A look back at my 10 year systems thinking journey

I’m reliably informed, by Google, that a lot can happen in ten years. Decades can see changes in norms and attitudes, see scientific, technical and medical advances and uncover new findings and theories in social sciences. We can completely change the shape of accessibility of information in ten years and I can learn how not to jam my hand between the bedroom door and the chest of drawers…..well, nearly. I still do that sometimes! And, in ten years I can go from my first introduction to systems thinking, in 2007 to a systems practitioner, still learning and always developing.

I was remembering my first major project this morning. It was looking at whether a Primary Care Trust was doing all it could to support appropriate prescribing for Type II diabetic patients back in 2007. It was via this project that I had my first real-life attempt at devising and using a hybrid methodology, incorporating aspects of Soft Systems Methodology, Hard Systems, Systems Dynamics and Viable Systems Modelling. Looking back at that piece of work, it struck me how I explicitly concentrated on the concept of autonomy. It felt natural to do so at the time and only now do I really understand its significance. I tried my hand at rich pictures, systems maps, utilising the CATWOE mnemonic, conceptual modelling, multiple cause diagramming and influence mapping. I made use of systems tools to open up perception, understand culture and to support complex decision making. I didn’t make a big deal of it at the time, but I was able to identify levels of recursion, systems and sub-systems in my situation of interest. I engaged a number of multi-agency stakeholders using systems thinking, identified how current policy had not been derived from appropriate information and I was able to identify how previous planning had been done. I started experimenting with the boundaries of acceptability of the language of systems thinking and began widening my views.

The personal learning was huge. I became very aware of the importance of self-knowledge – of unconscious prejudices, values and how I, personally, reacted to others.

I directly applied my systems thinking to projects within my workplace. I didn’t know it then but the way I worked, learned, developed and influenced others was going through a period of metamorphosis. It would never again look the same as it had before I came across systems thinking.

Outside of the workplace, in an academic capacity, I dipped my toe into the environmental decision making arena in relation to my systems thinking. Environmental issues are a fascinating area of interest for me and a piece of work on deforestation meant I had the diversity of learning I had craved for a long period of time. Why deforestation? I’m a passionate tree lover…..yes, really! Keep it to yourself though!

I also started to draw in techniques of innovation and user centred design to my systems practice, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and by 2009 I was able to see the complimentary elements of a number of types of thinking coming together in an extremely powerful way. My perspectives of everything in life were changing and I loved it.

At this point I believed that finding a supportive systems thinking community to network with might be to my advantage. I needed to talk about my work, share my experiences and hear the experiences of others. I did find such a community and engaged in as participative a way as I could. It was through this community that I was introduced to a different kind of systems thinking arena. An arena where systems thinking meant so many more things (some of which I would class as systems thinking and some I definitely would not). I talked a lot, learned a lot and felt happy with my choice. Based on my new conversations, I was able to formulate myself an updated development plan, incorporating aspirations to set up my own website, become self-employed and continue to share my thoughts and ideas with a wider audience.

I was now very firmly in the arena of systems thinking and at work I was routinely managing systemic change. I was loyally developing my praxis and began engaging with situations using systemic inquiry. I was able to frame situations differently, work with cultural and ethical sensitivity (or so I thought) and improve cross-organisational communication, based on what people required. I undertook projects on health inequalities in maternity care, how to help GP Consortia take over local health care commissioning and hospital discharge. I was routinely using Soft System Methodology, Systems Dynamics, Critical Systems Heuristics and Viable System Modelling

The environmental decision making popped up here and there, again, in my academic work also and at times I found it a welcome change. Particularly when I touched on the areas of marine environment and nuclear power, two things that interest me a lot.

I continued to develope my praxis, noticing what things made me engage with a situation and what would make me disengage, when I understood the relational dynamics and very importantly ‘what I was doing, when I was doing what I doing’ and how and when I needed to take a ‘design turn’ in my practice. You never really know how important a phrase like that is until you hit a situation that forces you to do it. I had such a situation in the NHS once. It was an insightful lesson which has served me well ever since. It was in my role as a Commissioning Manager when I wrote a proposal for a piece of work relating to the urgent care response to pandemic flu. It was systemic inquiry focussed and I though the recommendations about how we should approach things were sound but they were rejected by the Urgent Care Board! I was a little shocked as I knew the recommendations were appropriate but I instantly recognised, during the meeting where I was presenting my report, that the Board and I were speaking different languages. My style and wording relating to systemic inquiry meant nothing at all to people who were expecting to see a project/ programme management style with project/ programme management language. Hmmm……what to do? Two totally different languages in the same room and I had to sort it out! So, off I went to ‘take a design turn’ as Ray Ison from the Open University would say and rectify my mistake. I returned the next week with a completely different report, or so they thought! I presented my report and recommendations and it went down a treat. Apparently, my recommendations were, ‘much improved’ now I had done what the Board wanted. The reality was that I took the report away and changed the words systemic inquiry to project……………..and nothing else! It was a huge risk but I was confident that it was down to the inability of the Board to see what was in front of them because they were blinded by a couple of words they were not used to seeing, did not recognise and could not visualise in the context of the topic in hand and my initial inability to translate my language to one they could understand. It took me some time to stop giggling afterwards and it still brings me the odd moment of enlightened joy even today.

From that meeting, I went away to develop myself a learning contract, which prompted me to do some real exploration of my needs as a systems practitioner. It was then that I started to feel the weight and yet the strength in taking full responsibility for my experiential learning and orchestrating my own evolving praxis. My personal development plan at this point was rapidly changing. I undertook a continuing professional development module as part of my MSc and to my utter delight it made use of the viable system model. I have to say that using the VSM to model my development was one of the most powerful things I had ever done and I have repeated the exercise every year since. Don’t be fooled into thinking VSM is for organisational design only, it is far more versatile than that.

Then, before I knew it, I was back working on hospital discharges and this time I touched on social learning systems and communities of practice, the use of which I was critiquing as I went along. At the same time, I took a look at a systems thinking approach to urgent care redesign. Both big projects. Both extremely motivating and both were the sources of a rich learning experience.

Over the last ten years, I have continued to develop my practice by using systems thinking to improve urgent care escalation processes, input into emergency planning and pandemic flu planning, improve the quality of hospital discharge, form strategy, develop healthcare pathways, improve quality assurance, develop healthcare services, identify risk, flit between operational and strategic management, appropriately allocate healthcare funding, develop  new models of care and undertake a number of transformation and change projects. I’ve managed to get people on board with some of my techniques, develop and facilitate workshops and make large scale, multi-agency interventions. I’ve delivered many a training session on systems thinking, taught people the diagramming, the models, the methods and the concepts and I’ve supported and coached others to develop their own systems practice. I’ve used systems thinking in organisations, across organisations, as a consultant, as a trainer and on myself. I have to say, it’s been quite a journey! And, yes, I set up my website, got started as an independent consultant and continued to develop my networks. I refreshed my development plans to incorporate the cybernetics of self and how to develop mental toughness and I’m now on the next stage of my journey.

I’ve moved on from beginner over the last ten years. However, I will always remain a learner. Throughout it all there have been many ups and downs, many times of discomfort, many disagreements and things I will never resolve and also many times of delight, of insight, of pride in my fellow practitioners and excitement when someone new takes on board systems thinking for the first time. I often reflect on my past ten years and the advice I would give to myself at the start of the journey, if I could travel back in time. I will leave you with some of the things I would whisper into my own ears, if I knew then what I know now:

1.       When you are new and inexperienced in a discipline you will come across people who will not listen to you because you are new and inexperienced. You might think this will disappear over time. It won’t. You will hit this problem because you are young, because you are older, because you are male, because you are female, because you haven’t been an academic, because you are an academic, because you aren’t a practitioner, because you are a practitioner. It doesn’t go away. You will ALWAYS come across people who won’t listen to you or take you seriously. Don’t waste your time making excuses for what it is happening. Instead, use your energy to develop effective strategies for dealing with it. If you come across a situation where every strategy you can think of fails…….move on.

2.       As you move from brand new beginner, understand that you have moved on. You are not at the start line anymore. Continually refresh your development plans. Make sure they continue to challenge and develop you. If they don’t scare you a little, they are not ambitious enough.

3.       There will be times when working life goes wrong. When those you thought you worked well with disappoint you. There will be times when trust is broken and you feel disappointed. There will be times when you are disappointed at yourself. There will be times when you think everything is going wrong and your confidence leaves you. These times are temporary. If you hit times like these, remember why you are in this game. Always, ‘find your way back home’ https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_success_failure_and_the_drive_to_keep_creating




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