Systems thinking little stories: Who killed the local chippy?

 

I drove past the local chippy tonight. I looked quite pitiful. Its blue neon light was shining bright but there was no-one inside. It was the same last night and the night before. In fact, it’s been like that for some time, even on weekends. The Friday tradition of a ‘chippy tea’ wasn’t hitting this little shop anymore.

I say anymore because at one time it was the busiest little chippy I had ever known. Every Friday it was packed, with the queue out of the door and down the street. During the week it was very much the same. But then it happened. The sad day came that the chippy was sold, and ‘they’ took over. I say ‘they’ because no-one knows their names. Not least because no-one goes there anymore. So, what happened?

I came to the city around 15 years ago. I knew no-one here and wasn’t familiar with the area at all. I did, however, find the local chippy. It was a hive of ‘busyness’ and chatter and laughing and connection. After only a few months I began to see the same people over and over again. We knew where each other worked, how we spent our leisure time and Sheila behind the counter knew every one of us. As soon as each one of us walked through the door we saw a smiling face and heard, ‘the usual?’ I don’t think she knew it, but she didn’t ‘work in a chippy’ she facilitated a community hub. She created a community with friendliness, familiarity and usually a huge dose of humour.

Purpose is important, you see. To the local community, the purpose of this little place wasn’t just to serve fish and chips but to provide a meeting place where familiar faces could say hello and have a brief chat whilst ordering our food. She crated it, she maintained it and facilitated it and the locals loved it.

When ‘they’ took over the front shop went silent. We saw Sheila being ordered around, told how to deal with the orders and chastised for her familiarity with the customers. They exerted their power and control, and little did they know it but they were soon to kill off their own business.

But where did they go wrong? Purpose! Purpose is where they went wrong. They didn’t understand the bigger picture. They didn’t understand the purpose that this little retail outlet held for the community. They didn’t understand the purpose that Sheila understood perfectly.

They thought they bought a chippy. What they did was failed to think wider than the four walls and the battered cod. They didn’t understand the purpose from their customers’ point of view. I don’t know where everyone goes now. I never see them. I don’t go there anymore and neither does everyone else it seems.

Think wider. Think purpose. Think other people’s point of view…..or you might just miss something vital.

The viable system model, relationship enablers and creating the conditions for change

‘There are 2 groups of people – those who want to fight with each other about who is right academically and those who just want help to translate the academics into practical application. Until we can all learn to talk to one another in a helpful way then we are never going to move forward, even if we want to use the methods. If the academics come at us with their harsh academic arguments, we just can’t handle that because that’s not part of our world and if we can’t get across to them our challenges and how we need help, without being put off by their harsh arguments, then we are never going to be able to transform the good stuff into something useable.’

These were the words spoken to me back in 2015 by the Chief Executive of a Clinical Commissioning Group. A year later I left their organisation to set up my own venture and as you will see, I never forgot her wise words.

I have a lot of successes in my work. People are often impressed by the quality and insights I can give, and my ambition has always been focussed on helping others to experience the real power of systems thinking. To that end, I have spent the last couple of years going back over my work and really challenging myself about, ‘what I do when I do what I do’ – a phrase used in the Open University systems thinking courses that makes you seriously reflect not just on what you are doing, but how you are actually doing it. I wanted to take what I was learning and pass that on to others and I wanted to give them something outside of the academics and textbook models and methods to work with.

I have captured my learning in my Systems Thinking Change Wheel, and a set of 100 action cards that underpin each section of the wheel, to give people insights into creating the conditions to support change and as I have found, this is particularly useful for system change.

Those who know me know that I use something called the Viable System Model (VSM) a lot. I don’t use it in it’s first order hard systems thinking way, though. I use it in a more qualitative way, which for me makes it much more versatile. The trouble is, when people see anything about the VSM they quickly turn the other way due to its complex diagram and over burdening academic narrative. In addition, some VSM lovers shudder whenever anyone tries to make its insights accessible to the masses. So what I’ve done is not regurgitated the VSM, but taken my learning from using it and translated that into something useable for people who may never have come across it before, but still deserve to have the insights from using it made accessible to them.

One of the most powerful learnings I have taken from my work is that where some would say exchanges of information are critical, I have found relationship to be even more critical. Importantly I realised that throughout all of my work I was building in ‘relationship enablers’ at every point. In many cases, the information people needed, contrary to popular belief, was there. The issue was that there was no relationship in place that gave the incentive for the information to be understood, acted upon and the outcomes fed back into the system to enable change/ improvement. I have many years of examples of building in relationship enablers and linking this to my other work with the VSM and other systems thinking I have developed a set of actions that sit under the sections of the wheel to help people create the conditions for change. Many of my other insights are captured in the cards and I am now using these to run workshops to help those wanting to apply systems thinking to their complex situations and particularly to enable system change. It isn’t the sections of the wheel that are the powerful thing, it is the WAY you enact them (‘it aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it’). This is critical and my action cards and my workshops go through a process of helping people to see the difference between what they do now and doing something that might sound very similar but enacting it in a way that might give very different results.

Please note that the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and associated text does not fall under the creative commons licence for this website, but is separately protected by UK Copyright.

NB: workshops can be run for min 10 people, max 20-25. If you are interested, please get in touch.

Creating the conditions for System change

Change isn’t all about going in and ‘doing something’ to someone and then leaving them to it. To be effective, it is a whole lot more than that. Building the conditions for change is as important as the change itself. But, what do I mean by that? Well, you can ‘diagnose’ a situation and discover what is not working so well. There are many different approaches for doing that, all of which might uncover similar things about the situation. But there’s another piece of work required and that is helping people to build the conditions that will allow changes to be made not just now, as you need them at this point in time, but on an ongoing basis, in a co-evolutionary way. One off change often doesn’t ‘stick’. You might get a financial saving, economies of flow and organisation but unless you have created the right conditions for the thinking that crated the change to flourish on an ongoing basis, your ‘win’ may be short and sharp and it is likely that the situation will, at some point, rebound right back to where it started.

Some of my work lately is around ‘system change’ and for system change is it important to create the conditions for change. In my newly developed training, I take people through the following questions:

  • How might you engage in peer to peer collaborations?
  • How might you instigate and implement change yourself, within the span of your autonomy;
  • How can you strengthen community, develop networks, collaborate and work together with people outside of your own team on an ongoing basis (particularly bringing in the voice of lived experience);
  • How can you contribute to internal system coherence;
  • How can you bring humanity and balance back into the work;
  • How do you make joint decisions, decide upon joint goals and decide what level of performance is reasonable;
  • How do you ensure effective system characteristics;
  • How do you ensure congruence between the system and its vision;
  • How do you build external relationships and gather intelligence about the world around you;
  • How do you ‘pivot’ and change quickly enough;
  • And how do you get that joint vision, meaning, purpose and identity?

These are some starting questions I use to help those who are trying to create the conditions for System change. I use my Systems Thinking Change Wheel to highlight and explore these questions and then bring in a set of Action Cards to help people take the thinking and make it into a reality. I don’t ‘do to’ people, I help them think about the situation themselves, create their own meaning, identity and purposes and then work with them by supporting them to start developing the conditions that are required. It isn’t an easy journey or a quick one. You need to be in it for the long haul and that is why it is important that you engage in systems and complexity thinking for yourself. No one can do it for you, even if they lead you to believe they can.

Creating the conditions for change using systems and complexity thinking. Spoiler alert….it’s down to you! (with other people’s help to get you started and occasionally to keep you on the right track).

If you are interested in a training session (as a group) then please do get in touch

Training Courses Available

The following one-day training courses are now available

Both of these training courses require a minimum of 10 people, maximum 20. They are intended for groups of people who work together across a geographical place, and especially for those in public services.

Costs vary, depending upon number of delegates, location and provision of rooms and refreshments. Please get in touch if you are interested in running a session for your organisation/ group of colleagues.

Creating the conditions for change with systems and complexity thinking

Who is this training for?

This training if for anyone who is interested in creating the conditions for change using insights from systems and complexity thinking. It is particularly useful for front line teams and managers involved in system change.

What will I learn?

You will learn about the conditions that are required to make effective change in any situation. You will learn how to look at things from different perspectives, how viable systems work and what features are required in a system to enable system change.

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking?

No prior knowledge of systems thinking is required for this course. All concepts will be fully explained.

What will the format of the training be?

This is a highly interactive session using my Systems Thinking Change Wheel and action cards to understand system change. A case study will be used to apply the thinking to, and by prior arrangement, this can be a case study of the ‘place’ in which you work.

There will be some presentation whilst explaining concepts. However, the majority of the day will be group exercises and application of the thinking to the case study. You will identify where conditions might hinder system change and where effort can be injected to help create the conditions to enable system change.

Applying the viable system model

Who is this training for?

This training is for anyone who has an interest in applying the viable system model to a situation. You can be from any kind of work background, as long as you have an interest in the subject matter.

What will I learn?

You will learn the basics of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. You will learn about the five sub-systems of the model and what their functions are. You will also learn how to apply the model to a real-world situation, learning what to look for and how to spot areas for potential improvement in a situation, based on a diagnosis using the model

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking or the viable system model?

It does help if you have some knowledge of systems thinking but don’t worry if you don’t. Systems thinking is such a wide field that any key concepts etc will be explained throughout the session. It is important to do this because of the wide range of interpretations that exist.

What will the format of the training be?

There will be some element of presentation when explaining the model. The majority of the day, however, will be your practical application of the model to a given case study. You will undertake a diagnosis of a messy situation, using a number of ‘guides’ that you will be provided with to help you along. It will be a mixture of thinking about certain elements alone and in groups and you will be guided by the trainer throughout.

The case study will be a case study that the trainer has worked on. That way, she can share real insights as to how the model can be applied and what you can look for when trying to identify areas for improvement. It is a case study is from public services. This area has been chosen for its ‘messiness’ which gives opportunities to demonstrate areas for improvement in many places. You do not have to have experience of or a background in public services to understand the case study or undertake the diagnosis. In fact, it can sometimes help if you don’t know much about the situation in the case study.

Other bespoke systems thinking courses are available, which can be designed to meet your needs. Please get in contact to discuss your requirements.

pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Feedback from a previous course:

Through the eyes of a citizen…or…how to pass the hot potato

Wednesday 5th September 2018 and it’s started already. The very narrow cul-de-sac in which I live is packed full of cars trying to edge their way around one another, some are parked on the corner of the junction, most are parked on pathways, some are blocking the road completely and most annoyingly…… some are in our private driveways. The woman next door has already had one argument today with someone who refuses to get off her property and this has been going on for years. It’s got worse lately though. The school, at the other side of some woodland at the end of our cul-de-sac, has had a lot of policing regarding parking recently and now, instead of going to the front gates, parents come in round the back of the school, via our cul-de-sac, instead.

Isn’t it fenced off, then……… your street? I hear you ask. Well, yes, it was until the parents pushed the fence down to make a pathway through the woods to the school.

Every school day I see a near miss. Every school day I see children nearly hit by cars. Every school day, there is an argument.

It’s Sept 10th 2018 early in the morning and I get a text from a neighbour who asked someone to move down the street a little so she could pull out of her driveway. After being given a mouthful of abuse she is now frightened to be in the street alone. Out into the street I go……….

We’ve tried everything to date, contacting the school, police, council, local Councillor, we put traffic cones on our drives. This is what happens to the cones – they drive over them:

We’re on to about our sixth set of cones now. The abuse gets more regular, the entitled aggression of the parents more troublesome and at least five neighbours (men and women) are too scared to come home between 15:15 and 15:45 because of the chaos that will be in the street and the abuse they will be given when trying to park on their own private driveways.

So, I decide to try again, via the channels available to us, to make some progress towards getting this nonsense sorted out. I spoke to the school first, not least because the girl next door was trying to park on her own drive and had her tiny baby with her, only to be met by abuse from a man, who, with his 5 year old, tell her to ‘f**k off’ and they’ll park on her drive if they want to. Yep, a grown man and his kid – both at it. I’m told the chap at the end of the block moved out (he wasn’t there long enough for me to get to know who he was), after being punched in the face and the woman across the road and her neighbour had their car tyres slashed. The school absolutely don’t want to know. There’s nothing they can do, so they say. Their advice – call 101.

Weds 12th Sept, 2018 and I receive another text from a neighbour after yet another altercation. Yep, another car won’t get off her private drive. I call 101 and log it. We’re graded ‘standard’ and promised a visit from a PCSO. It never happened. We had a phone call and I was later visited by a police officer. We raise the issue with the local Councillor also, who passed the hot potato back on to the police.

Thursday 13th Sept 2018 and another neighbour tells me that their wellbeing is being seriously impacted by the debacle in the street twice a day, five days a week.

The police advised me to contact ‘parking’ at the council. So, I did. I emailed and contacted them via twitter. I know they can’t do anything about parking on private driveways, so I also mention the inappropriate dangerous driving in a narrow street, the double parking, parking on junctions and parking side by side and blocking the street completely.

Friday 14th Sept 2018 – I get a response from ‘parking’ at the council – it’s nothing to do with them. Contact ‘highways’ and the local Councillor…….so I do.

And now, taxis have started to use this tiny cul-de-sac to do their drop-offs – it’s mayhem.

Weds 26th Sept 2018 and ‘highways’ come back to me. They tell me that stationary parking offences now lie with ‘parking’ and the hot potato does the rounds again. They tell me that school gate problems happen all of the time………but we aren’t at the school gate…we’re at the back of school in a very narrow cul-de-sac where parents park on private drives, block the road completely and have pushed our fence down to beat their way through the woodland and through to the back of the school. Highways proceed to tell me that no parking restrictions work. Well I never! We call it a ‘fix that fails’ in my world! To stop non-resident cars using the street they would have to raise a Traffic Regulation Order but  they won’t do that because it is a, ‘lengthy process in its entirety and also costs several thousand pounds to incorporate the necessary design work, public consultation, advertisement in the press and the obvious physical works.’ I get a lengthy breakdown of costs…because, you know, they are more important than the safety of people in the street, including the school children, who have no paths to walk on (because cars are on them) the street is blocked and there’s mayhem with a number of cars all trying to do ridiculous manoeuvres around each other every day. They also said, ‘If motorists are specifically obstructing access to these spaces they are already contravening existing highway law that the local police teams can and do enforce, as such I can only suggest that you contact the local policing team who will be able to advise motorists of their responsibilities, ticket said vehicles or as a last resort tow away the vehicle to an impound.’ We should call them. We have, they haven’t! The Council closed the call out saying it was logged as a private parking issue. I say they’ve logged it incorrectly and don’t accept that it is closed. Of course, absolutely nothing is done.

 There’s been damage to the driveways by the cars. This is my neighbour’s drive – that hole is just the size that a child’s foot could go down it………

 And this one is sinking

 

Thursday 27th Sept 2018 and its brown bin day. We pull the bins out…………but the school bullies arrive and throw the bins in the woodland so they can park their cars on our private drives….again. I get the registrations and it’s another call logged on 101. We’re told to keep reporting it to the school…..and the hot potato does the rounds again. ‘Are you in a bad area?’ I hear you say. No, we are in one of the most affluent areas of our city.

I emailed the council again to request they consider resident parking only and I email the school again, as advised by the police.

Friday 28th Sept 2018 and the woman who owns the house next door is cutting down the trees. She couldn’t get onto her drive yesterday because the parents were blocking it and refused to move. Another altercation……

The police advise us of the phone number for victim support……FFS……..it isn’t victim support we need (yet another sticking plaster) we need this looking at systemically and some initiatives that reduce the need for cars to take kids to school implemented. We need safety in our street.

They also advise us to ‘come along to the community meeting’……………..now I’m really getting cheesed off.

Parking services come back to me, ‘at this point we would advise you to contact the Police on their 101 number’ ……..hot potato…here, catch!

I respond and tell them about the hot potato game…..anyone else want to join in?

 It’s now 24th June 2019 –  the hot potato game continues. The abuse continues. The impact on residents continues. The Councillor was out in the street this week, at our request, but still refuses to do anything. I ask what is being done on a more systemic level to tackle issues like this across the area? I’m looked at quite literally like I have two heads and told ‘nothing!’ The Council won’t budge and refuse to put in any controls. The residents are hiring a private firm to ‘police’ their area………….but the cars still come and the verbal abuse still occurs. Two incidents were logged with 101 again today. The Coucillor….well, he agreed that the street is ‘bad’ but as far as the council are concerned it’s ‘safe’. Know why? Because no-one has been knocked over or hurt here yet. Computer says ‘safe’…………………

 

Why it’s better to be helpful than to ‘know’

This morning I was reminded by Algar Goredema-Braid of a great little video by Gene Bellinger, which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKzdd63CdN0

There are some wise words in that video. You see, the cry I often hear from systems practitioners is, ‘but how do I get my organisation on board with systems thinking?’ and as Gene says, if you are asking this question, you have missed the point.

The talents of a skilled systems practitioner span much wider than the methods, models, tools, concepts of systems thinking. Some of the most talented systems thinkers I know have never been formally trained or educated in these areas, yet what they do know about is how to work with people.

One of the key skills of a systems practitioner is to guide people around to a systemic way of thinking without them ever having to learn the language or the concepts or the methods and models, in my opinion. Not everyone is going to be interested enough to do that, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.  Whether they are interested in learning the academics or not, we can still guide them towards a more systemic way of being, if that is in their interests.

Gene rightly points out, who wants to have things pointed out to them in a way that makes them feel stupid and then be told to think differently or sold a different way?

Listening, guiding, creating meaning, sharing, inquiring, sense-making and importantly – understanding relationships, how they work, why they don’t and what the implications of those relationships are is vital. When you move into this mode of using your systems thinking, this is when you become really skilled, I believe. Honour others’ perspectives (don’t criticise) and influence, use your skills to be helpful not ‘right’. The more you attempt to tell someone they are wrong, the further away you are likely to push them. If you really want change, then be helpful. Help others to make sense of their context and see things they might not have seen before but don’t sell to them. You’re a systems practitioner, not judge, jury and sales-person.

The viable system model in today’s world

I ran a training session on the viable system model yesterday, using a case study and my own practitioner experience to make the model ‘come to life’ for those in the room.  I think I was blessed because the group were fantastic and exactly in the right mind space to be receptive to the session.

I’m not really interested in regurgitating reams and reams of academics or unpicking a project that took place 50 years ago. I’m interested in being mindful of the past but working in the context of today. How people use the model now, today, in their own work environments. How it feels, what the barriers are and what insights it can unlock.

What I was hoping to demonstrate was that with no prior knowledge of a particular organisation, within one day of applying the model, some very powerful insights can be gained.

I also shared the way I have been using the model lately and how I have been considering how its application contributes to the conditions required to enable the development of skills and behaviours that can bring the humanity back to our work.

I talked about the impact of identity, relationships and new models of power and control. Purpose, meaning and strategies of collaboration and reciprocity. Policies of collaboration, sharing, empowering and enabling. Leaving efficiency behind and focussing on effectiveness and ensuring you have system ‘health checks’ in place that monitor the ability to adapt, flex, pivot and change. I talked about coaching, supporting and holding each other to account. Autonomy and accountability and at the same time, support for risk taking and failing.

When you take this mindset and couple it with the viable system model, you end up with a very powerful model for a different kind of organisational governance.

Does the viable system model have a place in today’s world – yes, it does. Can sharing about the VSM evolve beyond its highly technical model – yes, it can. Are people out there using it – yes, they are, and they are willing to bring the humanity back into the work and work with passion towards what they believe to be a positive way forward.

…….and the feedback was great!

Viable system model training

Viable System Model Training – Leeds

Out of all the approaches I use, I get asked most often about the viable system model. How do you use it? What does it look like in the real world? How do I apply it to my organisation? How do I apply it to my service? What do I look for when I am diagnosing my situation to see what might be going wrong? I can’t really get to grips with all of the text books, do you have any examples?

There has been a sudden upsurge in interest in the viable system model. Some people are realising that they need to add ‘something else’ to their current approaches to help deal with the complexity of today. In the world of consultancy, it is becoming recognised. In the world of public services, it is used more and more.

It is for these reasons that I have decided to run a 1 x day training course on the viable system model. The session will give an overview of the model and how it works and what to look for in your situation when you are using it. You will be given a real case study to apply the viable system model to. It is a case I have worked on in public services and I’ve done it this way so that I can share the real issues and barriers you might face when using the viable system model. I can also share the insights and what it meant in this particular case.

When is the training and where?

The training is being held in Leeds City Centre, on Friday 22nd March. Details and booking can be found on the Eventbrite site here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/applying-the-viable-system-model-training-tickets-55827383206

I would advise booking sooner, rather than later because there are limited places and booking will close 10 days before the day

 

Who is this training for?

This training is for anyone who has an interest in applying the viable system model to a situation. You can be from any kind of background, as long as you have an interest in the subject matter.

What will I learn?

You will learn the basics of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. You will learn about the five sub-systems of the model and what their functions are. You will also learn how to apply the model to a real-world situation, learning what to look for and how to spot areas for potential improvement in a situation, based on a diagnosis using the model

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking or the viable system model?

You do not need any prior knowledge of the viable system model to attend this course. It does help if you have some knowledge of systems thinking but don’t worry if you don’t. Systems thinking is such a wide field that any key concepts etc will be explained throughout the session. It is important to do this because of the wide range of interpretations that exist.

What will the format of the training be?

There will be some element of presentation when explaining the model. The majority of the day, however, will be your practical application of the model to a given case study. You will undertake a diagnosis of a messy situation, using a number of ‘guides’ that you will be provided with to help you along. It will be a mixture of thinking about certain elements alone and in groups and you will be guided by the trainer throughout.

The case study will be a situation that the trainer has actually worked on. That way, she can share real insights as to how the model can be applied and what you can look for when trying to identify areas for improvement. The case study is from public services. This area has been chosen for its ‘messiness’ which gives opportunities to demonstrate areas for improvement in many places. You do not have to have experience of or a background in public services to understand the case study or undertake the diagnosis. In fact, it can sometimes help if you don’t know much about the situation in the case study.

Do I need to do any prior reading for the training?

No, prior reading is not required.

Do I need to bring anything with me on the day?

Just the usual pen and notebook, if you want to make notes and, of course, the willingness and enthusiasm to learn in a friendly and sharing environment.

 

Thinking of hiring a systems thinker but wondering what they actually do?

I am often asked what a systems thinker is and what they do in their work. Of course, there are many academic responses to this and systems practitioners (and others) can spend an inordinate amount of time debating the answer. Whilst this might be helpful to the academic advancement of systems thinking, it doesn’t really help people in organisations who just want to know, ‘If you come and work with me, what will you do and how will it help me?’

There is a huge breadth of differences in how systems practitioners work and the approaches they use. So much so, it is impossible to answer on behalf of everyone. However, I can tell you some of what I do in my work and what I might focus on (which will invariably change depending upon the context of the situation). No references to academics or academic text, just ‘plain speak’:

I look at the bigger picture

I don’t just look at one tiny area. I zoom out and look at your problematic situation and the context in which it sits and how they impact one another now and/or how they might impact one another in the future.

I ‘see systems’

I look at things as systems. This means that I do not jump to blaming staff for the problematic situation. Nor do I jump straight to reorganising, restructuring, outsourcing etc. Issues in problematic situations are usually systemic and I seek to understand why they are really happening before making any kind of recommendations or changes. This doesn’t mean taking a long time either. My approaches can help me make recommendations or changes very quickly sometimes.

I don’t look at problem/ solution per se

In complex situations there is no problem/ solution per se. There is only and improvement from where you are now. Yes, in improving the situation you may solve some kind of problem along the way, but I look at how I can help you to be adaptable so that you can deal with your own issues on an ongoing basis

I respect different views and perspectives

I use a number of techniques (like diagramming) to work with different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The diagrams might include visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

I allow time to accommodate conflicting interests and help people work through their own understanding of the situation and that of others

This is a very under-rated exercise. It is extremely valuable. In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not as valuable as someone else’s interest. Just knowing that the person working with you and the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

I explore organisational arrangements and governance and diagnose what is preventing the system from operating to its maximum effect

This is done via systems modelling. I use a very powerful diagnostic approach to explore your situation and work out why things aren’t working quite as you want them to be.

I examine the thinking behind some of the faulty decision making in the system

It’s easy to have faulty decision making without even realising it. All of us are guilty of it at some time or another. It might be that there hasn’t been enough information when making the decision or someone might have been given poor advice. If a decision hasn’t given the outcome that you wanted it to, I can often pick up in my diagnosis why this might have been the case.

I use methods, concepts, tools and techniques to examine and deal with complex, dynamic and diverse problematic situations

I don’t just ‘wing-it’ or do what someone else has told me to do. I have applied systems and complexity thinking to my work for over 10 years. I use a variety of approaches that have sound theory behind them and I have, at some time, ‘tested them out’. I do try new things also, to ensure that my approaches keep developing and my thinking is ‘fresh’.

I support you to manage the complexity and manage in the complexity and encourage adaptability as key to your system surviving

I look to see what makes your system breathe, what makes its heart beat, what conditions have to exist to enable it to live, what makes it die. I look at how your system interacts with the environment around it. I look at what interdependencies exist, or don’t exist but should or could. I look for the drivers of your complexity and I look for the energy levels in your system – are people and processes energised, frantic? Are they stressed, fearful or in despair? Or are they asleep, calm, laid back with not a care in the world? I don’t just consider, ‘What is this thing?’ I consider, ‘What does it do?’

I examine the potential consequences of different configurations of the wider system

This is another place where I use some systems modelling. I use a number of approaches, depending upon the context of the situation. These approaches help me to understand what configuration might be most useful to you and allow you to be more adaptable moving forward.

I support collective decision making

Particularly in complex situations a collective decision can mean you get buy-in right from the start. Not all decisions can be made collectively of course but I do try to avoid top down dictates. I believe in the expertise that exists in systems and can often be ‘hidden’. I like to tap into that and make sure it is utilised and people are recognised for it.

I share whatever I can to help you learn

I don’t believe in keeping my ways of working to myself. When I work with you I put as much effort into sharing as I do into doing any other aspect of the work. The more systems and complexity thinking I can ‘infect’ you with the better, in my opinion. I try not to use technical language and complex ways of describing things. I try and keep it as simple as possible so that you can use the learning yourselves and pass it on to others.

 

Systems thinkers can bring a very different perspective to your work. They can help you understand why something keeps happening over and over again and can help you find options for improvement that you might never have thought of.

What Margaret Wheatley tells us about ‘a simpler way’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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