Applying systems thinking to commissioning: who will be the future system leaders?

I often wonder just who the leaders in the commissioning landscape will be moving forwards. Times are changing rapidly, organisational boundaries are blurring and merging and new integrated teams promise to be one of the enablers of different ways of working.

To survive in this new landscape will take a crucial shift in our awareness of the situations in which we operate and the ways in which we think. Fragmented, linear thinking is no longer appropriate for dealing with the wealth of complexity in today’s world. It is going to be ever more important to grow the state of mind from which one operates in order to survive. We should be mindful that what we are looking at is determined by how we are looking and a process of stepping outside of our normal ways of thinking may be required. (Jan de Vische, 2014)

Those of us who engage with systems thinking are very aware that, ‘A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.’ (Churchman, 1968) and some core concepts of systems thinking are ‘gaining a bigger picture (going up a level of abstraction) and appreciating other people’s perspectives.’ (Chapman, 2004) These are easy things to say, I guess, but much harder to put in practice if you are not used to it and yet I feel they will be important skills for the leaders of the new commissioning landscape as they lead within a wider system and not just the constraints of one organisation.

To see the wider system people must first move beyond the strongly bonded relationship they have with their current organisation, which will inevitably be hierarchical. Fritjof Capra in his book, The Systems View of Life, reminds us that people see their position in a hierarchy as part of their identity. Therefore, to me it is easy to imagine why people may not want to see other perspectives as they are happy to see the world as they currently do and feel happy with their current identity within the existent hierarchy.  Because of this, the demise of organisational boundaries and traditional hierarchies may generate some existential fears and I wonder to what degree this will hinder people’s ability to organically adapt to their new circumstances.

On a positive note though, it may act as a catalyst for new, emergent thinking. I wonder if those caught in this huge and prolonged change realise that there is a different kind of power they can harness instead of the traditional power gained through hierarchical positioning? It is the power to support others as they seek to empower themselves. Capra tells us that the network is the ideal structure for exerting this kind of power, which, in my mind, fits perfectly with the newly emerging commissioning landscape. I feel that future system leaders will be those who can effectively facilitate the new connectedness, rather than resist it. They will be the ones who can develop rich connections, recognise new centres of power, grow alliances, partnerships and new relationships, learn their way forward with others and not be afraid of failure. They will be the ones who support new mechanisms of learning, grow shared values as oppose to being chained to one organisational culture and they will nurture a true sense of community.

The systems leaders will be those who can effectively work with the flux, rather than hide from it and they will be committed to the success of the whole, rather than one part of it. They will be able to focus on similarities rather than differences and will have a committed focus on deeper learning. Their tolerance for uncertainty will be enhanced, they will embrace new freedoms and they will accept the need for a longer-term focus.

I believe the new way forward has the potential to open up a plethora of freedoms and choices, which I believe will be hugely beneficial, because as von Foerster reminds us, ‘the more freedom one has, the more choices one has, and the better chance that people will take responsibility for their own actions. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.’ (Ison, 2010)



Remembering Peter Block’s Community

On discussing the fragmented community and its transformation, Peter Block tells us, ‘the essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole. The key is to identify how this transformation occurs. We begin by shifting our attention from the problems of community to the possibility of community.’ He also reminds us that the community should be a place where we are emotionally, spiritually and psychologically a member.

I don’t know about you, but I literally cannot function properly if I don’t feel connected in these ways. I’m not a ‘half in, half out’ type of person. I’m a 100% in person. I want a deep connection with my communities, I want to feel close to the people I deal with regularly, I want to experience the world as they do. I want to feel free to express myself whilst remaining psychologically safe. I want to be able to challenge thinking in a constructive way (both within my community and within myself) and I want to feel proud to be part of a larger whole.

I want to consider the wider purpose, give to that purpose unselfishly and focus on interdependence more than independence. I want to break down the doors of isolation and be seen not just as a stranger passing through, but as an active investor and creator of our collective space. I want to explore our community’s authenticity and identify where we can together trade problems for opportunities.

I want to build and share social capital. I want to use my skills to the full and share them with others. I want quality relationships, new conversations and to evolve in an organic way. Don’t ever think of forcing me in your direction without giving me choices or I will at best resist and at worst completely disengage.

I want to be able to act, not be done to. That is when I will choose to help build our collective desired future. If this takes different kinds of conversations, ones we have not had before, then that is the way I want to go. I don’t want the old and stale, I want the new and exciting. I want mutual assistance and trustworthiness and most of all I want to learn and feel alive.

I want to be around people who have the same values as me, who respect my principles and ethics and give me the freedom to be accountable. I want to be in contact with people who help develop my learning and I want the freedom to express how our future world might look. I want to be engaged in conversations constructively, not brushed off like an irritating insect and I want us to jointly explore our learning and developing possibilities.

As a systems thinker I want to understand and come to terms with the current story……..and then seek to build a new one. I want to do it in a way that allows us to create together. I don’t want to project the accountability for development and growth onto others.

In my communities, your identity is my identity. I want that identity to be mutually agreed, not enforced upon me or I cannot truly adopt it or be accountable for it. I want a sense of belonging, where all voices are heard, not just the chosen few. Only then can I truly focus on our collective gifts, rather than our deficiencies.

I want to be part of the vision, part of the plan and feel a deep sense of commitment through this engagement. You can’t build commitment without conversations though, so if you want my loyalty then you have to engage with me.

‘The way we change the room is by changing the conversation’ (Community, Peter Block)


Crossing the Bridge

I came across this blog recently and was very impressed by its content and the thinking that it sparked in me.

The text that initially caught my eye was this,

‘Most studies identify a need for “knowledge brokers” not only to bridge the gap between the realms of science and policy, but also to synthesise and transform evidence into an effective and usable form for policy and practice. An essential feature of knowledge brokers is that they understand the cultures of both worlds.’

I believe the skill of the ‘knowledge broker’ is absolutely key for systems thinkers working with and in organisations and trying to disseminate the practice. Some of those who have come through the Open University Systems Thinking in Practice courses have good skills in this area, I think. I believe that is why we sometimes have fewer issues with the ‘my method/ model is better than yours’ and the ‘no-one wants to know about systems thinking’ arguments than some. It may be because the course did something unique for us – it taught us not only the academic aspects of systems thinking but how to practically use it and how to develop ourselves at the same time. We have to develop our praxis in a way that embodies the understanding of the cultures of both the academic and practitioner worlds………or we wouldn’t be able to use systems thinking effectively.

Personally, I feel like I can work with organisations using systems thinking and engage in the academics because I can ‘cross the bridge’ from one side to another when I need to and I can guide others across the bridge (not all the time but certainly sometimes). It is the area on the ‘bridge’ where you learn how to make it work. I find it quite absurd to witness the two cultures (academic and practitioner) at loggerheads sometimes because without each other we are all nowhere. We need to cross that bridge and meet in the middle sometimes. It was never meant to be a drawbridge……I don’t think!

I spoke to an ex employer the other day. A Chief Executive who I have a lot of respect for. She said to me, ‘There are 2 groups of people – those who want to fight with each other about who is right academically and those who just want help to translate the academics into practical application. Until we can all learn to talk to one another in a helpful way then we are never going to move forward, even if we want to use the methods. If the academics come at us with their harsh academic arguments, we just can’t handle that because that’s not part of our world and if we can’t get across to them our challenges and how we need help, without being put off by their harsh arguments, then we are never going to be able to transform the good stuff into something useable.’ I wonder how clever we really are, then, if we don’t put some effort into developing that area in between……..the area on the bridge?

As a systems practitioner, my main progress has been in translating what I have learnt into practical application. That was part of the OU course – putting systems thinking into practice.  I don’t bark words such as ‘viable system model’ etc in people’s faces repeatedly, in organisations, wondering why they don’t listen. I demonstrate, I show where value is added, I enable appropriate outcomes….and then I tell people how to do it themselves. I believe in ‘show don’t tell’ as I think this helps people to visualise. If they can visualise the process you go through to translate the academics into practice they often find it easier to apply it themselves, but they need a demonstration first. We spend far too little time helping people visualise what the value could be for them and how they can go through a thinking process to apply the academics to their real-life situation. We just expect them to trust that ‘the academic knows best’ and use what they are told is the best method. The very nature of the way we expect people to take new thinking on board sometimes can foster the very rejection type of behaviour that we want to overcome.

Would we go into a car showroom and expect a sales person to stand and verbally describe a brilliant car to us and expect us to understand how fast it is or how smooth the ride is by telling us about suspension and engines, when these things are not our area of expertise and we have no understanding of engines or suspension?… We would want to see the car, drive it, see how it feels when we drive over a bump in the road and what it does when we put our foot down on the accelerator. We might then want to know ‘What kind of engine allows that?’ but often only when we have experienced and been impressed by what it can do for us first. So, how do we give people a ‘practice run’ of viable system modelling? How do we allow them to ‘feel’ what it’s like to go through the process of developing a multiple cause diagram? We can’t do it just by telling them how it’s going to feel. We have to help them feel it for themselves.

I did some work for a Clinical Commissioning Group a few years ago to look at some health and care services with a view to developing a completely new model of care. I was absolutely sure that systems thinking, in particular viable system modelling, was the correct thing to use. I dropped the words ‘systems thinking’ into the project conversations right at the beginning of the process, only to be met with blank looks. This was highly expected, though. How could I expect anyone to understand the depth of the academic elements if they weren’t engrossed in that area of thinking themselves? My way forward was to undergo systemic inquiry type activities and show the process of thinking, rather than explain what it was. I used their language and over time I gently fed in more and more of the academic explanations and different language. I didn’t say, ‘and this is viable system modelling and you should use it more.’ I just showed them what I was looking at and what my observations said to me. I showed them how things fit together and what was causing staff to feel so desponded with their current situation. I got people on board by showing a depth of understanding about their current situation. I drew multiple cause diagrams with them and was amazed when they suddenly saw what they had previously been blind to, even though they had been encountering it on a daily basis.

It was only at the end, when I had helped people through the thinking process that they could visualise and understand the power of the process, the potential benefits, the added value and the outcomes from using such methods/ models and techniques. Some of the people on that project became real advocates of systems thinking after that. Now, how long do you think it would have taken me to convince them if I hadn’t used the ‘show don’t tell’ way?

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should fly the flag for systems thinking but there’s a way to do it…….not by having the harsh academic argument in the practical world but by crossing the bridge, getting to a place in the middle and then the flag will fly itself. But, we all have to be willing to compromise and come half way.

Remember…….if you don’t ever want to cross the bridge, how will you ever get to the other side?