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.


What can a professional ice hockey player teach us about system change? Quite a lot, I believe!

I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Brackenbury talk about his work on ‘Optimising Human Performance’ this week. No, he isn’t an academic or a systems practitioner, he is a professional ice hockey player and coach and yet he applies elements of NLP and viable system modelling to his training and coaching and what a result he gets! (http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=12084)

Rather than describing his methods in detail, I’m going to cut straight to what I, personally, saw in his work that resonated with me about applying the viable systems model, on the ground, for transformation or system change. This is what I call ‘the glue’, the stuff that makes it work and, sadly, the stuff that people often miss out and then wonder why they are not getting results.

Elements of the VSM that I saw in his work, with my own comments added underneath:

• The importance of effective and quick data sharing across the whole group and good general sharing mechanisms, to allow continual adjustment

  • this is a very important aspect of viable systems. Real time data sharing is one of the key enablers for a system to be viable. The quicker and more real time the data, the more chance you have of enabling continual adjustment and adaptability which are absolutely key, particularly for system change.

• Having a dynamic approach

  • Again, absolutely key to enabling an effective viable system. A dynamic approach supports ongoing adaptability and encourages change

• Have a number of contingencies in place and accept that things can’t be heavily planned

  • This is a key mindset for ongoing adaptability and regeneration. Heavy planning is not as important as being able to adapt

• Continual feedback and learning across the system

  • Between every element of the viable system model is a feedback loop. Understanding these feedback loops can be a key element of success. Also, If the system is not undertaking double or triple loop learning, then it is unlikely to be viable in the longer term.

• Have strong control mechanisms in place (i.e. coaches)

  • Having things in place that can bring the system back within its control limits is key for a viable system

• No so much focus on the ‘cogs’ but lots of focus on the regulation (particularly self-regulation)

  • Focussing on the interactions, rather than focussing on the ‘things’, is key to understanding how your system is working, particularly when enacting system change

• Measure in detail and understand the behavioural side of things

  • Part of the monitoring loop and links to self-organisation

• Looking at the athlete holistically within the systems in which they sit

  • As you would look at the system, the system in which it sits and the systems within in. i.e. the 3 levels of recursion you would work with, with a viable system model

• Train for deception – train to create it and train to read it

  • I think this is one of the most important things he said. If you train for deception you are telling you brain not to have a fixed way of doing things. Be prepared for anything, to go in any direction. Just like the speedy self-organisation sometimes required to respond to your environment in real time. This was an EXCELLENT piece of advice, encouraging exactly the right mindset to enable system change

• Look for people’s responses. Look for patterns

  • A true system thinker!

Aspects that I picked up in his talk that I think are essential to your leadership style when using systems thinking in practice (with my comments underneath):

• The importance of identity, culture and being part of something important

  • Absolutely yes. Identity is extremely important for a viable system. If you don’t know your identity and you can’t self-regulate then it is unlikely you will be able to engage in the self-organisation required to maintain viability. If you don’t feel like you are part of something important, you are in the wrong place!

• You have got to let go of the ego

  • This is absolutely spot on! Using systems thinking, if you don’t let go of your ego you will never break through the barriers to allow yourself to see what is happening in the situation. You will always have an ‘ego filter’ that tells you why something isn’t so. You have to be humble to use systems thinking or you will never challenge yourself and never become as adaptable as you need to be

• Identify the value added for the individual to highlight why they would do something

  • Absolutely! This is like ‘show, don’t tell’. You have to highlight what the value would be to the individual of using systems thinking or viable system modelling, not sell the thinking or the model per se, or you are wasting your time. Show the value, not the ‘thing’

• Respectful relationships are key

  • Obvious, really

• You need the courage to be vulnerable

  • This is absolutely key when using systems thinking and viable system modelling for transformation or system change. If you aren’t prepared to be vulnerable enough to go on a journey of discovery, then any attempts at applying different thinking will be a complete waste of time

• Do not get locked into one paradigm

  • Absolutely! And yet so very difficult. Many people do not understand that they are locked in a certain paradigm and awareness of this can be a key enabler in system change. It can alter mindsets and open up a whole new set of perspectives.

• You need observation of behaviours and a focus on continual self-regulation

  • Again, absolutely, yes! This links to the competencies that are required for managing complexity and managing in complexity. Gareth Morgan’s work on competencies required in complexity fits nicely here. If you don’t know his work, his book, ‘Riding the Waves of Change’ gives an excellent account of these competencies

• Embrace failure and embrace fatigue

  • Because of you don’t accept failure and fatigue you won’t have the grit required to deal with what viable system modelling exposes. You will definitely not be able to ‘put things right’, you will only be able to make things improve somewhat from where they are now. So, you need to be able to accept a degree of failure and this will, at times, leave you fatigued

• You must be aware yourself of what you are asking others to do – you need to know how they will experience something

  • Another thing that I think is KEY. I get a little tired of hero ‘leaders’ and consultants telling everyone to be hugely radical, when they have never done that or experienced that themselves. Sometimes, system change does not happen like that. In complexity, huge radical changes are sometimes not required. A number of smaller changes, at the same time, can often work better and be more sustainable, in my experience. My advice would be not to encourage everyone, in every situation, to be radical if you don’t know what you are asking them to do. At best it might cause lots of upset and at worst, it could lose them their jobs.

Some very key insights there, in my perspective. Thank you, Curtis, for a very interesting talk. I wish we could find more of this to share with the wider systems thinking community and with students. I think we have far too much regurgitation of the diagram of a model and far too little about practical application and especially the aspects relating to people and competencies and behaviours that are required to make it all work in practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Before you can learn, you have to unlearn


Our perspectives and worldviews are held powerfully in our minds. So, can we unlearn them to make way for a new type of learning? Apparently, yes! But, how can we unlearn the perspective that has been so deeply set into our mind during our formative years? Well, we need to expose ourselves to the positives of doing so, before we can be convinced.

One way to do this is to expose ourselves to systems thinking. Mind you, doing so will certainly open us up to our vulnerabilities. But then, this is the good bit…….if we do this, there is the chance that our vulnerabilities will no longer scare us and so their power will dissolve. If our vulnerabilities start to dissolve then maybe we will be more open to saying “I don’t know” or our fear of failing may be minimised. We might, then, escape from the reinforcing feedback loop of routine – comfort – complacency – reluctance to change – routine.


Self- reflection is a major part of systems thinking. The bonds in the feedback loop above are so strong they can be excruciatingly painful to break. However, once broken we gain the benefit of being able to shift our mindset to a place that gives enlightening new insight and allows us to take the fear out of embracing the complexity in which we are engulfed.