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.


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

The Blended Systems Thinking Approach – enhancing understanding to enable regenerative transformation

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Imagine if there was an approach to change and transformation that could take away the fear that managers have when they don’t know what improvements to make, where to start or how to get to where they need to be.

Imagine if there was an approach that allowed you to quickly and powerfully understand how your system works.

Imagine if there was a way to be more adaptable so your organisation thrives and survives  longer term.

There is such an approach. It exists in the form of the Blended Systems Thinking Approach  that I have developed over the last 10+ years of applying systems thinking to complex situations.

Traditional methods of working rarely seek to understand and work with complexity. Many organisations were designed in a time when being adaptable and flexible were not as important as they are today. Many organisations continue to use approaches that might have been useful to them in the past, but are of little use in complex situations. Approaches like Plan Do Check Act does not deal with complexity. Lean does not deal with complexity. Six sigma does not deal with complexity. So, we need a different approach to deal with the challenges of today.

My approach is a systems and complexity thinking approach that can be used for transformation and/ or change. It can be used to diagnose a situation to give a whole range of options for improvement, to design something from scratch or to transform a situation by understanding and shifting a range of perspectives, aligning values and perceived purposes and by helping organisations to build a co-created identity with their partners.

With this approach I do not seek to focus on ineffective long-term prediction and rigid planning. We all know that this is relatively pointless in complex situations. Instead, I help people to understand the complexity in which their situation sits and understand why things may not be working as  expected. My aim is to enable the adaptability and flexibility required for organisations to thrive and survive, on a long-term basis, in a complex, and sometimes rapidly changing, environment.

The approach

The main model used in my approach is the VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL, with other methods/ models/ concepts etc being added to the VSM approach, in appropriate places, to enhance the understanding of the complex situation. The process followed for each of the following three types of activity is different. However, they all draw upon the elements outlined in the approach, albeit in different ways or in different sequences. This approach can be used to:

  1. Diagnose – based on identifying the areas where you are not managing the complexity in your system, identifying how your system self-organises and regenerates and how adaptable you are.
  2. Design from scratch – focussing on the perceived or initial intended purpose of the system, based on the multiple perspectives of the stakeholders. Taking into account POSIWID (the purpose of the system is what it does) and aiming for sufficient adaptability to manage your complex situation. Designing for positive emergence, where possible.
  3. Transform – based on understanding and shifting perspectives, aligning values and perceived purposes and building a co-created identity. Building capacity by focussing on interconnections, interdependencies and interactions, enabling effective communication flows and aiming for sustainable management of complexity.

I have no rigidly fixed way of going from A to B with my approach, just a range of options that I might use, depending upon the situation I face. I encourage critical observation throughout and whilst I will draw upon various elements of my approach in a sequence that fits with a specific diagnosis, there are some things I always do first. For example, a boundary critique. The complexity of the environment is infinite, so the system must decide what it wants to focus on. A boundary critique defines the limits of what is to be taken as pertinent in the investigation, so it is beneficial to surface those judgements at the very beginning, if possible. This is why I always start with the boundary critique.  I use Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to assist me, which gives some really easy to follow questions to get me started. What I try to do is identify what selectivity is occurring and I question the practical and ethical elements of those judgements with stakeholders. CSH is great for this and worth getting to grips with. I interview people, talk to groups of stakeholders, have workshops and might use other techniques, such as questionnaires, to bring in as many perspectives as I can, without it getting too overwhelming. I try not to go ‘too big’, or it tends to become unmanageable. I then identify what kind of tensions, values, conflicts and expectations exist and work with the stakeholders to decide what is going to be inside and outside of the boundary.

The viable system model (VSM) addresses  how an organisation manages complexity. It looks to establish the necessary and sufficient structural preconditions for viability. It gives powerful insights around self-organisation and adaptive management. In public services, for example, it can help us move more towards a model of self-organised networks.

When we use the VSM it is important that we are also able to empower people. It is essential that any networks we create are able to build trust and understand how collaborative leadership works. Bottom up learning processes can help with this empowerment and this is an essence of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), so I bring in some of the CAS thinking here, to ensure that those learning processes are considered and embedded.

All of this self-organisation, networks, bottom up learning etc pushes us towards models of working that require people to have new and different competencies to what might have worked in the past. Nowadays, we require a focus on autonomy, accountability, respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity. This is where I bring in the work of Gareth Morgan who clearly outlines the competencies required in a more complex working environment.

Of course, there are also multiple perspectives in our situations, particularly when working towards things like leadership of place in public services. To help me work effectively with these, I draw in some Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) which uses techniques like rich pictures to capture and communicate these perspectives in an unthreatening way and conceptual models to help me visually work with and communicate current or future concepts.

I also need to get a grip of the dynamics in a situation and the feedback loops between elements of the VSM. For this, I use some basic Systems Dynamics and in particular causal loop mapping. These diagrams can display a huge amount of complex information on one page that takes minutes to understand and yet would take numerous pages of complicated text to explain. The systems dynamics helps me to understand the structure that determines the behaviour over time of the situation I am looking at, so it is a valuable addition to my approach.

If I think it necessary, I will pull in a number of other approaches. One of which might be to explore the structural couplings in a situation. Structural couplings are things like the other organisations you might interact with in a mutually beneficial way, whilst still preserving your identity and viability; the recurrent interactions leading to structural congruence. So, it is not hard to imagine how investigating and understanding the structural couplings can enhance the value of the core viable system modelling approach.

I look for improvements that are both systemically desirable and culturally feasible. When it comes to making improvements, I use small scale prototyping to enable a more entrepreneurial approach and I aim for the ability to regenerate and survive on an ongoing basis.

It is important to add that I strongly advocate a facilitative and coaching style in my work. I do not work individually but I bring people, from all levels of an organisation, along for the ride with me. I try to teach as much about the thinking process as possible along the way as it is important to me that people can learn the skills for themselves. This type of change and transformation requires ongoing understanding and learning and I put as much effort into that (sometimes more) as I do in undertaking the actual diagnosis. I act as a facilitator of others’ learning. I do not use a traditional ‘problem’ ‘solution’ style of consulting. I work on the ground, and with all levels in the organisation, to facilitate learning in their context. My aim is to develop a working context that allows people to deal with complex situations so that the organisation becomes adaptable and can thrive and survive independently in the longer term.

There are a number of strengths to my approach:

  • It develops understanding in your context – it is a uniquely different way of thinking about and diagnosing your current situation;
  • It is widely applicable – from large organisations to small services;
  • It has rigour – it uses tried and tested methods, models and concepts;
  • It develops a wider range of co-created options for improvement;
  • It reduces how intimidating large complex situations are and enables you to work with them to diagnose why certain things keep happening or are getting worse

And it can bring a number of benefits, such as:

  • Giving your organisation the ability to adjust, modify and change, to take advantage of opportunities and cope with the consequences of shock or stress;
  • Helping you increase your capacity and capability by helping you to understand the underlying structures that drive behaviours and outcomes;
  • It develops a strong foundation for decision making to give benefits across the system;
  • It helps you to manage complexity to improve problematic situations and capitalise on opportunities

And some additional benefits:

  • It can help to identify and strengthen the voice of any marginalised groups, who currently do not have the voice or positive influence they might have;
  • It can explicitly identify the power dynamics, so that you can develop strategies for dealing with them;
  • It encourages stakeholders to drive the systemic change;
  • It can help to identify potential conflict situations;
  • Organisations/ teams who learn by evolution/ regeneration tend to create an environment of ongoing innovation;
  • It encourages a greater entrepreneurial mindset by helping you to identify opportunities to innovate;
  • It helps you to understand what is required to give energy to and scale up new ideas;
  • It encourages you to experiment and identifies that failure is temporary and, in some cases, a necessary pre-cursor to success;
  • It can give you a different response to conflict.

The Blended Systems Thinking Approach – enhancing understanding to enable regenerative change and transformation.