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)



12 thoughts on “Applying systems thinking to commissioning: who will be the future system leaders?

  1. “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.”

    Brilliantly put!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wanted to leave the above comment to stand without these twibbles:

      Is there more to your selection of the word ‘flux’ than simply avoiding chaos/complexity/complicatedness technical terms?

      For me, ‘committed to the success of the whole’ (which I can’t help hearing in the voice of Barry Oshry) is probably the central key to the whole thing. Many people talk about coping with complexity – and your next sentences about tolerance for uncertainty and longer-term focus are familiar in terms of adult development stages. But surely it is ‘commitment to the success of the whole’ which is the motivator for the work, the learning, and the development? And ’embrace new freedoms’ is a recognition of the need to have requisite variety to work in/with the flux, I think. So the really interesting point that emerges is: how do we help people become committed to the success of the whole?

      This means, first of all, somehow grasping the whole. And I think that when most people talk about things like this, and ‘(w)holism’, most of the time, they make the mistake of associating ‘wholeness’ with being just ‘a thing’ – some meta-perspective or enhanced appreciation. It isn’t an appreciable thing in the same way as an object or a single perspective, is it? The whole is, in some important way, the flux. Perhaps you could say more about what you think ‘the whole’ is?

      Another question: how do these new leaders look after themselves?

      Liked by 1 person

      • “They will be able to focus on similarities rather than differences”

        This part is interesting. Probably, yes, in terms of finding common cause. But I think that understanding of differences as well as similarities (and being able to use those dynamics: differentiation as well as integration) is important. Perhaps ‘connections’ would be more comfortable to me than ‘similarities’ – or perhaps I have misunderstood this part?


      • I think alongside the technical terms of complexity etc there is also an element of mental/ personal adaptiveness required. Thinking differently is required but also very hard. You could just say that is dealing with complexity but flux relates more to how it feels. How things feel for leaders in public services is important, particularly when current infrastructures (HR, performance appraisal etc) dont yet support the new mindset required. I feel flux is more relevant in terms of the feelings you have when going through the extent of change and suddenly have to deal with huge complexity. I feel more people can relate to the word ‘flux’ because they can relate it to a feeling.

        Also, you can have complexity but not necessarily flux but in the case of public services at the moment I think flux fits because of what I have written above.

        Looking after themselves- I could do a while new blog on his and might just do that instead of answering quickly here. Watch this space.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think you are right in that the whole is the flux. It isn’t a thing. Being committed to the success of the whole isn’t just about an organisation or a group of organisations surviving or a service providing a service but a community being built that supports what it needs to survive and thrive.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “surely it is ‘commitment to the success of the whole’ which is the motivator for the work, the learning, and the development?” – this is a really big assumption and I feel not necessarily always true. You would have to do some examination of the foundations that make up indivuduals’ values to examine what their motivations are.


    • And they should be aware of the the future management competences as set out by Prof Gareth Morgan, eg dealing with ambiguity, identifying fracture lines, helicoptering, etc

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, absolutely to find a common cause. Many leaders at the moment can not see beyond their silos and deem themselves ‘too different’ to come together to view themselves as one system. I feel they must first see their similarities, particularly in terms of purpose. At the moment I see people who are able to see the differences but its harder for them to see the similarities. They do, of course, need to see both. If they focus on the similarities they may be able to jump the hurdles of their differences. In a situation where dissent is common, it is important to also recognise that on the whole everyone wants and is working towards a similar goal.

    Liked by 1 person

      • They are starting very far apart in some cases. I have come across many situations where people have no idea they have similarities of their purposes but to an outsider they clearly do. It’s a little like some conflict management – focus on similarities, appreciate differences. Differences are talked about over and over but the similarities….no so. They are a focus of conversations far less than the differences.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if I can bridge from my work into the world you are describing. Or vice versa for a good bridge! Two way traffic!
    Let me sketch the two banks of the river. You describe a world of finding common cause and building alliances. Of finding out who needs to move the system and how they (we) need it to be different.
    I am looking at the way systems change in largely unnoticed ways and at the missing conversations and unhelpful epistemologies.
    What worries me more and more in the world of commissioning (to the extent that I ping off it or give it attention) is that it tries to reserve the right of determining what counts as progress. Even when no-one has a clue and defaults to “efficiency”.
    I was a spectator largely to a conversation between David Graeber and Nora Bateson on the subject of schismogenesis. Which caused me to revise my understanding via Steps to an Ecology of Mind p61ff. There is a weird description of the ethics of what happens when anthropologists contact a tribe that has not had contact with the west before.
    Why this strange reference? Well Gregory Bateson’s concern is that the anthropologists try to categorise what they are seeing into “economic behaviour” or “social ritual”, etc. But those categories belong to the anthropologist (aka commissioner) not to the tribe.
    My view as I write this is that it is in the assumed knowledge structures brought to bear by the commissioning thought that the possibility of for example community asset based work largely escapes.
    Let me round that out by quoting Nora, whose concern is that whenever anybody says “system” people jump to it to fix the parts of that system. Is that your observation too?

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘How systems change in largely unnoticed ways and the missing conversations and epistemologies’ – I agree that this is a great thing to focus on. I think the world of commissioning is full of missing conversations and understandings around epistemologies. I think finding common cause and building alliances is one step on a much bigger journey (one which moves towards the different conversations and awareness of epistemologies) and I feel it is an easy practical step that can be taken now to start to break away from the deep-set silo thinking that is causing so many people so much pain.

      ‘Commissioning tries to reserve the right of determining what counts as progress’ – yes, I agree with this observation. I hate when determinations default to ‘efficiency’ which, in my experience, is a mindset that often causes more harm than good. I know in my work I often have to focus on helping to grow a mindset with some focus on effectiveness because the efficiency mindset has been too strong and made things go quite pear shaped. I don’t think commissioning per se will ever crack this one though and people in a commissioning environment will, unfortunately, perhaps always have to work within rigidly set frameworks that determine what counts as progress and efficiency will always be a part of that. That said, this does not mean you cannot do things to make progress practically on the ground to achieve positive change right now and that is what I am interested in.

      In my experience, the time that people within a system are most impressionable is when there is a major shift that breaks old habits (i.e. behavioural insight folk might tell you that the best time to alter family habits is when the family has just moved to a new area, kids have started a new school etc because this is when old habits are broken and new ones can be formed) and I believe that time is now upon us and there is a huge opportunity for commissioning to be what it really should be, rather than what is has largely become.

      I find your observation about anthropologists interesting. The word ‘anthropology’ has recently been drawn into the land of commissioning and I have witnessed some Local Authorities make claim to using anthropology and yet you are quite right that the way the anthropologist will categorise the observed behaviour will be in categories that belong to the anthropologist and not the tribe. That said, this is again a step on a journey. I have observed that just by introducing the word ‘anthropology’ it has made people realise that there are multiple views of their world and whilst it might not be the end destination I think there is a message it sends about perspective that could be useful. I do think, though, that this has the potential to cause complete disorientation and there is the potential that people start to become confused about purpose and identity as a result of that disorientation. That said, the confusion could be beneficial (albeit stressful) and it will be interesting to see what emerges as a result. I need to look up the ethics etc that you talk about (I can’t remember it off the top of my head. I know I’ve read it in the past but will re-visit. Thanks for the pointer).

      I agree that when people hear the word ‘system’ they sometimes jump to a mindset that considers how to ‘fix part of the system.’ I think there’s slightly more to it than that though. In my experience, you have to be very careful using the word ‘system’ because some people think of systems in terms of an IT system or an A-B-C process so not only do they try to ‘fix a bit of the system’ they try to fix something that is minimalistic and insignificant. (i.e. their efforts are often focussed on the wrong thing at the wrong level of recursion and it’s painful to see that they will never make a difference, no matter how hard they try). I have, however, had conversations in public services about ‘looking at situations as systems’ and as long as I go carefully so as not to overwhelm, people get it. They aren’t sure how to work with that mindset just yet but I get very positive vibes about it and they are usually very keen to learn more. The more I show them, the more they seem to like it. However, practitioner style is imperative and I find too many people try to take academic talk and arguments into operational environments and expect those who are not in the academic world to listen……big mistake in my opinion. Learn to talk their language and they listen.

      For me, I like to do the thinking about the wider implications and I also like to have a realistic focus about what is achievable in terms of mindset shift for those working on the ground right now. What can we do, right now, to help people cope with their daily working lives? It pains me (and I get very irate about it sometimes) to see the distress being caused to people over things that they have absolutely no understanding of and they feel like they have no control over and yet just a little understanding decreases those stress levels and allows people to ‘think’ in a safer space. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve delivered bad news about how pear shaped things are in an organisation and been genuinely thanked for helping with the understanding and making people feel like its ok to struggle a bit with all this and they are not unusual in being confused/ scared/ intimidated by not having a level of understanding that they haven’t had to have before. Until we create the safe space and give permission for people to go into that space, I fear that the thinking required to make any kind of shift in the right direction (on a larger scale) might not happen.


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