Why I’m focussing on the writings of an ex FBI agent to develop my systems practice


Everyone in the systems thinking arena must have heard it, “no-one wants to know!” “no-one’s interested in systems thinking” “I just can’t get my organisation on board!” Don’t you get tired of hearing it? I do. I do because in my experience, and from my observations, it isn’t the system thinking that people/ organisations don’t like – it’s the practitioner’s way of using it and their associated behaviours that they object to.

Do we routinely consider that in organisations where systems thinking might be beneficial, a number of people are in high stress situations – frightened of losing their jobs, their only source of income, the security for their families etc. Huge change programmes are upon us and I for one (amongst many, many others) have been going through them for most of my career. They are not ‘one offs’ any more, they are just how it is. But with those changes often comes restructuring of staff. Those who stand out, are often forced out. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

So, why do we think that encouraging people in those organisations to be mavericks is a good idea? ‘Mavericks?’ I hear you say, ‘who said anything about mavericks?’ Well, covertly, we – the systems practitioners – did. We expect people to take on ‘different thinking’ to encourage an alternative perspective….and to be enthusiastic about it. Whilst different thinking and new perspectives are great (in my opinion) they make you stand out…..at a time when you might need that like a hole in the head! You challenge your boss, you are likely to be the next head on the chopping block. I hear many organisations cry out for different/ new thinking, but only if that different/ new thinking is totally in line with what they think.

There is something about being one of the crowd – safety in numbers – that often makes people want to keep their heads down in such situations. Do we need to focus on social inclusion, rather than encouraging different thinking that can potentially lead to social rejection, causing people the pain that comes with that which can often lead to them rejecting system thinking because it feels ‘too difficult’? Do practitioners need a different set of skills that allow them to help maintain people’s socially inclusive status whilst at the same time encouraging them to move toward systems thinking in a way that isn’t so powerfully maverick like?

Aren’t we neurologically wired to “fit in”? I think so. So, to ask people to stand apart from the crowd may be asking just a little bit too much. But, all is not lost – as long as we understand the situation we are in well enough.  If we don’t, we must be prepared to learn, with an open mind.

So, how have I started to think differently about systems practice to overcome the above and succeed as a practitioner? Well, it all started one lazy Sunday afternoon when I read a book called, ‘Mental toughness for women leaders’ by LaRae Quy, former FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent. I have to say that  this isn’t the kind of title I would usually pick up and read. I have no idea why I was drawn to it, but I’m very glad I was. Above all else it gave me a different perspective.

I learnt to consider the politics and protocols of a situation – what are the rules of the game? I learnt to consider situations I might come up against that might make me defensive (like an initial reaction to a VSM being that it is ‘far too complicated for us to use’) and I learnt to tailor my reactions accordingly – work out how I might react in advance and combat the defensive stance I might have previously taken. I learnt how to work to increase my requisite response to other people’s values and emotions (something I was shocked to find I was extremely poor at doing previously). I learnt to recognise where people might have a high level of emotional investment and take care in this area. I learnt to consider the reason for the emotional investment and contemplate whether or not it was valid. I learnt that I needed to understand what my own go to reflexes are in relation to negative reactions about systems thinking and that I needed to learn a new set of reflexes to deploy in the event of those negative reactions. Passion often means people care – what I really needed to do was get to the root of what they care about and try and maintain that throughout the change. I learnt how showing emotional empathy was important to gaining buy in and I learnt that people need some degree of emotional stability to make learning more effective. Was I really trying to build this kind of environment as I was going along before now?

What I learnt was how to take a genuine interest in people – starting with myself. ‘But we already do all that!’ I hear you cry……..really, do you? Is that why I very rarely see it happening in practice?


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.


Simplify, support, share and sustain!

SmallLogoSystems thinking can be bewildering to someone who has not been steeped in its concepts and methods. It is very easy to forget what it was like when you first came across the concepts and they scared the living daylights out of you. It’s helpful to remember this when you are exposing new people to systems thinking. Use easy to understand examples, which clearly demonstrate what you are saying. Explain the words you are using to support people in developing an understanding. Then, follow that up with a real live example that they can relate to. e.g. show how you have used a method or concept in the workplace and what the outcome of using it was. Show how you might have thought about that situation without the method/ concept and then with the method/ concept; show the difference…..then do it again!

A Systems Practitioner’s Dilemma

SmallLogoI don’t usually air my bigger, more challenging, dilemmas as a systems practitioner out loud, not in public anyway. But, today is different. Today, I am facing the world with a dilemma I never thought I would have. Even in my wildest imagination I did not expect it. Today, I am contemplating the barriers to entering into and being accepted by the world of systems practitioners, but not for just anyone…..for systems practitioners!

My dilemma is twofold really. Firstly there is the question, ‘Why is there such a barrier to entering fully into the systems practitioner community’ and secondly, ‘What do I class as the ‘systems practitioner community?’ and based on my answer the question is, ‘Is there really a barrier or is it just a matter of perception? And who is the community anyway?’

I entered the world of systems thinking back in 2007 when studying the Open University undergraduate systems courses. I took to it straight away and knew it was my vocation. It seemed to fit perfectly with how I wanted to see and challenge the world around me, so off on my systems journey I went. I have to say it has been a bit like a voyage on a treacherous sea at times and that wasn’t during my time going through the formal education part of it either. It has been since becoming a ‘systems practitioner’ and trying to enter into and engage with that pre-existing community.

So, what is my issue? My issue is that it is common place to hear systems practitioners verbalising the ‘no one understand us; no-one wants to know about systems thinking’ plea to the world, but I question if this is really true? My experience has been that when I use the concepts and methods etc of systems thinking in the workplace, people tend to respond on a scale from generally receptive to overawed. That is, of course, if I don’t use the words ‘systems thinking’ but just get on with it, instead of trying to preach about it. I have trained many a team in the basic concepts and methods, without telling them that it is system thinking. The results have been overwhelming positive at times and I know many of those I have trained use the concepts and methods on a regular basis. I often find people huddled in corners doing causal loop diagrams or teams discussing multiple perspectives as they deal with their everyday workplace issues. And then I come across those in the workplace who just seem to naturally think in a systems thinking way and when I compare their work to, say, soft systems methodology, they look like remarkably similar ways of understanding a situation and yet there is no mention of ‘systems thinking.’ So, for me, I wonder if there is such a big barrier to systems thinking? At this point in time I think systems thinking if far more mainstream than we give it credit for. What isn’t mainstream is what I call ‘systems thinking preaching.’ We don’t have to be evangelical about systems thinking we just need to get on and do it. Then, when it works, we infect others with the ‘bug’, pass on the knowledge and its use spreads like a virus. There are over 1,400 people registered on the Open University systems thinking alumni Linkedin group. You can’t tell me there aren’t systems thinkers out there!

So, with all that in mind, why I am perceiving that there is a barrier to fully engaging with the  systems practitioner community? The answer is a difficult one because to answer it I have to consider who/ what the systems practitioner community is. You see, there is a community out there of people who have been systems practitioners for a lot of years. They are hugely experienced and knowledgeable and a massive asset for newer systems practitioners to tap into and learn from. Most are amazingly helpful, once you can get to them. But, are their boundaries too tightly guarded? And is that created by their own perception that they are an exclusive community of practice? Or perhaps an intentional desire to remain guarded? I don’t know; I don’t have the answer. What I do know, though, is that I have tried – and am still trying – to bridge the gap between the experienced and the newer practitioners; to bring the communities closer together. To share learning and I mean share, not be preached to. Both sides have something to learn in this exchange. However, my personal experience is that of a huge ocean with rolling waves to be crossed and I’m bobbing around in my little boat, being battered by the giant sea swell. Those with little experience want to learn without being strongly criticised. They need to make up their own minds about what works and what doesn’t. The more experienced want strong challenge and rigor. After all, they are the ones pushing beyond the limits to expand knowledge and understanding. Neither is wrong, they just have different needs. I, therefore, am contemplating if the two worlds can effectively come together harmoniously to help one another? It is possible I think, but dependent upon one thing……the desire to come together.

Yes, I did really say that…the desire to come together. Does it really exist? I don’t have the answer but I do know that if one community doesn’t let the other in then they will continue on their separate journeys and to me that is a great waste and a massively missed opportunity.

In answer to my own questions I seem to be coming to the conclusion that the barriers may just be perceived. I think this because of what I, personally, have in the past perceived the systems practitioner community to be. I used to consider it quite an exclusive club. But, nowadays, I don’t consider it an exclusive club at all. I consider it to be all of the systems practitioners out there. The consultants, the academics, the internal agents……anyone and everyone who is applying systems thinking.

I used to wonder whether more experienced systems practitioners would let me go on their journey with them. Nowadays, I wonder if they want to come on my journey with me? I may have had my boundary around the ‘systems practitioner community’ too tightly drawn in the past. What if I move the boundary? Now, this will make some of you twitch and convulse a little, I’m sure. That is because we haven’t yet mastered how to co-ordinate the two communities so that they can work harmoniously together, so moving the boundary to include the two is not going to make things better. It might well just make them worse. But what if we don’t move the boundary? Do we then just remain as is; separate and divided? Do we just need to make our current boundaries a little more porous so we can facilitate more and better exchanges between the two worlds? Maybe this is the answer. Maybe it just needs a little more effort from both sides and like I said………a DESIRE to move forward together.

Is the desire there? Now that remains the ultimate question…………………………..


SCiO Open Meeting – winter 15/16 – London

SmallLogoHeld on Monday 25th January 2016 in London.

These meetings are open to all and are extremely cheap! Only £10!

An open meeting where a series of presentations of general interest regarding systems practice will be given – this will include ‘craft’ and active sessions, as well as introductions to theory.
For this open meeting we would like to bring the two ‘communities’ of complexity and systems thinking together to explore what they have in common and what (if anything) is signficantly different. We have speakers on both complexity and viable system modelling, so the conversation should be lively, challenging and very interesting. This is one you really don’t want to miss! Excellent speakers lined up!
Booking is required via eventbrite. More details can be found on the SCiO website here: http://www.scio.org.uk/node/969


How do we embed systems thinking into our work if we are not an expert in that field?

SmallLogoThis is a great question and one I was asked very recently. It’s a common problem – when you want to use something but you are not an expert in it, so you do not know how to extract the correct concepts or methods that will be useful to you in a particular situation. I do find this to be a barrier to the wider adoption of systems thinking, but don’t despair! Some systems practitioners are working hard to find the ways in which systems thinking concepts and methods can be used more easily and share that learning.

A colleague of mine, Mike Haber from SCiO, had a great idea to produce some flash card. The cards give us a concept or the name of a method, a brief description of what it is and a link to further information. “But how can they be useful?” I can hear you say. In my opinion, they can be extremely useful in workshops, to open up perception and support us to think about a situation in a different way.

I was lucky enough to be at a SCiO Open Day session when Mike introduced his idea to us. As a group we were given a flash card and asked to apply the concept to a situation we had been provided with……and, you know, it worked! I have to admit, I was a little sceptical at first, but not anymore. I saw their value instantly. So, when I did a systems thinking session in the workplace recently and a non-practitioner said that they liked what they saw but how did they extract the right concept etc without being a practitioner, it really hit home for me.

We often hear systems practitioners say that they struggle to get people on board with systems thinking. But, is it us who needs to think again? I think we do. We need to think about accessibility; about how to make it easy. Even if this means using only one or two concepts, it’s one or two more than none!

It’s food for thought but, in my opinion, if we do want systems thinking to be adopted more widely we need to get creative and be more innovative in our style. Don’t baffle and bewilder. Support, share and sustain instead.

Well done Mike!

How would I describe my systems thinking in practice?


Like an energy saving lightbulb:

  • It is illuminating – it gives light to areas of darkness
  • It is energy saving – it saves me and others wasted time. It uses less energy but still gives an illuminating effect.
  • Once you use it, you don’t want to be without it.
  • It is sustainable
  • It considers the wider environment.
  • It sheds a new type of light on situations.
  • It is a quick and easy method of seeing your way forward

But, you have to have something to plug it into to feel its benefits; you need an opportunity to use it!