Approach 2

Blended Systems Thinking Approach 2: transformation and  moving towards system change

This approach is always in development. The more I learn and the more I try things out, the more I change and develop it.

In more recent years, I have come across a particular kind of issue in organisations, on a number of occasions. It was glaringly obvious, devastatingly constraining on the teams involved and was about identity. It gave me a chance to start exposing my clients to more ideas from systems and complexity thinking. I particularly started to focus my thinking on living systems and complex adaptive systems, structural couplings and, of course, the viable system model. My Blended Systems Thinking Approach 2 aims for adaptability and regeneration over time to enable a co-evolution style approach to survival and is another variation on a theme from my Blended System Approach 1. I have worked with this approach for a number of years. I tweak and change it frequently and I am likely to continue to do so as I learn new things and see how the impact of using it develops over time.


There is no fixed way to use this approach, just a range of options that I might use, depending upon the context I am in. Each situation is different and an approach that worked in one situation might not work in another. I let the situation guide me and no two journeys are ever quite the same.

First of all, we (i.e. anyone involved in the work) need to acknowledge that the complexity of the environment is infinite. This means we must make a decision about what to focus on or we would become far too overwhelmed. Where are we going to draw our boundary? Boundaries are part of what contributes to the system’s identity, so the boundary and its permeability are important factors to consider. Undertaking a boundary critique helps to define the limits of what is to be taken as pertinent in the inquiry, so I find it beneficial to undertake this critique and surface as many boundary judgements as I can as soon as possible. I use Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to assist me, which gives some really easy to follow questions to get me started. What I try to do is identify what selectivity is occurring and I question the practical and ethical elements of those judgements with stakeholders. CSH is great for this and worth getting to grips with. I might interview people, talk to groups of stakeholders, have workshops or use other techniques to bring in as many perspectives as I can, within reason. Sometimes, it might be as quick and simple as a conversation with a few key people. I then identify what kind of tensions, values, conflicts and expectations exist and work with the stakeholders to decide what is going to be inside and outside of the boundary. I also consider whether the system is willing to open its boundary enough to absorb new insights from elsewhere. Without permeability, nothing new can be created. That said, too much permeability can be just as dangerous. A sensitive balance needs to be found and this can be a major challenge. Of course, at this stage I also start to consider multiple perspectives, interconnectivity and interdependence, and so an iterative process of inquiry begins.

At the same time as considering boundaries and identity, I concurrently start to consider the situation using the viable system model (VSM), which is a major element of my approach. The model addresses how a system manages complexity. It looks to establish the necessary and sufficient structural preconditions for viability. It can give powerful insights about a situation. In public services, for example, it can help us understand what might be required to move towards a model of self-organised networks or to enact transformation or move towards system change.

Within this, I consider the notion of self-organisation, which can often be an essential element of effective transformation. I don’t mean not having a hierarchy. A hierarchy is necessary for governance and to set boundaries of autonomy. What I mean is allowing people, to some degree, to self-organise their responses and make better decisions. However, in my experience, if people who have previously been tightly controlled are suddenly given more power to self-organise they tend to feel some insecurity and may struggle with their new-found autonomy and need guidance around what their boundaries of responsibility and decision making are. I always try to remember that we may be dealing with people who have been in the same behavioural patterns for many years. Self-reflection does not always come easily, especially if a person or team’s identity is confused. This confused identity can erode trust between team members and the resulting lack of trust can affect whether self-organisation works or not, so this is something I have tried to help people with along the way.

I once visited a team who were known as ‘the trash can’. Imagine if you had been assigned that identity. What values would you organise your work around? And what do you think might happen if, instead, your work was organised more around the values of community, collaboration and relationships? For me, one of the strongest types of commitment that can be built during transformation is gained via re-building identity, respecting personal values and ethics and building up a learning environment and a sense of belonging. These things aren’t ‘nice to haves’, they are the essential glue that people often miss or disregard.

In addition, there are three things that I always advocate to help things along:

  • a leadership style that has awareness of complexity
  • development of appropriate competencies for both managing complexity and managing in complexity and
  • ongoing iterative learning

The leadership style that I advocate is one where leaders are aware of the incredible power of identity, are ethical and make decisions based on strong shared values. Without this strong base we cannot be coherent, build up community resilience, reduce ambiguity, guide people or indeed hold others accountable for their decisions and actions. There is a need for open, respectful dialogue and people’s integrity should never be violated. It goes without saying that respect, trust, willingness to learn and participative consensus-building (within reason) are key. Leaders are pivotal in ensuring that identity is used to determine actions and they are key in recognising who they and their teams are becoming. Goal setting and measuring can be quite ineffective in complex situations. Instead the leaders can create guiding principles and aim to move things forward together.

The competencies that I feel are required are those of holding exploratory conversations, facilitating participation, listening, conflict resolution and supporting reflective processes. Being able to identify the current narrative and knowing how to change it can give power to both individuals and teams. If these competencies and leadership style are to prevail, the structure of the system needs to be developed in such a way to allow it, hence the use of the VSM.

I am also usually very explicit about the need for ongoing learning. I tend to ask people to reflect on things like how well they have communicated, was trust or distrust a factor in their situation, were values evident in people’s behaviours, were multiple perspectives considered without any one-upmanship and was participation encouraged?

These are the things I focus on. I go tentatively, respectfully and with awareness of what systems and complexity thinking can cause to emerge. To paraphrase Margaret Wheatly, what systems thinking does is too painful to take on, so people withdraw from the realisation and go back to easy solutions. With my approach I aim not to trigger people’s fear response, but to empathise with their situation, show them that I understand and work with them towards improvements.