Systems thinking – ‘live it – share it’ – using our collective systems thinking skills to broaden horizons, expand our communities and welcome contributions from all practitioners, not just the dominant few

In 2017 there was yet another influx of practitioners, newly qualified in systems thinking in practice from the Open University (and indeed other Universities), into our environment. A diverse and competent bunch with a wide range of perspectives and skills. They join the many who are out there already and, from my observations, a huge amount of practitioners are actively sharing and encouraging the use of systems thinking in the workplace and beyond. Some are forming their own mini communities of practice, whilst others chose to ‘go it alone’.

In my experience, the longer standing members of the systems thinking communities are vital for helping to develop and support these newer practitioners. However, there are often differences in context and opinion between the very experienced practitioners and the new adopters and also between those who have experience of practical application of systems thinking and those who are more academically orientated. Bringing those contexts and opinions together to produce a community which is useful to as many as possible can be at best real fun but at worst challenging and somewhat volatile.

As systems practitioners, we might expect intellectual challenge; we do not expect personal attacks and bad behaviours. We might expect some practitioners to be more vocal than others; we do not expect dominance by a few at the expense of others. So, what about attempting to move some of our focus towards sharing and appreciating the social capital of the wider community? How about strengthening the psychological bonds between us? How about focussing on the interdependencies we have and building upon those connections? Our social capital as a group could potentially be a key element of our ongoing survival and development as systems practitioners. This doesn’t mean that we all have to get along or agree with one another. It does mean that we should have respect for one another’s opinions. It does not mean that only the long-standing ‘experts’ should have the only voice. It does mean that all practitioners could be encouraged to seek diverse learning and develop whenever they can.

Why don’t we start trading the problems of our differences for possibilities? Consider what new conversations we want to occur? Help all practitioners to understand their own power to act and improve? Declare our possibilities? Define what future we want to “live in to”? Have inward bonding but also build bridges outwards to other complimentary communities?

But, how? And where do we start? It’s within all of us to make it happen. We can focus on the gifts and capacities we have to give to one another. We can capture and share our quality interactions. We can create possibilities for practitioners to engage more with one another. We can instigate different kinds of conversations so that we create something new together. We can make new, joint declarations of possibility by identifying what we find useful/ important for our development. We can replace stories about the past for possibilities for the future (whilst still appreciating the learning from the past, of course). We can create new ways to listen, speak and communicate meaning to one another. We can create new context, instead of trying to ‘solve our problems’. We can create opportunities to deepen accountability and commitment to development through supportive engagement. And, we can adopt and ‘all voices have value’ ethos.

We can identify what needs retaining for the future, share our stories, identify what we could create together and encourage restorative conversations about possibilities.

In my opinion, we are perfectly able to make our boundaries more porous and encourage a wider range of practitioners into the fold and build bridges with other communities.

Our future, as a systems practitioner community, may have a better chance of being regenerative if we create a wider, more diverse, culture. If we use our questions as a pathway to new wisdom, rather than as sticks to beat each other with.

But, how do we manage the high degree of competition to enable us to be more collaborative, learning and sharing? I, for one, have personally experienced the collaborative learning as a new practitioner. But, as I’ve become more experienced I’ve encountered more of a ‘push back’ from those who once used to teach and share. How do we regenerate as a whole? How do we nurture ongoing social cohesion? And how do we develop a culture of collaboration if some only allow this to happen if others ‘know their place’? How do we evolve towards increasing diversity if we don’t allow the diversity to flourish?

I wold love to see our systems thinking communities (and other complimentary communities) start to focus on the benefits of the collective whole of those communities. Maybe we should take a leaf out of our own text books and start to really understand the underlying dynamics of the different systems thinking communities and how those dynamics can be manipulated for greater benefits?

After all, ‘the world will be different only if we live differently’ Manturana & Varela, 1987. In my book that means co-creating a new and different narrative for the development and wider application of systems thinking, that isn’t constrained by egos and individual wants and needs.

I’m feeling hopeful that 2018 might push us along on our journey, in the right direction.



Blended systems thinking approach – diagnosis and design for regenerative transformation and change

Gosh, I didn’t realise how long it was since I’d done a blog post. I’ve been busy, head down, working but a lazy Christmas Eve has allowed me some time to start updating my blended systems thinking approach. Without giving away all of my commercial ‘secrets’ here is my basic outlined approach so far. As ever it’s a work in progress, changes often as I learn new things and the diagram is not as I want it to be just yet….having a think about that one.

This approach has been developed over my 10+ years of using systems thinking and pulling together all of the things that consistently work well for me. As ever, though, each situation is different and my approach differs depending on the situation and context in which I am working.

Diagnose – based on identifying imbalances in variety, identifying how a system self-organises and regenerates and how adaptable the system is to change.

Design from scratch – focussing on the perceived purpose of the system, based on the multiple perspectives of the stakeholders. Taking into account POSIWID and aiming for sufficient adaptability to manage entropy and emergence. Designing for positive emergence where possible.

Transform – based on shifting perspective, aligning values and perceived purposes and building a co-created identity. Building capacity by focussing on interconnections and interactions, enabling effective communication flows and aiming for requisite variety.

My Approach

Identify the system in focus and undertake context exploration

  • SSM – (rich picture, CATWOE, root definition, system map etc)
  • Multiple perspectives and motivations
  • Local rationality and ‘rules of the game’
  • Complexity drivers – internal and external
  • Multiple causes
  • Culture, identity and values
  • Work with 3 levels of recursion (the level of your system, the systems within it and the wider system of which it is a part

Identify the intended purpose of the system in focus as defined by the stakeholders and undertake a boundary critique

  • Boundary critique (at 3 levels of recursion if possible) is KEY to the first stages of the diagnosis. ** this stage should be done at he start of the diagnosis and NOT missed out**
  • Remember POSIWID

Understand the dynamics of the system (systems dynamics)

  • Identify the structure (stocks, flows, outflows and feedback) which determines behaviour over time
  • Understand connections underlying motivations and behaviour – For example – 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?
  • Identify the dominating feedback loop – what is the most important thing that is most limiting?
  • History of the system – what is the system’s long-term behaviour?
  • Consider feedback loops in terms of the VSM (every interconnection is a complexity equation and a feedback loop

Consider system statics and dynamics in terms of viability (viable system model)

  • VSM diagnostic
  • Variety imbalances – particularly identifying the critical imbalances
  • Pathological archetypes
  • System laws
  • Communication flows
  • Model of the system
  • Work out implications of the structural problems – do they match the symptoms or the problem. What insight do they provide for how an improvement can be designed?

 Undertake any further appropriate system diagnosis

  • Structural couplings
  • Otto Scharmer’s 3 enemies
  • Barry Oshry’s tops, middles & bottoms

Identify range of systemically desirable and culturally feasible options for improvement

  • Use MCA for prioritisation


  • Small scale prototyping
  • Prototype small scale packages of change based around capability for making change without too much disruption
  • Change slowly and incrementally by changing one thing at a time
  • Aim to enhance total system properties like growth, stability, diversity, resilience, diversity
  • Identify a small group who want to try out the change and let them try it out. Make changes, as and when, until what you are trying out works. Do not be afraid to fail and make changes often until you start to get the outcomes you require.

Review & Repeat

  • This should be a continuous process and stages are not meant to be chronological. They are intended to be done concurrently and each point chosen from, depending upon what the situation requires. However, it is always preferable to do the boundary critique at the beginning of the diagnostic approach
  • Work fluidly and iteratively
  • Let the inquiry guide you and take you where it needs to go


Ideas/ approaches etc that interweave throughout – to make the model work

  • Facilitative and coaching style
  • Clean language
  • Non-violent communication
  • Learning our way together by “infecting” others with the concepts and ways of systems thinking
  • Being aware that we are all trapped inside our own minds so:

o   use isomorphic framing i.e. explaining using a situation which is similar to the one people are facing to help them understand it (delivering the suggestion of something that corresponds to a specific issue they know about)

o   explain how people have rigid mindsets and are unable to visualise the whole system and particularly unable to visualise from the perspectives of others

  • Being aware of how we:

o   are easily tricked

o   make lightening quick assumptions

o   use unconscious filters to filter the multiple stimuli in our situation. Our filtering is guided by our bedrock of assumptions (causes stereotyping and inaccurate assumptions)

o   don’t take on board multiple perspectives

o   often only see what we already know and we ignore critical information because our filters and cognitive structures are so strong. (Diagramming can help to expose that which we don’t see).

o   select observable data at a speed that tends to make leaps in abstraction

  • Remember that once we are anchored at the bottom of the ladder of inference our most underdeveloped skill is our peripheral vision
  • Slowing down the situation (i.e. by diagramming it) so that we can study it
  • Aiming to get a more accurate picture of the whole to open up our peripheral vision
  • Considering social connections – remember that people are socially connected and if we make it so that they stand out they may become socially excluded.
  • Adding in design features that encourage others to reach out and interact with others

Practitioner behaviour and actions

  • Work in a current rationality informed way – so that you can start to shift the rationality as you move forward with the work;
  • Learn the politics and protocols of the environment. Learn how those who are succeeding are manoeuvring around the politics – this will help you work out the ‘rules of the game’;
  • Remember that stress changes our ability to think and a lot of people in the situations using systems thinking are in high stress situations. Therefore, seek to find out what is needed to help people really “think” about the situation (do they need space/ permission/ to be away from the management/ someone to listen?);
  • Consider in advance how people might have negative reactions to systems thinking and pre-develop a set of positive responses to those emotions, rather than reacting negatively, on the spot, which can cause you to lose the respect of those you are working with;
  • Recognise where people have emotional investment and take care in this area. Work out the reason for the emotional investment. Is it valid?
  • Work to increase your own requisite response to other people’s emotional reactions to systems thinking (remember to look at things from another person’s point of view; how powerful will systems thinking feel to them?);
  • Understand what your own go to reflexes are in relation to negative reactions about systems thinking and learn a new set of reflexes to deploy in the event of those negative reactions;
  • Interpret any strong emotions in the situation (including your own). Passion often means people care – go to the root of what they care about and try and maintain that throughout the change. Show emotional empathy to gain buy in;
  • People need some degree of emotional stability to make learning more effective – try to build this kind of environment as you go along;
  • Do not only look at needs and purposes but also look at local rationality. Then, tie this to the flows of influence you identify (if you can). This will help you to identify powerful points that can be changed/ influenced or that might be difficult to change. Identify your potential brick wall areas;
  • Find out what people are upset about first – as part of their rationality – find out what is driving the human behaviour in the situation as well as identifying the dysfunctional aspects of the system (maybe the two go hand in hand?);
  • Try and identify any unrecognised fundamental impediments in current thinking. Are people prisoners to any of their frames of reference?
  • Use interactive planning (i.e. the future is subject to creation. Let the stakeholders define the desirable future). The stakeholders are the designers. Bring the whole system into the discussions right from the beginning;
  • Use judgement and common sense to set the scope;
  • Identify the problem and follow a natural path of inquiry. As each question is answered, move onto the next question that arises. Work fluidly and iteratively, let what you are looking at and what you are being exposed to guide you. It sometime helps not to set an exact route through the inquiry, but to let the inquiry guide you;
  • Take a genuine interest in people;
  • Scrutinize your own thinking as you go along;
  • Sell the problem you solve, not the product you use;
  • Continue to use different ways of presenting the info as this keeps the brain alive and helps it to learn.

Overcome change blindness by ensuring change is explicitly noticeable – when you don’t expect the change you can totally miss it

My days in pharmacy and their relevance to my systems practice of today

Linking with my old colleague, Alison Hemsworth, lately really prompted me to think about my career journey and the value that every job I have had has brought to my current systems thinking practice. I started life as a pharmacy technician. It wasn’t my chosen career path, I kind of fell into it. But I can say that it taught me some valuable skills that I carry with me today. It highlighted that my progress has been a long and steady journey, with incremental learning and challenging of mental models along the way. Systems thinking, for me, isn’t today’s best thing, but a product of a long, exciting and challenging career. I should tell you first, what it was like way back when……

Working in a pharmaceutical specials lab was just the best. Imagine semi-sterile environment, gowned and masked in blue overalls with hair in a net and absolutely no make-up, rather like a giant smurf. If you were really lucky, you got to use the respiratory hood and play spaceman all day. Ermmm…we had a really serious job to do, making bespoke medicines by hand…..suppository anyone? A suspension maybe? How about some pastilles? I can even make lollipops! I know what flavourings NOT to mix with quinine sulphate…..some make your mixture kind of resemble the magic porridge pot…..just keeps bubbling over…and bubbling over….and bubbling over…..

I remember with great fondness the day I accidently set a Hobart mixer on full speed with over 20kg of liquid paraffin and white soft paraffin in the bowl. For those non-pharmaceutical people out there, think giant food mixer with 20kg of warm, molten Vaseline in it mixed with warm greasy liquid paraffin, think not putting the mixer arm down far enough and not noticing, think hitting the fastest mix speed, instead of slowest. Yeah, that! And think of me and the guy I was working with ending up looking like two giant candles……….then the 4 hour room clean up that came afterwards….. But I tell you, I still laugh out loud about it today.

Then, think firemen…..glucose burns really easily, you know…and gives off quite a lot of smoke. Think stabbing your finger with a syringe containing controlled drug and having to make an ointment with cade oil on a Friday, before a night out! Ermm…scrap that, anyone making cade oil ointment just didn’t go out that night. Why? Because it stinks of rotten fish……and so do you….for ages….and it takes around 4 washes before your clothes smell pleasant again. Yeuck!

Then there were the times I was able to fine tune my management skills. Particularly memorable was the volatile incident where two staff members were at spatulas at 20 paces in the middle of a semi-sterile cleanroom. (They were big spatulas too!) If I couldn’t allocate one of them work in the high confinement room (aka solitary confinement) we had to draw an imaginary line down the middle of the lab that neither was allowed to cross. All in good fun of course, they were like brother and sister really……just having a right good scrap at the time.

Then into the land of patient care, home visits and being chased by what seemed like every dog in the damn street, so that I could be assured that my patients could take their medicines as prescribed when they were discharged from hospital. I didn’t realise that being chased by dogs was a vital part of health care transformation….but, hey, I’ll try anything once.
The dramas and delights of pharmacy………

But those days were an amazing grounding for my chosen career of today – a systems practitioner. I will never do health and social care transformation without considering multiple perspectives, particularly the patients, their family/ carers and friends. I know what the interface issues are, I’ve lived them and tried to manoeuvre them. I’ve struggled with them at 7pm on a Friday night, over a weekend and on a Bank Holiday.

I would never fail to consider the complex systems dynamics involved in hospital discharge because I’ve seen the adverse effects on patients and tried to guide them through the process. I’ve experienced the communication breakdowns and felt the excruciating frustration of trying to get very simple things done.

I will never re-design a pathway without the input of a clinician or allied health professional. To do so would be to potentially jeopardise patient safety in an inexcusably negligent way. But, the combination of clinician/ allied health professional and systems thinker is extremely powerful. The insight from both sides allows us to navigate through the unbounded complexity with tenacity and without fear.

Nowadays, when doing quality improvements I will apply my learning from Barry Oshry, who tells us about how staff in the situation of tops, middles and bottoms feel and react in organisations, but I always bring into it my memories of having been in those places, having lived it from the perspective of the person embroiled in the complex mess of health and social care.

I will never commission without ‘zooming out’ and considering the wider picture. Having felt, as a technician, what it was like to become embroiled in the politics and policy constraints, I now act with a hugely greater insight into things like managing entropy and emergence.

And then there’s the networking. This is a key skill for anyone moving forward. Nothing gets done without great networks and communications. Working in pharmacy all those years ago, I couldn’t get anything done if I didn’t have the right network connections to enact change quickly. Sometimes, good communication has been the only thing required to make a massive difference to patients. They want processes that work. They shouldn’t be embroiled in the politics and policy constraints.

Nowadays, the focus is very much on the wider community, which makes me consider breathing a sigh of relief. That said, whilst everyone knows it makes perfect sense, it is still very difficult to pull things together on a wide enough scale to make a real difference for everyone. It is heartening, though, that there is recognition that things like patients, families, carers, friends, health, social care, education, community, employment, justice etc can no longer be effective if the interconnectivity and inter-relatedness is not understood and harnessed and the collective power recognised and used in a different way.

I thank my days in pharmacy for the grounding and years of experience it gave me. I learnt so much about risk, quality, patient safety, human factors, improvement, multiple perspectives, emergence, unintended consequences etc. Some people ask if systems thinking is a fad of today. I would say, ‘no, definitely not’. I think more people than you imagine are systems thinkers and just because they may not have the power, alone, to make massive change, does not mean that it cannot be done.


‘Eyes on- hands off’ – are you ready to make the change?

What can public services learn from General Stanley McChrystal’s approach – Team of Teams?

I was pointed towards this podcast by my colleagues Mike Haber and Tim James

I was totally inspired by General Stanley McChrystal so I went on to read his book, Team of Teams.

I loved the book, not least because of his amazing work but because his application of systems thinking is not relayed via technical accounts of what a system is or what a viable system etc. is, but because he tells a story; the story of how he applied an approach that was effective, that worked and he did it in the real world.

So, what is it all about?

The forward of his book starts by telling us, ‘Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and it’s becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together. In today’s works, creativity is a collaborative endeavour. Innovation is a team effort.’

20th century organisation is of little use in the 21st century and yet many organisations cling on to it like an old friend, preferring to focus on things like reducing variation, separating out planning and execution via organisational charts and having managers who focus on keeping things in working order and maintaining morale. But, as General McChrystal points out in his book, ‘You cannot force the complex to conform to rules meant for the merely complicated’. Our new environments demand new approaches.

These new approaches are ones of agility, coherence of purpose and strategy and evolution through adaption. They are dispersed, organic, associative networks with a culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking (rather than simple execution of demands) and they are nurturing of competence and adaptability.  They are approaches of decentralised teams who are well co-ordinated, have tight accountability and widespread information exchanges. Change is less about tactics or new technology but is more about internal architecture, culture and people as interchangeable parts. They are approaches where people have a willingness to ‘know what we don’t know’ and ‘expect the unexpected’. To enable the required agility, the approaches need to make a shift from strategic planning and predicting to reconfiguring. After all, ‘setting oneself on a predetermined course in unforeseen waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg’ (Henry Mintzberg). Adaptability, contextual understanding, flexibility and collective responsibility for success, and what that responsibility entails, should be new predominant features.

He also clearly states that, ‘an organisation’s fitness – like that of an organism – cannot be assessed in a vacuum; it is a product of compatibility with the surrounding environment.’ Contextual awareness is imperative.

What did he do?

‘Team of Teams’ focusses on the transformation of an elite military organisation, the Joint Special Operations Task Force, in the midst of a war.

For General McChrystal, different thinking and a different approach weren’t really optional. He was not just dealing with, ‘looking at the same roads with faster traffic; we were looking at an entirely different and constantly shifting landscape.’ It soon became clear to him that the old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer existed and ‘adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency’.

General McChrystal set out to look for familiar structures and patterns hidden in the chaos around him and started focussing on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. He set out re-structure his teams to develop a more networked, non-hierarchical operation.

His re-structuring was focussed on the principles of extremely transparent information sharing to develop a ‘shared consciousness’ and coupled with this was a decentralised decision-making authority, which he called, ‘empowered execution’.

What I see in what General McChrystal did is very transferrable to the world of public services and especially to those moving towards more team based working across multiple organisations.

Let’s take a look at some of the key points/ thinking behind his transformation.

Some key points/ thinking about the approach

  • Focus on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. ‘Resilience is the result of linking elements that allow parts of the systems to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage’;
  • Predicting and planning should no longer be the main focus because we exist in an ecosystem, much of which we have no control over;
  • Efficiency is important but ability to continually adapt to complexity is imperative. The old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer exists;
  • Move away from the fragility of being damaged by shocks and aim to be an organisation that can benefit from shocks, because it can adapt quickly;
  • Focus on an organic and associative network that is decentralised, well-co-ordinated, with tight accounting, widespread information exchange and agility and resilience;
  • You should only empower if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely. Empowerment without sharing doesn’t work, neither does sharing without empowerment. You must have shared consciousness and empowered execution together;
  • Focus on purpose and adaptability, rather than procedure and efficiency;
  • Create adaptability whilst maintaining traditional strengths. Hierarchy needs to exist but needs to understand that it is part of a network;
  • Shift the focus from categorisation to integration – become a network;
  • Contextual awareness is key.

Some key points/ thinking about the leadership style

  • Replace command structures with teams but maintain a hierarchy to set boundaries. However, the hierarchy should behave differently. Teams need autonomy to make decisions and the hierarchy needs to let them do it. The leader needs to let the team problem solve and they need to be one of the team. ‘Team players should not have to consult with the coach before taking a shot.’
  • The leader should ensure their subordinates know the leader’s decision-making processes, so they can make decisions themselves on the leader’s behalf. Agility and adaptability is achieved by loosening control. The leader has ultimate responsibility still;
  • Adopt an ‘eyes on – hands off’ leadership style. Push decision making and ownership to the right level for every action;
  • Lean towards enabling, rather than directing and aim to build trust and common purpose. Pump information out and empower people at all levels;
  • Maintain consistent example and message. The most powerful instrument of communication is your own behaviour;
  • Dissolve the barriers of silos and floors of hierarchies. ‘As our own environment erupts with too many possibilities to plan for effectively, we must become comfortable sharing power.’

Some key points/ thinking about the teams

  • ‘Design your teams and their development to foster emergent intelligence that can thrive in the absence of a plan’;
  • What makes teams adaptable is key to transformation. ‘Adaptability is built through trust and a shared sense of purpose’;
  • People act as interchangeable parts. They change to suit the environment. General McChrystal found that the lack of traditional hierarchy meant that there was no internal anarchy by removal of significant individuals. The hierarchy is maintained but in a different way. There should be a combination of management and team work;
  • Let the ones who want to quit, quit;
  • Collective team consciousness is required. Trust and purpose are KEY. Teams need to believe in the cause;
  • The team must act as a co-ordinated whole. Teams whose members know each other deeply perform better;
  • The team should be collectively responsible for the team’s success and understand everything that that responsibility entails;
  • They need to build these things as instinctive behaviours that are triggered by communication;
  • Trust and communication are more important than technical skills;
  • Teams need to produce clear, sufficient information about their operations so the hierarchy can watch from a distance;
  • Have flexible, multi directional communicative bonds. Have a strong lattice of trusting relationships. Horizontal connectivity is important. There MUST be meaningful relationships between teams;
  • ‘Interconnectedness and the ability to transmit information instantly can give small groups unprecedented influence’;
  • ‘Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.’

Some key points/ thinking about culture

Most systems thinkers will stress that culture is an emergent property of the system. This system is designed to enable the following culture:

  • A culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking, rather than simple execution of demands;
  • Nurturing of competence and adaptability;
  • Empowerment/ self-organisation and freedom to act;
  • If you receive a complaint, you own it;
  • ‘Use good judgement in all situations’

So, what about scaling up?

  • Scale up the teams by building a team of teams;
  • Relationship between constituent teams should resemble those of the relationships between individuals in teams;
  • Teams are bound by common purpose, rather than outperforming another team. They are a friendly force, not a competitive rival and they understand the impact of their work on other teams;
  • You don’t have to know everyone in the other team but you do need to know someone. Job swapping can be beneficial;
  • All teams co-operate to achieve strategic and tactical success by sharing and connecting the dots;
  • Have daily communications between teams with counterparts. Conduct daily analysis and have quick data exchanges. Make sure you have everyone in attendance who is required to make a decision;
  • Fuse generalist awareness with specialist expertise. Settings must allow teams to work together;
  • Key leaders move between teams often to share information;
  • Have quick feedback loops to update information to inform next actions – this allows quick, iterative adaption;
  • Have fluid integration between operations and analysts – build trust, co-operation and working together for the greater good.

How can this help public sector leaders?

Public sector leaders who now have to merge teams across organisational boundaries, deal with ever changing complex environments, modernise working practices and develop effective strategies may want to pick up on General McChrystal’s change of focus – from heavy planning to adaptability, from silos to shared consciousness, from command and control to empowered execution and from a narrow internal focus to internal focus coupled with contextual awareness.

Nowadays, being aware of the bigger picture is imperative. Quick re-calibration of short-term plans can allow problems to be addressed quickly and enable improved operations. Leaders may want to shift from moving players on the chess board to shaping ecosystems. They may want to create and maintain the teamwork conditions required to balance information and empowerment and develop cross functional co-operation. They may want to explicitly articulate priorities and delegate decisions with no incongruence.

What General McChrystal states in his book and what is very clear to me is that what is required is,

‘a complete reversal of the conventional approach to information sharing, delineating of roles, decision-making authority and leadership’ which is precisely what he did with his Task Force.

Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal


Are you riding the waves of change or drowning in the turbulent seas? What can we learn from Gareth Morgan?

‘Imagine a long, open Hawaiian beach. The surf is rolling in, and the waves are speckled with surfers and surf-boards. Some surfers are riding the waves with flowing determination. Others are flying high into the air and plunging deep into the foam. The image provides a metaphor for management in turbulent times. For like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean.’ (Gareth Morgan, 1988)

What are you doing right now? Are you surfing, swimming or drowning? Are you surrounded by beautiful fish or man-eating sharks? Today, in public services, it is all too easy to feel like the surf is spinning you around, dragging you under and then crashing you against the rocks. But, back in 1988, Gareth Morgan gave us some great insights into the management competencies that would be required moving forward, to help us surf like a professional.

Morgan reminds us that, ‘many organisations and their managers drive toward the future while looking through the rear-view mirror. They manage in relation to events that have already occurred, rather than anticipate and confront the challenges of the future.’ He is clear in highlighting that organisations are becoming flatter and more decentralised. Self-organisation is occurring where autonomy is given to remote staff groups who are controlled from a distance.

With these changes comes the undeniable need to think and work differently. Possessing specific skills and abilities and combining technical, human and conceptual skills to create efficiency is no longer enough. To date, many organisations have tended to be successful because of very tight centralised control. Direct control can often feel like an attractive and comfortable way to manage. It suits those at the top who often can’t let go because their concept of being organised is linked to controlling and monitoring their constituent teams/ services. There is also some fear that the people at the bottom will not be driven to the same excellence in decision making as those at the top. But what can replace this direct control and how do people need to work to make it happen?

Moving forward, control will look more like management of relationships across a network, rather than management of discreet activities. ‘A network must be managed as a system of interdependent stakeholders, with collective identity and management philosophies that recognise the importance of mutual dependence and collaboration and a collective sense of accountability and control.’ ‘Collective identity’ itself will be a particular challenge, in my opinion. It is all too often that teams/ services/ organisations cling on to their identity for dear life and even after years of restructuring/ integrating/ changing, being dragged under the water over and over again, they still emerge flustered, gasping and adamantly refusing to let their old identity go.

Morgan tells us that, ‘Increasingly, the leadership process will become identified with an ability to mobilise the energies and commitments of people through the creation of shared values and shared understandings’. Development of operational skills will be only one part of the story. Developing attitudes, values and the mindset to allow teams to confront, understand and deal with forces inside and outside of the organisation will be the other side of the coin and the two must work in harmony together. Navigating the forthcoming waves with foresight and flexibility will be imperative to survival.

Management competencies will look and feel much different to those of today and will include:

  • Developing contextual competencies – building bridges and alliances, reframing problems to open up new possibilities, acting nationally and locally, developing a new approach to social responsibility;
  • Reading the environment – scanning and intelligence functions, forecasting, scenario planning and identifying major occurrences that could shape the future environment;
  • Proactive management – developing proactive mindsets, managing from the outside in (keeping in close contact with the evolving environment and enhancing capacity to rise to challenges and opportunities in an ongoing way) positioning and repositioning skills (the ability to manage tension between present and future so that you can position for the future whilst avoiding collapse in existing operations);
  • Promoting creativity, learning and innovation;
  • Skills of remote management (helicoptering, managing through an umbilical cord, promoting self-organisation, managing ambiguity and managing the balance between chaos and control);
  • Using I.T. to drive improvements;
  • Managing complexity (many things at once, transitions and multiple stakeholders)

The manager may no longer be able to function as a technical specialist who is also responsible for managing people, as is so often the case today. He or she will have to be become much more of an all-round generalist. Traditional supervisory roles are likely to disappear and the important competency may then lie in the ability to get employees enthused and fully absorbed with the new corporate philosophy, rather than to follow instructions in a mechanical way.

Innovation will be essential and with it comes the need to improve lateral interactions. Team managers will need to be able to:

  • Talk to and work with one another, embedding really successful interactions;
  • Develop a sense of common purpose;
  • Engage in effective conflict management and be able to read and handle hidden tensions;
  • Be a general resource to teams, a trouble shooter, a networker between self-organising teams, linking those teams to the wider organisation;
  • Take a more hands-off approach to management so that the initiative and control is passed to others;
  • Feel comfortable dealing with loosely structured situations and only intervene when necessary and in ways that empower;
  • Be aware of feedback systems that keep them informed without giving direct operational control.

In addition, organisations will need to adopt a risk taking ‘see if this works’ attitude, developing a supportive culture to experimentation. They will need to give parameters within which to operate, monitor on the basis of results and give teams the autonomy to operate quickly and flexibly to the changing environment. Planning can be bottom up, with management ensuring that plans fit with the organisation’s overarching vision. However, early warning systems should be built in to let managers know when intervention is required. Those mechanisms should seek to maintain the autonomy of the teams.

To deal with accountability, organisations and their managers should create systems of values, so employees can share and understand the mission and general parameters that guide action, rather than developing a set of rules as bureaucratic organisations do now. This, in itself, will require a mind-set shift from current day. Future managers will have to become as skilled in the art of empowerment as traditional managers are skilled in exercising direction and control.

Anticipating, communicating, sharing, inspiring, empowering, facilitating, networking, motivating are all words which are likely to become more and more common place in relation to management competencies.

As Morgan tells us,
‘You must have a remote type of management facility – the Europeans call it the helicopter principle – where you hover like a helicopter over the scene. If something goes wrong, you can come down and resolve it, but essentially you operate at a distance, and let the operation go.’

Which, I dare say, will be easier said than done for most organisations……

(Riding the waves of change, Gareth Morgan 1988)

My blended systems thinking approach

My approach to applying systems thinking in my practice is ever changing. I use a blend of systems thinking methods/ models and concepts but I have found that I dip into and out of and consider a particular set of things quite routinely. I’ve captured them in the following diagram and listed them below.

My approach is iterative and I dip into and out of whatever methods/ models/ concept etc the situation I am in indicates I need to use. It’s very much a work in progress and is ever changing, but here it is so far:

Looking at: internal and external context and identity

  • Internal and external complexity drivers;
  • Purpose, need, demand;
  • Rationality, perception and motivation;
  • Culture;
  • Identity;
  • Rules of the game – how are those who are surviving manoeuvring the politics?
  • Values;
  • Any elements of human centred design that could be considered?

Considering the system of interest and its boundary and the impact of motivations (SSM, CSH)

  • SSM method;
  • Flows of influence – management, quality, objectives, budgets, performance measures, hierarchy, organisational culture, personalities, other departments, legislation, financial;
  • 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 other etc?
  • Control – is there resistance to change on a scale that could be problematic? Do different professional groups have different opinions?
  • Knowledge – are certain personalities manipulating/ dominating the situation?
  • Legitimacy – Is any 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?

Considering the systems dynamics (SD)

  • Identify the structure (stocks, flows, outflows and feedback) which determines behaviour over time;
  • Understand connections underlying motivations and behaviour – For example – 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?
  • Identify the dominating feedback loop – what is the most important thing that is most limiting?
  • History of the system – what is the system’s long-term behaviour?

Considering system statics and dynamics (VSM)

  • VSM diagnostic;
  • Variety imbalances – identify the critical imbalances;
  • Missing components and missing links;
  • Flows and blockages;
  • How is the system interacting with the environment?
  • Archetypes/ pathologies;
  • Strengths, weaknesses, barriers, pain pathways;
  • What are the symptoms of the behaviour of the system?
  • What are the engagement and relationships like?
  • Unfold the complexity of the primary systems;
  • Model the environment
  • What are the connections between the sub systems?
  • What are the connections between sub systems and environment?
  • Model the co-ordination mechanisms;
  • Connections (only look at the connections you need to);
  • Model the management functions – systems 3, 4,5, their interactions, connections to environment, operations and each other;
  • Go up and down 1 recursive level

Including further system analysis

  • Structural couplings;
  • Application of systems laws;
  • Application of the 12 rules;
  • Otto Scharmer’s 3 enemies – are they evident?
  • Work out implications of the structural problems – do they match the symptoms or the problem. What insight do they provide for how an improvement can be designed?
  • Human error factors – are any identifiable?

Identifying options for change (MCA)

  • Systemically desirable and culturally feasible options for change (using MCA)

Using prototype implementation (small scale prototyping)

  • Prototype small scale packages of change based around capability for making change without too much disruption;
  • Change slowly and incrementally by changing one thing at a time;
  • Aim to enhance total system properties like growth, stability, diversity, resilience, diversity

Reviewing & repeating

  • This should be a continuous process and stages are not meant to be chronological. They are intended to be done concurrently (to a point) and each point chosen from, depending upon what the situation requires
  • Work fluidly and iteratively;
  • Let the inquiry guide you and take you where it needs to go.

A new challenge for systems practitioners

I read many posts about why systems thinking isn’t adopted more widely. I won’t get into that argument right now because I have a new concern on my radar. Working with public sector organisations, I am encouraged by the forward thinking of some emerging leaders and their positivity and desire to think differently. But, I am recurrently seeing a phrase that should fill me with delight and yet it is having the opposite effect. The phrase is this, ‘We are implementing a model of systems thinking and system leadership’. When I ask people who are implementing this model of systems thinking and system leadership what a system is…..well, unfortunately, they can rarely tell me. When I ask people what systems thinking is, the response is nearly always, ‘all organisations working together.’ Yes, this may be one element but it isn’t the totality of what systems thinking is. My worry, as a systems practitioner, is the extent of the challenge I now have in undoing the false beliefs about what systems thinking is. It was easier when people knew nothing. At least then I was starting from a blank sheet. I’ve always had some concerns in this area but lately it is escalating. It is escalating because the words ‘systems thinking’ are, in more recent months, being used more frequently and sometimes quite inappropriately and no-one is there to challenge that when it happens.

My shout out to all the systems practitioners out there, in particular those who have come through the Open University Systems Thinking in Practice qualifications and who are working either as consultants or covertly in organisations (especially those working in public services) ………please show yourselves. Now is not our time to stay quiet. Now is our time to expose the thinking, methods, models etc that we use and share them widely.

Systems thinking can be a massive asset to pubic services as they try to navigate the monumental complexity and change they are currently having to navigate. Tell people about boundaries and environments, tell them about emergence, self-organisation and feedback, tell them about the methods and models we have access to and can help them to learn, tell them about mental models and patterns of behaviour, tell them about structural coupling, tell them about dynamics, stocks and flows, tell them about leverage points, tell them about archetypes, tell them about systems laws and variety. Tell them about Barry Oshry’s tops, middles, bottoms and customers. Tell them about metaphors and clean language. Tell them about complex adaptive systems. Tell them about purpose and identity. Now is not the time to keep quiet.

In the past, I have worked very covertly in organisations, keeping systems thinking fairly quiet and just ‘getting on with it’ so I can totally understand why people do this. But, times have changed. At the moment, we have a huge opportunity to influence new thinking. Let’s do it! Let’s get a truer understanding of what systems thinking is ‘out there’ and make it accessible to all. We learnt it, so others can learn it too.

For those of you reading this who are in public services and don’t know what systems thinking is and are confused about systems leadership – look to systems practitioners to help you. There are many of us out there. Some working inside organisations as members of staff, some, like me, working as consultants. We are dedicated to helping others learn the systems thinking mindset and we would be only too happy to help.


Reflections from a learning journal – a light hearted look back to 2008


Back in 2008 when undertaking my second undergraduate systems thinking in practice course we were encouraged to start a learning journal. Back then, I had no idea how powerful it would be. I begrudgingly completed it, moaning and groaning all the way, I might add. I thought it would never be of any use. I recently re-read my first entries from 22/01/2008. I had just had a period in hospital, did not have my own home and was very much down on my luck. If you are interested, here are some of my very first entries into that journal, at the start of my systems thinking journey:

My purpose for doing courses in systems thinking in practice:

  • To develop the necessary skills to really make a difference;
  • I don’t believe in “plodding” and falling into patterns of behaviour that have always been;
  • I like to explore more possibilities, move outside of norms and strive for something better;
  • I want to develop further understanding. This is not about just pleasing my work superiors, but striving for the best for all stakeholders

My expectations:

  • I expect that I will enjoy getting totally engrossed in the work and the associated project and that my learning will be immense.

Benefits I expect:

  • I am hoping it will propel me into a more interesting and demanding job that allows me to work with a number of different and interesting stakeholders

What appeals to me:

  • I don’t like being forced into thinking that there is only one viewpoint. Being able to show how all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle come together is very appealing;
  • Being able to bring together all of those perspectives and represent them in a structured overall view of the situation

My emotional state as I approach the course:

  • Very excited about it but apprehensive due to the turmoil in my personal life;
  • I’m not comfortable in my current work space as I am cramped and don’t have a home or any space of my own. I am doing a lot of my work from a cheap hotel room. I hope this situation improves very soon.

My ability to succeed:

  • Good, if I can get access to a good project to do;
  • I don’t just want to do the course – I want to use the learn the skills and use them to the best of my ability;
  • I want a distinction and will be aiming for this. 

    A message from today, in June 2017 – yes, the course fulfilled its purpose and met my expectations. I believe I got the benefits I expected. Moral of the story…….to all systems practitioners – no matter what situation you are in, keep going, it’s worth it………..oh, and journaling is very powerful!


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 empower others. 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)



Remembering Peter Block’s Community

On discussing the fragmented community and its transformation, Peter Block tells us, ‘the essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole. The key is to identify how this transformation occurs. We begin by shifting our attention from the problems of community to the possibility of community.’ He also reminds us that the community should be a place where we are emotionally, spiritually and psychologically a member.

I don’t know about you, but I literally cannot function properly if I don’t feel connected in these ways. I’m not a ‘half in, half out’ type of person. I’m a 100% in person. I want a deep connection with my communities, I want to feel close to the people I deal with regularly, I want to experience the world as they do. I want to feel free to express myself whilst remaining psychologically safe. I want to be able to challenge thinking in a constructive way (both within my community and within myself) and I want to feel proud to be part of a larger whole.

I want to consider the wider purpose, give to that purpose unselfishly and focus on interdependence more than independence. I want to break down the doors of isolation and be seen not just as a stranger passing through, but as an active investor and creator of our collective space. I want to explore our community’s authenticity and identify where we can together trade problems for opportunities.

I want to build and share social capital. I want to use my skills to the full and share them with others. I want quality relationships, new conversations and to evolve in an organic way. Don’t ever think of forcing me in your direction without giving me choices or I will at best resist and at worst completely disengage.

I want to be able to act, not be done to. That is when I will choose to help build our collective desired future. If this takes different kinds of conversations, ones we have not had before, then that is the way I want to go. I don’t want the old and stale, I want the new and exciting. I want mutual assistance and trustworthiness and most of all I want to learn and feel alive.

I want to be around people who have the same values as me, who respect my principles and ethics and give me the freedom to be accountable. I want to be in contact with people who help develop my learning and I want the freedom to express how our future world might look. I want to be engaged in conversations constructively, not brushed off like an irritating insect and I want us to jointly explore our learning and developing possibilities.

As a systems thinker I want to understand and come to terms with the current story……..and then seek to build a new one. I want to do it in a way that allows us to create together. I don’t want to project the accountability for development and growth onto others.

In my communities, your identity is my identity. I want that identity to be mutually agreed, not enforced upon me or I cannot truly adopt it or be accountable for it. I want a sense of belonging, where all voices are heard, not just the chosen few. Only then can I truly focus on our collective gifts, rather than our deficiencies.

I want to be part of the vision, part of the plan and feel a deep sense of commitment through this engagement. You can’t build commitment without conversations though, so if you want my loyalty then you have to engage with me.

‘The way we change the room is by changing the conversation’ (Community, Peter Block)