Why I believe sub-system 3* monitoring, from the viable system model, should get more emphasis

System 3* monitoring

We tend to hear about system 3* as a monitoring system in viable systems. Done effectively by ad hoc audit and not part of the performance management process or communication. We rarely hear about its true power.

When developing my materials for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ suite a number of years ago, system 3* was an essential element of the work. My booklet urges people to monitor for effective system characteristics and also for congruence between how the system is truly working and how it says it is working.

Creating the conditions for change – Monitoring

Making the system work in a more innovative way, means we have to monitor different things. We are likely never to get rid of performance management and reporting and might always have to submit things like KPIs but system 3* is different. I encourage people to enact it by looking at how healthy the system is, monitoring the internal context for the advocated system characteristics and for the presence of happy and fulfilled people.

My booklet encourages people to check if internal structures are supporting or hindering the work, rather than interfering with it. I also encourage people to check if information is being used as a power tool, rather than nourishment.  To look to see if reciprocation is happening and that co-creation is happening across traditional boundaries.

I monitor to see how flexible processes and people are, whether they can adapt, pivot and make change in appropriate timescales. I monitor for the ability to ‘deep dive’ quickly if required. My accompanying action cards give options for all levels of the system from the individual to the multi organisation/ systems change levels.

My booklet also outlines skills that are useful to have in this kind of function. In particular, being a system health check monitor. It was examination of what system 3* monitoring could look like, over the course of 10+ years of using the viable system model in my work that prompted me to develop it quite far in my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ suite of materials and in my own systems thinking approach.

Creating the Conditions for Change – action cards with actions for monitoring functions

I am now heavily using system 3* monitoring in a piece of evaluation work, which has been ongoing for the last year and looking promising.

If you are interested in my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ materials, consultancy and training, please contact pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Please note that this text is from my copyrighted consultancy suite of materials and must be referenced appropriately if replicated. Please act with integrity if using any of my work.

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‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ for public services and beyond – working at multiple levels of the system

I have been blogging over the years about the gradual development of my Creating the Conditions for Change kit for those in public services and beyond. My suite of materials, both workshop materials and consultancy materials have seen many iterations and are based on my work since 2007 with the viable system model, other systems thinking approaches and some of it is from my days of transformation and improvement before then.

The kit is multi-faceted, consisting of my approach to systemic inquiry, using a blended systems thinking approach (below)

Systemic Inquiry Using a Blended Systems Thinking Approach

and my application of the viable system model and other systems thinking. It includes a suite of materials to support identification of patterns of system behaviour that may be harming your team/ service/ department/ organisation/ cross organisation working (viable system model system archetypes).

I have also turned my work with the viable system model into a human focussed suite of materials, based on Creating the Conditions for Change at each fractal level of the system and bringing humanity back into the work by focussing on what we, as human beings, need and want to feel nourished in our working ecosystem. This work stemmed from me revisiting my viable system model work and realising that whenever it worked well was when I used it to ‘create the conditions for change’ for a happy, nurturing and effective working ecosystem.

My workshop materials consist of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel

Systems Thinking Change Wheel (from Creating the Conditions for Change)

The wheel gives us the areas of focus for each fractal later in the system. Sitting under the wheel is a booklet summarising how and why we need to Create the Conditions for Change, relating to each area of the wheel.

Creating the Conditions for Change booklet

The real power lies in the action cards, which accompany the booklet. There are around 120 actions that help you to consider what to put in place, at each level of the system to create a healthier, more human centred, work ecosystem. Learning, adaptability, and how we make change are central. Bringing humanity back into the work is a key element and exists both as an area of focus in the wheel and in the actions throughout. There is also a big focus on creating relationship enablers and developing interaction channels, again stemming from my work with the viable system model.

Creating the Conditions for Change action cards

Starting with the individual – how we can use insights from the viable system model to look at ourselves and our own development. In any situation, we need to look at ourselves as much as anyone else. The Creating the Conditions for change kit can be used on ourselves, at a personal level, to create our own learning system and support our development. It considers how can we become more self-referencing, embrace our autonomy and peer support each other. The action cards include suggestions for this and many other things.

At a team level – we apply the same thinking at a team level. The focus here is not just on your own team but forging relationships across teams. Sharing resources, re-imagining roles, how we communicate and make decisions differently are a key area of focus in the actions at this level. They seek not only to make the team effective but to support the learning and development of the individual, in line with their own professional identity and purposes.

At a service level – again, it is the same thinking here but with slightly different actions. Collaborating, seeing wider than your own service, promoting joint decision making and reviewing your system for signs of system ‘sickness’ come into play here, as well as many other actions. Collaborations at a service level, set the ethos of collaboration at the team level below.

At an organisational level – here we start thinking about deliberate reciprocation strategies and acknowledgement of the benefits of cross organisational working. These reciprocations strategies enable collaborations at a service level below.

Multi-organisational level – we have many actions relating to the level of multiple organisations working together. Not least, undertaking system health checks to expose whether policies, procedures, funding etc are helping or hindering and whether power and information is nurturing the system or harming it. Co-creating together, enabled by deliberate reciprocation strategies is key and link to the enablement of such reciprocation strategies at an organisational level below.

Systems change – we then flow into the area of system change and this is where it gets really interesting.

Exploring and Enabling Systems Change

What I have found in my work on systems change is that nurturing people and bolstering their confidence is a critical factor, as is harnessing the collective power of those at every level of the system. Co-creating, using small scale prototyping is something I have brough in from my days back in improvement, pre systems thinking. Specifically, from my days in pharmaceutical specials manufacturing.

The power in all of this is that insights are shared at multiple levels of the system. When we take action at multiple levels, concurrently, powerful change can come from something seemingly very small.

This kit and my approach is developing all of the time.  A new iteration with even more insights is underway….who knows where it will go next……

Services

Services are available in using this kit to help you understand your system, consultancy services, workshops and training in the approach and in systems thinking in general. The kit has been used in multiple contexts, both public and private sector.

For further information for your organisation contact: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Please note that all materials are copyrighted. If you build on them, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

Insights from the Viable System Model for Personal Development, Coaching and Creating the Conditions for Change

In my Creating the Conditions for Change work, we focus on the individual as much as the wider system. Learning and development starts with ourselves, and this is where exploration of our fractal layers in the system starts.

I started using the viable system model for my own learning and development back in 2011 as part of an Open University course, U810 Continuing Professional Development in Practice. Its value was immediately obvious to me and it became not just part of my own CPD but the first area of focus in my consulting and coaching practices. If a person can master their own learning and development, they can then use the same techniques on the team, department, organisation, place, can’t they? Yes, they can, and it is often how I help others to embed the thinking of the viable system model without ever mentioning its name.

A number of people have asked me about this lately and in my Creating the Conditions for Change work, every area I work on is firstly focussed on the individual – how do we learn, change and adapt? How do we develop our skills and talents for self-referencing and self organisation? How do we enable ourselves to instigate and make change? How do we create connections with others, build our networks, collaborate, reciprocate and encourage our own human system coherence? How do we allow ourselves humanity and healing in our everyday lives? How do we ensure that what we are doing this in line with our identity and our own stated purposes? How do we make sense of the world around us and pivot when we need to? How do we accept our responsibilities, be accountable to ourselves and develop our own identity, purposes and goals? If we can’t start with ourselves, then we are going nowhere.

The viable system model was initially useful for me personally for clearly setting out the configuration of my own development, so that I could see how it fit together as a viable system. I was able to identify how my cyclical second order thinking and co-creation of knowledge and insight were acting to co-ordinate and performance manage my own development as a learning system. This is something I might not have otherwise recognised. This is one of the reasons that learning became a central element of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel, a key diagram in my Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials. If we master how we learn, then we can master how the system in which we are embedded learns and the system in which that sits and so on.

The viable system model enabled me to identify areas I needed to strengthen in my own learning and development system. System 3, where I needed to strengthen how quickly I could bring new thinking into my everyday practices, giving sufficient time to both personal, work and development aspects of my system. System 5, where I needed to better govern the balance between looking forward and dealing with the everyday and refine what my identity was and would be going forward.

The viable system model was also a useful framework that enabled me to understand that strengthening the capability of the control function of my learning system in future would develop requisite variety and would keep my system under control.

It also enabled me to make explicit the value of my intellectual capital and enabled me to identify risks to my learning and development system. This is something I see people almost ‘throw away’ in practice as they hand their power to others and hide their skills and talents.

It encouraged me to use my own autonomy in future and take control over my learning and development activities to mitigate against risk to me as a system and strengthen my personal viability, rather than undertaking learning and development activities to please the agendas of others.

After using the viable system model on myself and realising its value, it became a staple in my consulting and coaching practices. My aim – to enable others to do the same for themselves and then, in turn, for others they encounter on their life journey.

Joe Navarro explains it beautifully in his new book, ‘Be Exceptional’ when he says these three things, ‘self-mentorship is a gift you give yourself’,  ‘luck is the residue of the hard work we put into our self apprenticeship’ and ‘delight in where you learning quest takes you’.

Note: this work is part of my Creating the Conditions for Change consultancy, training and coaching kit. If you build directly on it, do remember to act with integrity and reference it appropriately.

Tutor tales – what is it like to be a marker of systems thinking work?

‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’ – Margaret Wheatley

I was inspired by a student to write this. It relates to my experience of being a tutor on the postgraduate systems thinking courses with the Open University. This narrative is not endorsed by the OU and is not an official narrative for the OU. It relates to my own personal experiences only and should be taken as such. Now I’ll begin…….

It’s a beautiful day outside. The birds have been singing since 4am, the sun is shining, and I can smell cut grass wafting in on the gentle breeze coming through the window. We have been in lockdown for so long and now we have been set free and every minute outside feels like a heavenly hour. But, I’m inside, at my computer with a recent batch of EMAs (end of module assessments). The time scale for marking is tight. I’m aware of the pressure and how marking will dominate my schedule in the fortnight ahead.

Students are sometime quite nervous when they submit their EMAs. It’s a relief, I’m sure but that wait for the result can feel like a lifetime. I know, I did all of my qualifications with the OU and the minute you press ‘submit’ the nerves are there until the day the result comes through.

Marking is an honour. You get to see the finished product at a point in the student’s journey when their learning is really coming together. I get quite excited to read what is in front of me and I settle down into it quickly. And then the nerves kick in. Am I interpreting their work properly? Am I interpreting the module team’s requirements properly? I have the students’ futures in my hands and I am acutely aware of it. I read and mark and read and mark and read again. I check and double check. If I read an EMA at 9am in the morning I am fresh and bright eyed and I need strategies to keep that freshness going for every single one I read. I break between every single assessment, go for a brief walk, sit in the garden, listen to a favourite song or speak to a friend on the phone. Every 3-4 EMAs I have a long break and maybe go to the gym or to the pool and in the jacuzzi (usually all three) – anything to keep my mind relaxed and fresh.

I said it is a honour to read the work and I really mean it. Every time I get a glimmer of systems concepts really sinking in. Every time I see a student debate their understanding, I see a richness of thought that makes them shine. No matter what grade they get, every student brings something unique and interesting to the table.

Being a systems practitioner myself, I know how the journey feels when you are learning systems thinking. I know about the uncertainty, the doubt, the worry that you have misinterpreted something completely. I have been through the courses I now tutor on and I know the emotional journey very well. I want to help my students through it, just like I was helped through it, and I worry that I haven’t done enough. I worry if I have caused any misunderstandings along the way. I worry that I haven’t given enough support, nurtured enough or done my very best to ensure they have the best chance of success…………..then I read again. Yes, again. An EMA goes through several iterations of reading – at the beginning of day, at the end of a day, on a weekday, on a weekend, before lunch, after lunch, before tea, after tea, any time. I do everything I can to make sure I assess it appropriately. Of course, it isn’t me who assigns a final grade. The Module Result panel does that, but my contribution has to be right. I couldn’t live with myself if it wasn’t.

Tutoring isn’t something you do for money. I could tutor on 6 different courses and still not match the salary I had when I was in my late 20s, let alone now (I’m in my 50s now). Most tutors I know don’t do the work for money but because they believe in the subject area and have a passion for helping others learn. On the systems thinking courses, most tutors are practitioners themselves. Some, like me, have come through the courses themselves. It is a team where I can truly say there is a high level of dedication and a desire to do the best we can. It is just as well really, because a tutor’s journey can be a lonely one. Sitting with your allocation of marking, knowing what is at stake for each and every student.

When a student hits the ‘submit’ button the nerves kick in. When the tutor presses the ‘submit results’ button the nerves kick in. We’re with you! Every step of the way.

The art of pushing complexity onto your customers

My experience of moving home lately has left me exasperated, exhausted and a little bit angry. The actual moving isn’t the issue, but changing my address has been a complete nightmare. It has shown me how far away from customer service organisations have moved. Their desperate quest to cut down on staffing and save money has left behind an inadequate and frustrating mess of nonsensical procedures for customers to navigate.

I’ve had them all, the six forms that can only be printed, filled out by hand and sent by snail mail, the irritating phone menus that take you round and round in loops for what seems like forever, the ‘you have to wait at least a week for this because when you email it to us, our worker in the office has to print it off, scan it then email it to me so that I can action it’. Yes, really, you read that right. Maybe they haven’t heard of a forward button on an email? And I had this twice, believe it or not.

I’ve had the phone menus that take you thorough about four menus, take a raft of details over and over again and then cut you off with no action. I’ve encountered a complete lack of flexibility in these processes, unable to deal with anything other than basic requests. I’ve navigated websites that had what I needed buried, about four menus in. And the bots, oh the bots….dont you just love ‘em? No, I really don’t. Online web chats are rarely much better with staff following a script and devoid of real interaction. ‘Hello’ ‘hello I need to change my address’. Two minutes later, yes a whole two minutes, ‘How can we help you’ erm….didnt I just tell you how? And so it went on…… One webchat interaction took just over 20 mins of painful, monotonous interaction and I still didn’t get my address changed at the end of it. I’ve been through, ‘can you come to the branch’ no, not during covid, I cant. ‘What about printing this form off’ errmm….nope, my printer is packed. ‘We are on the phone, can’t you just deal with it over the phone’? ‘No, you need to re-register for phone interactions’. ‘But I’ve already registered, that’s how I’m speaking to you now’. ‘No, we need you to register again because it needs to be logged in our system in a different way’. Seriously, I mean seriously? I’ve had equipment not turn up because the person I spoke to said yes, but computer said something different. I’ve had a raft of computer generated correspondence that was not relevant to my situation. The cherry on the cake are the parallel systems. One automatically generating correspondence and a parallel process doing something else and the two never speaking to each other, so what you end up with as a customer is huge mess of incorrect information, not relevant to your situation at all.

I have a whole list of people to contact, it’s taken days and I’m only a third of the way through. This is a significant difference to a number of years ago when I just had to pick the phone up and it was all done in a couple of days.

But, why am I mentioning this, other than to have great big moan? I am mentioning it because all of these companies have tried to deal with their variety by taking steps that suit themselves, and not the customer. Their purpose is to make their lives easier, not their customers. The have effectively reduced their variety by pushing more complexity onto the customer. They might use fewer staff and save money that way but are completely clueless about how the customer is impacted by their ridiculous processes.

My biggest worry though, and this is the element that has left me angry, is that a number of these organisations claim to be ‘systems thinkers’. In fact, the one that was the very worst to deal with, having excessive phone menus that gave a huge list of ‘codes’ for what department you might want to talk to, makes the biggest claim to be systems thinkers of all of the organisations I encountered. I went round and round on their website, being sent in a loop and never getting anywhere, for so long that I gave up. Next, I tried phoning and ended up on a roundabout again. Eventually, I got to speak to someone. ‘Oh, you need to do that on the website’. ‘Nope, it won’t let me do it because…’. ‘But you need to do that on the website’. ‘It won’t let me because……and I’ve been going round in circles for 20 mins now and getting nowhere. All I want to do is change my address’. ‘Oh, ok then, I’ve just changed it’. Simple as that! I was fuming at the push off when it was clear it could be done really easily.

I can tell you, with some confidence, that pushing your complexity onto the customer is not systems thinking, it is nonsense. Where is the thinking? Are customers so insignificant nowadays that making simple things so difficult is ok? You really need to have a re-think.

In contrast, I dealt with a company who has won awards for ‘customer service of the year’ a number of times. They came recommended to me. Their process was simple, quick, took about 5 mins. The staff were great. They deal with the complexity of my ask, that had some additional requests, easily and effectively.

Then a second organisation. One quick phone call dealt with the address change and some additional requests quickly, effectively and in about 5 mins.

It isn’t hard. It really isn’t. Your fancy IT processes deal with complexity really badly, from a customer’s perspective.  Many of these companies have been wooed by the thought of doing something radically different in dealing with their demand. What they have, in fact, developed is a Frankenstein’s monster, devoid of thought and lacking in the purpose of being useful to customers.  How very sad that they think this is the way forward.

Creating the conditions to support learning about systems thinking

I often blog about my work on ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ in terms of how we nurture our working ecosystem to enable change to happen. This means change in ourselves also. I have been working for quite a number of years now on ways to help others on their journey into systems thinking and systems change. One thing I am sure of, is that giving someone a concept that they have never come across before and expecting them to understand it, just because you have explained it, is not going to get you very far.

In my opinion, systems thinking is an experiential journey. Only when you have been on the journey, often aided by someone shining a light into the dark corners and helping to unlock your own inner wisdom will things start to make sense. This often takes for the person to be along side you, to link the concept to what you are seeing in front of you and how you are feeling and experiencing it at the time. It can also come in the form of engaging and enlightening stories. Stories that are authentic, that demonstrate a deep engagement with a situation and highlight not just how a systems thinker understands things but how they feel and experience them also. These are the experiences that make things ‘real’. These are the things that people can relate to. These are the unwritten things that help people with understanding and are critical scaffolding for the learning journey.

We need to help people stand in the waterfall of the journey and let the whole experience wash over them, immersing them fully in it. Letting them feel the sting of the rapid flow and the gentle trickle closer to the edges. Helping them to experience the invigoration and the point at which it makes you feel cold. Helping them not to be scared but to step right in to the flow.

The conditions we create around the learner to enable them to experience systems thinking concepts allows them to enact a journey of learning with that concept that is different to being given a concept and told to apply it. The journey is stronger when it is experienced. My style of helping others to learn? Create the right conditions and take them on a journey. A journey of many emotions and feelings. An adventure of sorts. Who knows how it will end?

The systems thinker, the shaman and the addict

I’m emotional, overwhelmed and amazed. I feel warm inside, relaxed and hopeful. The last four months has been some journey. When I embarked on it, I never imagined that I would be in an online room with a shaman and an addict and we would do such powerful work together.

It wasn’t just us in the group, there were others too. All authentic, passionate people who work from the heart with humanity and humility. I embarked on the journey as a co-facilitator and bringer of systems thinking expertise into a programme to help people empower themselves to instigate and contribute to system change in the city in which they live. I don’t think I have come across a group so positive and passionate about creating change. The shamanic development of our ‘tribe’, the systems and complexity thinking and the powerful, gritty, real stories from people with lived experience of multiple complex needs coupled with some powerful prototyping tools, coaching and storytelling skills from other facilitators that we brought in and we have an intoxicating mix.

One thing that pulled the group together was the lack of work titles. Everyone came into the programme as themselves. They brought their whole selves, their vulnerable selves, their authentic selves. They brought their cats, dogs and children. They brought a sense of being real, being authentic and wanting to share.

Developing a more embodied approach was key and people went for it, easily and confidently. We shared, laughed, cried and learned our way forward together.

For a number of years now, I have advocated for people who would not normally identify as being a ‘systems thinker’ as being some of the strongest and most insightful systems thinkers I know. They knock the spots off any loud-mouthed show-offs out there who can talk about it but have no clue how to put it into practice. The key ingredient?…………………humility. The group had the humility to self-reflect, not to judge, to connect and form relationships that I believe will be long-lasting.

I heard stories of addiction that pulled at every heart string. Of struggles and barriers that we build into people’s lives that take away their dignity and throw them to the ground. I heard stories of passionate workers who refused to give in and determinedly navigated an unimaginably complex web in order to support others. I heard stories of people who realised that yes, they were leaders, even when they weren’t at the top of the hierarchy in an organisation. I heard stories of light bulb moments, of finding different ways to have conversations and of self-belief when realising that what they were thinking and feeling was legitimate, had a name and now they could articulate it and work with it.

Creating the conditions for change is the most important element of systems change, in my opinion. Without it, nothing else matters. The relationships, the trust, the sharing, the compassion and caring. Without it, we just have changes that are often meaningless, soulless and cold. Bring in humility, bring in humanity, bring in love for other human beings and it’s a powerful mix.

This side of systems thinking is not always palatable with people. Those who can’t understand other people, see things from their point of view or can’t self-reflect enough to allow a deep blending of others’ thoughts with their own. It’s how powerful change happens though; of that I am sure.

The enablers of systems thinking – their amazing power and why some may find them unpalatable

In my experiences of engaging with and applying systems thinking I have come to realise that it is what many call the ‘softer skills’ that have been some of the key enablers for change. When working closely with others and applying systems thinking in a situation, I deeply consider the people within it. My suggestions for points of intervention come from my wider explorations and within that, I don’t forget that it is people we are engaging with and those people crave social inclusion, belonging, nurturing and relationships. They have their own values, beliefs and identity. All of us, yes, all of us, crave to be socially connected in some way or another in my opinion. Exclusion hurts us as badly as physical pain. I’ve blogged about this before, after I read the book, ‘Social’ by Matthew D Lieberman. He explains that ‘when human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way as it responds to physical pain’. He tells us that, ‘we all inherit an attachment system that lasts a lifetime, which means we never get past the pain of social rejection just as we never get past the pain of hunger’.  Interesting isn’t it, that our ‘sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event, whether the instance of social rejection matters or not’.

We are wired to be part of the gang, to have connections and to belong. Now, if that belonging in an organisation is dependent upon keeping your head down, keeping quiet about issues and not doing anything radical, it is my experience that the majority of people are likely to conform to his norm. They need the belonging and they need the work.

As systems practitioners, it is useful if we can help people to challenge conformity, stick their heads above the parapet and make bold or different moves. Take chances. Be risk takers and dare to fail. But what about the fear? The fear of social rejection as a result of standing out? How do we help people deal with this? Do we really know the extent of the ask we are making of people and do we equip them to deal with it in a way that avoids exclusion and the pain of becoming isolated from their peers if they adopt different approaches to their work and even to their own lives?

How do we, and can we, manipulate the working environment to allow the authentic people that work there to showcase their gifts, their personality, their talents and their plethora of ideas and visions. Them, with their powers of connection and excellent networking abilities. Them, with their co-operative partnerships. Them, in their true sense. Not a shadow form of themselves that they adopt so that they can ‘fit in’ and avoid the pain of social inclusion.

Now, when I crawled out of bed early this morning and set up my laptop, I never imagined I would feel so awake in such a short space of time. By ‘awake’ I mean revitalised, energised and inspired. You see, I recently had yet another very stimulating and energising conversation about bringing the humanity back into the workplace. About allowing people to be themselves. About harnessing their creativity and about really living and enjoying their days, not just existing. At the end of it, I was ever more convinced that creativity and truly being allowed to ‘be your authentic self’ are key enablers to effectively applying systems thinking. And so, when people discuss ‘the barriers to systems thinking’ I wonder if they really mean ‘the barriers to people being their true authentic selves’ and it not really being about the systems thinking models, methods, approaches per se.

I know a plethora of people who are system thinkers. I observe them remaining hidden like shiny gems embedded in a dull rock face. They are the diamonds. The jewels that remain hidden with heavy hearts, shrouded in the identity of an imposing ‘grey’ organisation, where ‘fitting is’ is the only thing that avoids the pain of social exclusion or even worse, dismissal.  The pain of social exclusion avoided, but the pain of unfulfillment written all over their faces. Their true values falling from their tree of life like discarded leaves from an autumn tree because they are at odds with the values of the organisation they serve. Joy and fulfilment seen as things to keep hidden, replaced with monotony and regime.

But we can build relationships, alliances, supportive networks and communities. We can nurture, support and motivate. We can co-operate and form partnerships. We can encourage those gems to pop out from the grey wall and dance and shine in all of their beauty. We can encourage and help others to believe in themselves again.

There is a danger here, of course, that sometimes, not always, but certainly sometimes, others don’t want those gems to shine. They don’t want to create the conditions of nurturing, sharing and encouraging individuals to exercise their gifts to the full. They prefer power and control. They like to keep people ‘in their place’ so that their own world doesn’t get rocked in any way. This is what stands in the way of systems thinking, in my experience. Not the language (that’s an easy cop out). Not the approaches (if you don’t understand them, find the people who do, so that they can help you. There are plenty of people out there). It isn’t the heavy texts (although they do exist) or the fact you can’t draw (basic diagrams are powerful and don’t have to be polished works of art). The biggest barriers I have seen are power and control. They seek to stamp out the nurturing enablers that allow people to think freely and openly. To share and discuss. To listen and understand. Systems thinking is powerful when it becomes embodied but what stands in its way are the ever-present issues of power and control. Particularly power cliques who merge together and become toxic hives of manipulation. These are the ones who can find the true enablers of systems thinking unpalatable, because it takes away their power, dilutes their control and encourages people around them to peep their heads out from the hierarchy and show off their talents. They tend to like the idea of systems thinking, but only if they are the only ones to be able to ‘do it’. We all know how destructive that can be. So, if you really want to apply systems thinking, give these enablers some thought. Then, self-reflect and ask yourself if you are the one protecting a power base? Are you the one controlling others? Are you the one preventing those around you from shining brighter? If so, it is never too late to change that and who knows, you might even like the results.

Is systems thinking a bit shallow, obvious and academic with no practical guidance?

At first it would be easy for a systems thinker to be a bit taken aback by this statement, offended even. But think about it, is it a bit obvious? And is it academic? I would have to say that my answer to this, at this point in time, is yes and no. Shallow? Well, I think that has a different answer, which I think is no. Here are my reasons:

We now live in a country where lies from Government are an everyday occurrence, racism is coming out to play and underdogs are seen as merely that. We are in a global arena where the 1% rule and others suffer from their greed, dominance and desire to control. Systems thinking, with its relationships, reciprocation, self-organisation, emergence and feedback seems almost like an alien concept to some. But it isn’t, is it? It is ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’. It is the essence of life and we can see it all around us in nature. So, why might it seem academic, with no practical guidance?

Well, think of it like this – Does your company have policies of reciprocation, with those you might traditionally see as competitors, which put the greater good of the ‘system’ first and the selfish needs of the organisations second? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you have internal organisational protocols that reward for cross organisation collaboration and sharing? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you monitor your organisation by considering the effectiveness of its systemic sensibilities and its ability to adapt in a changing environment? In most cases, I doubt it.  Mind numbing KPIs that drive perverse behaviours are far more attractive. They can be manipulated to read however you want your organisation to appear. Individuals can celebrate, gain promotion and the company can go to the top of the ratings chart. Do you allow teams the maximum feasible amount of autonomy, give them the authority to act and decide with them how you like decisions to be made and then let them work using their initiative and creativity? In most cases, I doubt it. Most managers love to control their subordinates, telling them what to do, holding them back from opportunity and killing their spirit, often to elevate their own status and standing in the organisation. Do you allocate resources to your departments with the intention of allowing people to make enough money to live on whilst also having a good work/ life balance? Or do you squeeze every drop of work out of them that you can, pay them as little as you can get away with and get rid of them at a drop of a hat when you want to make ‘savings’? Would you go to your Board meeting and tell your partners that you want to ‘create the conditions for change’ with others, rather than compete and be the best? You would be laughed out of the Boardroom in a lot of cases. It is not that there is no practical guidance. It is not that the concepts are inaccessible. It is that the practical guidance is not palatable and not in synch with our competitive, combative ways of doing business.

Our Western world has moulded us in such a way that what has become obvious to many is not collaboration but competition, not sharing but hoarding, not reciprocation but taking everything we can for ourselves. We are educated in ways that makes us consider things as independent subjects. Our politics teaches us that charlatan like behaviour wins. Many know this way is wrong and seek better ways. Through them, there is lots of practical guidance, but it isn’t what everyone wants to hear. This is even evident in the systems thinking community. There are often claims of collaboration and sharing and yet the reality boils down to competition and a need for control. To be seen as first, or more importantly not to be seen as being last.

But, is systems thinking ‘all that’? Is it the thing that will ‘save us’, make our world better and end misery on our planet? Make our organisations thrive and grow? Who knows if it can prevail over the dominant competitive control? Our democracy is for sale and our internal worlds are all individually constructed by algorithms and behaviour shifting manipulation. Can systems thinking prevail over this. Some say it can. Personally, I think all we can do is keep trying.

So, is it obvious? It should be but it has been lost somewhere along the way. Is it academic? Only if you are looking in the wrong places for inspiration and practical examples of implementation. There are lots out there. If you can’t see them, you aren’t looking. Is it shallow? I don’t think so because systems thinking includes humans and the nature of human behaviour is not shallow. We are the creators and destroyers of ourselves. We create the conditions around us that do not let systems thinking thrive. Why do we prefer competition and ‘winning’ over sharing and collaborating? Why do we prefer control over freedom? Why do we prefer to only see what we want to see, rather than the bigger picture? These are quite deep questions and are being debated and considered by systems thinkers and others across the globe.

In essence, I think the question is the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking ‘systems thinking is quite obvious, so why is it still in the world of the academic without it being practically implemented?’ It is only with this kind of question, rather than the ‘it’s great – no it isn’t’ debate that I think we might start to get some additional enlightenment.

Despite my own inner concerns, I continue to pursue what I believe to be good and right. What is true to human nature and what sets us free from the negativity and binding control. It’s a tough road to travel, but I haven’t been put off yet.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley (one of my favourite systems thinkers) ‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’. Maybe you have to believe it, to see it.

Zoom out from the service

Taking the System Thinking Change Wheel into a different context took me to an area of familiarity – the NHS. Leadership development is always on people’s lips and in their thoughts, it seems, at the moment.

For this session I used a case study example of something I have worked on to run a workshop. It was a complex NHS service that, like most, was interdependent with a number of other health and care organisations and services. Nothing is stand alone in the NHS. Just about everything is a complex web of interconnectivity and interdependence, including multiple organisations and a multitude of people and processes.

Knowing about systems thinking is one thing. Knowing enough about it to be able to work effectively with it, without having to spend a long time studying about it, is another. Clients usually want to jump straight in and get to grips with the complex situation they face.

I sometimes find that people’s default position in the NHS is to try and improve the processes in a service, rather than zooming out to see the wider picture and think about the wider system aswell. This means that options for change and improvement are limited and an easy way out is to blame staff for poor performance of the service. But there is another way to expose more about the situation, leading to a wider range of opportunities for change and improvement.

The workshop

We start the day by exploring the biggest challenges people have whilst trying to make change and we have some discussions around what makes systems viable. It is an interesting and enlightening session with lots of interactive exercises and moving around. Ideas are flowing and people are engaged.

Then, we move quickly into a case study – no time to lose. After a short run through of the case study the room is split into groups and each group is given a section of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel to consider. Without considering any actions at this time, each group are given a different set of questions about the situation to discuss. More information is available to help discussions along, but only if people request it. It helps those in the room think about what information they might need to understand why the situation is like it is.

Bringing all of the discussions together exposes a tangled web at many levels of organisation – an individual level, a team level, an organisational level and at a wider system level. The information in the room is rich and enlightening.

We move on to using the action cards – a different set for each group. They get going, identifying areas where there is strength in the situation – where things are going really well. Then, it is on to the areas that need more work. Finally, the groups are given tokens that represent resources – money, people, equipment, innovation, training etc. They are challenged to show where they would invest time/ effort/ money and why. Not surprisingly, this does not go on blaming staff or just telling the service to ‘do better’. They don’t know it, but they have just done quite a sophisticated diagnosis of the situation. The levels in the situation are easily visible, the imbalances creating havoc are visible and they have identified many areas for improvement.

The benefits

The groups discussed, supported each other, considered the wider picture, motivated each other, challenged, contextualised and shifted each other’s perspectives several times. It was a joy to watch.

Using insights that I brought from the actual situation I had worked on, we shared stories and feelings and insights. We looked at things from several angles and quite unbeknown to them, they were collectively ‘systems thinking’. They were also co-creating a potential way forward. The vibe was high energy and I even heard the words, ‘oh, this is fun’ at one point. We explored the balance between autonomy and control, empowerment, adaptability, trust, power and enabling structures.

We explored the role of managers, flexibility, pivoting and the balance between generalist and specialist roles.

There were a few shifts in thinking that day and an assuring buzz in the room. We were focussing on how to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’, rather than focussing on individual ‘do this’ ‘do that’ actions. Each situation requires actions that are contextually specific. The trick for me is to guide people in the right direction and then encourage them to decide on those context specific actions themselves. No ‘lift and shift’ answers here.

Creating the Conditions for Change Workshop – available online and face to face