What Margaret Wheatley tells us about ‘a simpler way’

As I sit here reading, ‘A Simpler Way’ by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers I feel like I am standing beneath a refreshingly cool waterfall of positivity. Only seventeen pages into the book and I am awash with words like: belief, behaviours, learn, surprise, optimistic, creative, purposeful, meaning, play, freedom, creativity, experiment, accomplish, explore, diverse and identity. I already feel inspired, eager to read on.

I usually like to pull out some key quotes from the books I read. So far, I would be reciting the whole book! To me, I feel they state the obvious. That which is inside of us all, desperate to get out – that we are here to explore, to discover and create, to belong and have meaning in our lives that supports our identity. An identity that we choose.
We are reminded of the errors of Western culture that leads us to believe that ‘the world is hostile, that we are in a constant struggle for survival, that the consequence of error is death, that the environment seeks our destruction.’ No wonder some people wander through their lives full of fear.

We are also reminded that, ‘the universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what’s possible at all levels of scale, from microbe to cosmos.’ Life’s natural tendency is to organise, and that act is an act of creating identity. Think about that for a moment. Think about its relevance in terms of the workplaces and jobs people have now. Think about it in terms of the identity of the teams and groups you meet or are part of. How much of the ability and opportunity to be creative and to develop identity do you think members of those groups have? And I wonder what impact this has on them? Does it impact on their belief in themselves? And the group as a whole? After-all, ‘belief is the place from which true change originates’.

In our workplaces we often strive to ‘be right’ but ‘there is no one answer that is right, but many answers that might work.’ This is something that is all too often forgotten. ‘Nature encourages wild self-expression as long as it doesn’t threaten the survival of the organism.’ I wonder how much better we might feel if this approach was applied in our workplaces?

The authors introduce us to the word, bricolage – the process of creating living things, which is a big difference to the analysis we so often use today, where our ‘analytic plans drive us only towards what we think we already know’. They also remind us that ‘in human attempts to construct functioning ecosystems, scientists cannot predict what will work.’ So why do we believe that in our living work systems we can predict and heavily plan for the future? The only thing we can know is that the system will seek stability. We really have little idea what that stability might look like.

They bring to our attention the importance of relationships. The more relationships, the more ‘expressions, more variety, more stability, more support’. ‘New relationships create new capacities.’ And don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be a traditional ‘niche’. ‘Life creates niches not to dominate, but to support. Symbiosis is the most favoured path for evolution. Niches are an example of symbiosis’. Support; don’t dominate! Remember that when we are stuck in a particular worldview we may explain the world of organising in terms of competition and used this to explain the behaviours that we see. It’s time to change those mental models so that seeing support and collaboration predominates over seeing competition and heroes. Understanding our relationships and interdependencies is far more powerful.

The authors talk about the importance of experimentation. Why do we insist on relying on others to give us ‘the answer’ rather than experimenting to see what works? Words and phrases like: experimentation, inquisitive, discovering, new possibilities, expand our thinking are all words and phrases that should be on the tip of our tongues. Sadly, they are not, as we all too easily forget that someone’s experiences can never provide models that will work exactly the same for us. I particularly love the reminder that, ‘fuzzy, messy, continuously exploring systems bent on discovering what works are far more practical and successful than our attempts at efficiency.’ If only we would just believe it! Make errors, learn more, repeat……

‘When individuals fail to experiment or when the system refuses their offers of new ideas, then the system becomes moribund. Without constant, interior change, it sinks into the death grip of equilibrium. It no longer participates in co-evolution. The system becomes vulnerable; its destruction is self-imposed’. You have been warned! Adaptation is key. Moving forward means sharing your information, linking with others and communicating and enabling your ability of self-organisation.

So, what are some of the lessons this book gives us?

  •  Change beliefs – support people in believing in themselves
  • Allow people to explore, to discover, to tinker, to fail, to experiment and to learn
  • Allow people to be part of creating the identity they carry around with them. ‘Every act of organising occurs around an identity. Every change occurs only if we identify with it.’ Identity is the most compelling organising energy available. ‘A healthy system uses its freedom to explore its identity’
  • Seek coherence – we can’t resolve organisational incoherence with training programmes about values, or with beautiful reports that explain the company’s way, or by the charisma of any leader. We can resolve it only with coherence – fundamental integrity about who we are’. ‘With coherence comes the capacity to create organisations that are both free and effective. They are effective because they support people’s abilities to self-organise. They are free because they know who they are’.
  • Create order through freedom – ‘Coherent organisations experience the word with less threat and more freedom. They don’t create boundaries to defend and preserve themselves. They don’t have to keep others out. Clear at their core, they become less and less concerned about where they stop. Inner clarity gives them expansionary range. Such clarity creates order through freedom.’
  •  Understand the link between behaviours and belonging – ‘Large organisations spend a great deal of time and resources on training people in behaviours under such topics as diversity, communications, and leadership. But these behaviours are not a list of rules or techniques. They arise from agreements about how people will be together. Often these agreements are unspoken. We can’t train people to be open, or fair, or responsible if the real agreement is that we must succeed at all costs, or that we have no choice but to keep laying people off. Training programmes can never resolve deeply incoherent messages. Neither can legislation. Behaviours are rooted in our agreements. They change only when we bring to light these unspoked commitments. Our behaviours change only if we decide to belong together differently’.
  • Trust people to self-organise
  • Build connections, relationships, and networks to enable greater capacities and opportunities for sharing information. Focus on connectedness and interdependencies, not competition and heroic ‘leaders’. Remember that, ‘no self can survive behind the boundary it creates. If it does not remember its connectedness, the self will expire.’
  • Focus on adaptability and co-creation, not analysis and heavy planning. The less we rely upon rigid plans and the more we design for regeneration of our ecosystems the more viable we become. And remember, ‘invention always takes shape round an identity’.
  • Do not try and ‘direct’ the system. We can’t do this, we can only disturb it. We can never give an instruction and expect someone to follow it precisely. We can never assume that someone sees the world as we do.
  • Embrace the concept of emergence – this is the capacity we discover when we join together. New systems have properties that appear suddenly and mysteriously. These properties cannot be predicted. The implication is that we can’t visualise our future and work back from that, planning every step in detail. We must start at the beginning and be clear in our intent and willing to discover as we go along. Anticipate rather than plan and acknowledge that we don’t know exactly how the work will unfold.

There is so much more to be said about emerging organisation, but this blog is already very long. I’ll save the emerging organisation topic for a second, separate post as I also want to talk about it in terms of viable systems and the links to information flows. It’s a very important topic, in my opinion, and deserves the space to give it further exploration. So too is the importance of identity – another blog post coming soon!

With that in mind, I will leave you with some quotes I particularly like:

‘Our wonderful abilities to self-organise are encouraged by openness. With access to our system we, like all life, can anticipate what is required of us, connect with those we need, and respond intelligently’.

I wonder, every day, why so many people, organisations or groups of organisations cannot and do not take this on advice on board, instead insisting on trying to engineer human contribution.

‘The systems we create are chosen together. They are the result of dances, not wars.’

‘A Simpler Way’ by Margaret J Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers

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A step towards system change

Back in 2009 – 2012 I undertook a three-year piece of work on hospital discharge. It was back in the days of Primary Care Trusts and an inspection by CSCI highlighted to us that the Local Authority and Health could work better together to improve outcomes for older people leaving hospital, having been admitted on an emergency basis. And so, our journey began. It was long and difficult, with more than one episode of differing opinions along the way. But, it was also invigorating and motivating and gave me loads of scope to test out systems thinking on something multi-organisational, cross-sector and very politically sensitive.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing an approach that would work for me repeatedly, in a multitude of situations. A flexible approach that allows me to adapt it (and my style) to different contexts. I have now badged it as my blended systems thinking approach. I constantly develop it and adjust my leadership style to different contexts and in relation to new research or other writings that I discover, and I am inspired by.

Nowadays, I am struck by how close we came to how people are now attempting system change. A little more boundary critique and a slight widening of perspectives even further and I think we would have come very close to something quite powerful in relation to improving experiences for older people. As it was, we made many improvements. It was work to be proud. For me, I got to do what I enjoy most – I worked with those on the ground and with end-users (patients, families, and carers) directly to make change. I used my position as a commissioner as an enabler to persuade others to think systemically. I gave others the voice they needed, the connections they required and the chance to do something differently. Make no mistake, implementation was difficult, very difficult, but worth it.

These are some of the features of the situation we were dealing with. The similarities to situations requiring system change are apparent:

Complex, inter-related problems
Our problems were complex and inter-related and therefore required the interaction and contribution from several actors, across numerous organisations. From the commissioners to the community providers to adult social care to the third sector to the ambulance service to carers and families and across areas to other hospitals. Not one service, organisation or group of people could improve the situation alone. There was a geographical dimension to our issues, a regional dimension, a local dimension, right down to a single person dimension.

Living systems
Our system could be likened to an open living system. That is certainly how I viewed it, at the time. There were elements that self-organised and it undertook ongoing, meaningful interaction with the immediate environment. There were networks of relationships and emergent properties. There were flows of energy and information that kept things alive, although they were rather sick at times, with energy sinks and poor information flows apparent in our diagnosis. One thing for sure, this system did not exist in a vacuum. It was affected by its environment and its environment by it. Where problems existed, it was often down to weak feedback systems preventing the system from self-regulating, self-correcting, and surviving at the level of effectiveness we wanted it to survive at. Instead, it was self-correcting to a lower level of effectiveness. Struggling, at times and yet surviving. Our systems were nested inside one another (patient, family, community, region, national) and all had the ability to influence and be influenced by each other. That’s how we knew that whatever changes we tried to make, they had to be simultaneous and at a variety of levels.

Viable systems
Was our system viable? Well, some would argue that it must be because it was surviving. But it was very sick. Different operations often caused chaos for one another, there were oscillations in performance, resources weren’t always sufficient, performance monitoring appeared to be measuring the wrong things or was fuelled by inappropriate incentives and as for future planning…..well, who had time to think about that properly? There was a strong identity though. Everyone knew what they were there for and had a passion for the people they served. The structures, functionality and information flows had difficulties though, lots of difficulties.

Our Approach
Without going into details of our case study at this time (it would make this blog far too long. I’ll save that for another time), the things we did were focussed on the following:

We diagnosed the situation, gained greater understanding, and identified opportunities together
What did our patients, their families and carers need? For what purpose? Did we understand it? We certainly tried to. Whilst this was not all about diagnosis, the situation we were in required that we did diagnose, and we needed to diagnose together. We needed to build up a joint understanding and only by going on a journey of discovery, together, would this happen. Everyone involved had an in depth understanding of what we were trying to work with and improve and bringing all of that understanding together and sharing it, using systems thinking approaches and other techniques we were able to build up a picture that none of us, separately, had. We applied the theoretical underpinnings of systems thinking and maintained our credibility by ensuring that it was coupled with the expertise from across the system. The combination of front line and bigger picture thinking helped us to move away from false assumptions, provoke the status quo and really explore.

We built platforms and processes for collaboration
Barriers came down, boundaries were widened and a multi-agency group, all of whom had equal accountability for making improvements, was formed. We built a strong, shared understanding of our joint challenges. We drew in as many stakeholders as we could, and we didn’t just pay it lip service. Many of our actions were driven by patient, family, and carer groups. In fact, our Joint Protocol for the Transfer of Care had a whole section in it, written by carers. Well, written by me but dictated by a carers group. They were a fully integral part of making improvements in our system and trust me when I say they held us to account!

We harnessed our collective power across hospital boundaries, bringing in the perspectives and collaboration from hospitals in three separate regions. I, as the commissioner, worked as the networker, the collaborator who enabled three separate discharge teams, from three separate hospitals, to work together on a Joint Protocol for the Transfer of Care. (and yes, I did get sign up to it from all three areas). As the understanding and collaboration grew, the relationships grew, the learning grew, the power dynamics reduced, and the sharing and accountability strengthened.

We aligned our vision and perspectives
Once people became assured that we were working for the greater good, and not just the perspective of one organisation, perspectives became more aligned. Whilst we could not always improve everyone’s issues all of the time, we all knew that what we were doing was in the best interests of the patients, their families and carers and we were all focussed on the same vision of improvement. Some things were as simple as sharing data in more real time, even if this was just verbally via a phone call. Some things focussed on avoiding (or at least reducing) the adverse impacts of an action taken by one player as we worked together to find ways to improve the situation for all.

We developed learning loops
Quality initiatives were implemented as a direct result of feedback from patients, carers groups, black and ethnic minority groups, disabled people’s groups, older people’s groups, and a whole lot more.
Closer links and more real time feedback between Boards and operational groups were developed. Reviews of case studies and identification of common themes for improvements were used for learning. Documents were reviewed and streamlined to make processes easier and quicker. We also linked to other systems (like the whole system escalation system) that gave us information about how our system was performing. It gave us a monitoring loop, without being overly intrusive.

We developed shared procedures
In addition to our Joint Protocol for the Transfer of Care, which was a huge undertaking, we developed new pathways to draw into the process those who had been previously excluded i.e. social housing. It’s amazing how quickly things can get done when people/ groups/ departments/ organisations etc are seen as inside the system and are included in any decision-making processes for patients.

We accepted our collective accountability and responsibilities
It wasn’t every man for himself in our situation. If one went down, we all went down. It was an unwritten understanding and it worked. We worked together, failed together, got back up together and flourished together. Everyone involved took on responsibility for the outcomes. It wasn’t top down; anything but. Leadership and responsibility came from all angles. It felt, to me, like we were not part of a huge hierarchy. We made connections and flowed information between those who needed it, not via hierarchical channels. It made people feel included, important and ‘part of something’. It was an important lesson in identity that I have never forgotten.

In conclusion
We changed the procedures across organisations, developed a culture of sharing and collaboration, streamlined communication and processes, and eliminated barriers to better serve our populations. We did it together and we learnt together.
I brought in my technical expertise of systems thinking (and my own health and social care background) and yet I was fully aware of and made full use of the power of the understanding from within the system. Years after, and now having worked as a consultant for a number of years, I can absolutely say that I believe that those inside the system are the best ones to make change. I do, however, also believe that bringing in the appropriate theory and someone who can give a ‘zoomed out’ view is also essential.

We did not let the enormity of things get on top of us. We changed what we could, as best we could at the time. Lots of smaller changes can actually add up to a very powerful change. In fact, if we had made huge radical change we would have potentially ended up with a lot of unintended consequences. It doesn’t always take a huge radical ‘hero’ to make change. Quite the contrary, no-one was a hero in our situation. What we did have though, were a lot of very informed, passionate, and dedicated people who were determined and committed to making a change. The most important thing, in my eyes, were the networks we built. They allowed sharing, learning and joint actions to be taken. We adapted together, not separately, and everything was an opportunity to learn. I was lucky, I worked for a Director who let this happen. He gave me the autonomy to act and only ever stepped in when asked or when I had ‘hit a brick wall that needed smashing down’. He did the smashing!

This wasn’t one organisation making change, it was dealing with change from multiple areas on an ongoing basis. It took ongoing effort, massive effort, and it was worth it.

One thing I believe wholeheartedly, it was the systems thinking that gave us the confidence to keep going and I will be ever grateful for the opportunities I had to apply the systems thinking and to learn from it. They were lessons I will never forget.

Oh, and whilst we were focussed on quality and not delayed discharge figures, we did keep our delay figures to below national and regional average for around three years.

What can a professional ice hockey player teach us about system change? Quite a lot, I believe!

I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Brackenbury talk about his work on ‘Optimising Human Performance’ this week. No, he isn’t an academic or a systems practitioner, he is a professional ice hockey player and coach and yet he applies elements of NLP and viable system modelling to his training and coaching and what a result he gets! (http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=12084)

Rather than describing his methods in detail, I’m going to cut straight to what I, personally, saw in his work that resonated with me about applying the viable systems model, on the ground, for transformation or system change. This is what I call ‘the glue’, the stuff that makes it work and, sadly, the stuff that people often miss out and then wonder why they are not getting results.

Elements of the VSM that I saw in his work, with my own comments added underneath:

• The importance of effective and quick data sharing across the whole group and good general sharing mechanisms, to allow continual adjustment

  • this is a very important aspect of viable systems. Real time data sharing is one of the key information flows that enables a system to be viable. The quicker and more real time the data, the more chance you have of enabling continual adjustment and adaptability which are absolutely key, particularly for system change.

• Having a dynamic approach

  • Again, absolutely key to enabling an effective viable system. A dynamic approach supports ongoing adaptability and encourages change

• Have a number of contingencies in place and accept that things can’t be heavily planned

  • This is a key mindset for ongoing adaptability and regeneration. Heavy planning is not as important as being able to adapt

• Continual feedback and learning across the system

  • Between every element of the viable system model is a feedback loop. Understanding these feedback loops can be a key element of success. Also, If the system is not undertaking double or triple loop learning, then it is unlikely to be viable in the longer term.

• Have strong control mechanisms in place (i.e. coaches)

  • Having things in place that can bring the system back within its control limits is key for a viable system

• No so much focus on the ‘cogs’ but lots of focus on the regulation (particularly self-regulation)

  • Focussing on the interactions, rather than focussing on the ‘things’, is key to understanding how your system is working, particularly when enacting system change

• Measure in detail and understand the behavioural side of things

  • Part of the monitoring loop and links to self-organisation

• Looking at the athlete holistically within the systems in which they sit

  • As you would look at the system, the system in which it sits and the systems within in. i.e. the 3 levels of recursion you would work with, with a viable system model

• Train for deception – train to create it and train to read it

  • I think this is one of the most important things he said. If you train for deception you are telling you brain not to have a fixed way of doing things. Be prepared for anything, to go in any direction. Just like the speedy self-organisation sometimes required to respond to your environment in real time. This was an EXCELLENT piece of advice, encouraging exactly the right mindset to enable system change

• Look for people’s responses. Look for patterns

  • A true system thinker!

Aspects that I picked up in his talk that I think are essential to your leadership style when using systems thinking in practice (with my comments underneath):

• The importance of identity, culture and being part of something important

  • Absolutely yes. Identity is extremely important for a viable system. If you don’t know your identity and you can’t self-regulate then it is unlikely you will be able to engage in the self-organisation required to maintain viability. If you don’t feel like you are part of something important, you are in the wrong place!

• You have got to let go of the ego

  • This is absolutely spot on! Using systems thinking, if you don’t let go of your ego you will never break through the barriers to allow yourself to see what is happening in the situation. You will always have an ‘ego filter’ that tells you why something isn’t so. You have to be humble to use systems thinking or you will never challenge yourself and never become as adaptable as you need to be

• Identify the value added for the individual to highlight why they would do something

  • Absolutely! This is like ‘show, don’t tell’. You have to highlight what the value would be to the individual of using systems thinking or viable system modelling, not sell the thinking or the model per se, or you are wasting your time. Show the value, not the ‘thing’

• Respectful relationships are key

  • Obvious, really

• You need the courage to be vulnerable

  • This is absolutely key when using systems thinking and viable system modelling for transformation or system change. If you aren’t prepared to be vulnerable enough to go on a journey of discovery, then any attempts at applying different thinking will be a complete waste of time

• Do not get locked into one paradigm

  • Absolutely! And yet so very difficult. Many people do not understand that they are locked in a certain paradigm and awareness of this can be a key enabler in system change. It can alter mindsets and open up a whole new set of perspectives.

• You need observation of behaviours and a focus on continual self-regulation

  • Again, absolutely, yes! This links to the competencies that are required for managing complexity and managing in complexity. Gareth Morgan’s work on competencies required in complexity fits nicely here. If you don’t know his work, his book, ‘Riding the Waves of Change’ gives an excellent account of these competencies

• Embrace failure and embrace fatigue

  • Because of you don’t accept failure and fatigue you won’t have the grit required to deal with what viable system modelling exposes. You will definitely not be able to ‘put things right’, you will only be able to make things improve somewhat from where they are now. So, you need to be able to accept a degree of failure and this will, at times, leave you fatigued

• You must be aware yourself of what you are asking others to do – you need to know how they will experience something

  • Another thing that I think is KEY. I get a little tired of hero ‘leaders’ and consultants telling everyone to be hugely radical, when they have never done that or experienced that themselves. Sometimes, system change does not happen like that. In complexity, huge radical changes are sometimes not required. A number of smaller changes, at the same time, can often work better and be more sustainable, in my experience. My advice would be not to encourage everyone, in every situation, to be radical if you don’t know what you are asking them to do. At best it might cause lots of upset and at worst, it could lose them their jobs.

Some very key insights there, in my perspective. Thank you, Curtis, for a very interesting talk. I wish we could find more of this to share with the wider systems thinking community and with students. I think we have far too much regurgitation of the diagram of a model and far too little about practical application and especially the aspects relating to people and competencies and behaviours that are required to make it all work in practice.