Model the co-ordination mechanisms (system 2)
  • Look at the variety equations for each of the connections
  • Only look at the connections you need to (remember the model can be infinite so you have to limit it to what you need to look at).
  • Stop when you have enough to provide the answer to the problem.
  • Make sure you unfold all of the complexity of the primary operations
  • Model the management functions – systems 3, 4, and 5, their interactions, connections to operations, to the environment and to each other


  • VSM
  • Multiple cause diagramming
  • Systems dynamics
  • Archetypes
  • Requisite variety & variety imbalances
  • Traps: criticalness, blame, guilt, dogmatism, reductionism
  • Structural coupling
  • Attenuators and amplifiers

Step five: further analysis

  • applying systems laws
  • 12 rules,
  • structural coupling (go deeper if necessary)
  • potential future identity in particular)
  • do the implications of the structural problems match the behaviours of the system?
  • Building capacity
  • Otto Scharmer’s 3 enemies
  • Work out the implications of the structural problems – do they match the symptoms of the problem? And provide insight to allow a solution to be designed?
  • It is critical to understand how the statics and dynamics fit together. The dynamic of the imbalance is key to understanding how structure drives behaviour, which is Look at the dynamics involved first, it is quicker to reveal things this way
  • Human error factors

Step six: options for change.

  • MCA
  • Identify systemically desirable and culturally feasible options for change

Step seven: implementation

  • Small scale change
  • prototyping small packages of change, based around capability for making change without too much disruption.
  • Change slowly and incrementally by changing one thing at a time (including anything wholly interdependent upon that one thing)

Step eight: review and repeat

Things that interweave throughout – to help the process to work effectively:

  • coaching as we go along;
  • clean language;
  • non-violent communication;
  • learning our way together by “infecting” others with the concepts and ways of systems thinking;
  • understanding we are all trapped inside our own minds;
  • using isomorphic framing by using a situation which is similar to the one the clients are facing, when explaining things, so that they can understand it. (delivering the suggestion of something that corresponds to a specific issue they know about);
  • explaining how people have rigid mindsets and are unable to visualise the whole system and particularly unable to visualise from the perspectives of others
  • explaining how we are easily tricked;
  • explaining how we make lightening quick assumptions;
  • explaining how we use unconscious filters to filter the multiple stimuli in our situation. Our filtering is guided by our bedrock of assumptions (which can cause stereotyping and inaccurate assumptions);
  • our filters and cognitive structures are so strong that we often only see what we already know and we ignore critical information – diagramming exposes that which we don’t see;
  • understanding that we select observable data at a speed that tends to make leaps in abstraction;
  • once you are anchored at the bottom of the ladder of inference your most underdeveloped skill is your peripheral vision
  • slow down the situation (i.e. by diagramming it) so that we can study it and get a more accurate picture of the whole and open up our peripheral vision.


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