Delivery – it’s just about ‘getting it done’, isnt it?

No, I don’t think so. It can be so much more than that.

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. The way I work with it is to focus on what human beings actually do and I harness the potential of every person. The focus of this blog is delivery, or what those who know the viable system model call System 3.

Here is an extract from my booklet (this is a booklet that is given to attendees of my workshop, as part of the workshop kit):

‘This area of focus is about supporting the internal system to work effectively. We don’t just talk about resources and expected performance, though. We also aim to bring the humanity back into the work. One of the things we consider here is ensuring as many people as feasibly possible have been involved in decisions about how things will work and in setting goals, to prevent them feeling coerced. Remember that many people will also want their own professional values reflected in the work that they do. It is also important that once decisions have been made, you gain commitment to them.

Do not overload staff, though. They will never work at their best if they are in a state of frantic panic all day, every day. Aim for meaningful work for people. Make them feel good about themselves and make sure you consider their wellbeing. Trust your teams. Do not micro-manage. Remain hands off. Allow people to have their own peer to peer performance meetings. Let peers hold each other to account. Encourage them to share ideas to help the teams that are falling behind. Have a rolling host for the meetings, so no-one assumes ultimate power and/ or control. Give the teams the structure within which they can collaborate to enhance performance. Lead by example by demonstrating different behaviours and think about the language you use. Use language of encouragement that pushes people out of their comfort zone in a supportive way. Allow them to fail (within reason) and learn without embarrassment and punishment. Promote joint decision making throughout the system, so that effective prioritisation can occur. If you do have conflicts – and you are bound to have them – do not avoid them. Help people to use conflict creatively to listen to others’ points of view. Hold exploratory conversations, facilitate participation and listening.

Identify where there is confusion, conflict, disruption or chaos. These are not bad things but powerful indicators of places where you can intervene to make positive changes. They are opportunities. Do not complain about them, monopolise on them’.

The action cards

There are a number of action cards relating to this section. These are things we can do to enact this area of focus in reality. Here is an example of a few of them:

The skills required

My approach also outlines skills that are useful in enacting this section of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel. These are skills we could and should be advocating for and supporting in our organisations. Here is a taster of a few:

  • Coach
  • Supporter
  • Recruiter
  • Motivator
  • Prototyper
  • Trainer

Each section of my wheel goes through a similar format to the above. I outline important areas of focus and the questions we can ask ourselves about those areas. I go on, in the booklet, to talk about these key points, giving rationale for why they are important. My suggestions, which have been part of my copyrighted workshop kit for a number of years, have come from over 10 years of working with the viable system model in practice and the learning I have gained along the way. The key focus is on the development and support of each individual and harnessing their skills and talents to the full, encouraging them to work authentically and without fear.

The action cards tell us the things we can actually do, at each systemic level of our system (person, team, service, department, organisation, place) to enact the points mentioned.

Putting all six areas together gives a very powerful way of Creating the Conditions for Change in our working ecosystems. The focus is on what we can actually do to make a difference.

All materials are copyrighted and part of my consultancy and training kit. If you build on any of my ideas, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

Are you co-ordinating to bring about a paradigm shift?

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. The way I work with it is to focus on what human beings actually do and I aim to harness the potential of every person. The focus of this blog is co-ordination, or what those who know the viable system model call System 2.

Here is an extract from my booklet (this is a booklet that is given to attendees of my workshop, as part of the workshop kit)

‘Co-ordination is the vitally important, yet often-overlooked element of systems. It needs to be considered explicitly and not just expected to happen. I like to call it the ‘invisible glue’ – the things that hold everything together in a coherent way. This area of focus is about enabling feedback and information exchanges and effectively supporting interdependencies and interconnections. Ignore it at your peril! Get it right and it can significantly enhance your capacity and capability, often at very little or no cost. Do not under-estimate the value that getting this element right can bring.

One thing I have found to be extremely important in my work is something I have called ‘relationship-enablers’. These are the things you can put in place and/ or the mindset you can adopt that supports the dynamic connectedness in the system. The other extremely important thing here is what I call ‘interaction channels’ to enable collaboration. So, what are these things?

Relationship enablers are exactly how they sound. They are things that enable relationships. This can be as simple as a clause in a joint protocol that considers something from more than one point of view to something more elaborate, like a process for discussing and agreeing difficult decisions between a number of stakeholders. They are the things that give permission for the collaboration to occur. They can help to enable proactive dialogue, negotiation and agreements and enable relationships in the longer term.

Interaction channels might be mechanisms created to enable reflective conversations – do you ever have a joint meeting with another team/ department/ organisation specifically to reflect and learn from the work you do? Do you discuss problems and issues and seek to implement improvements together? Do you have a culture of positive challenge and learning? You can develop your internal structures so that people have enough freedom to enable collaborative working. Shadowing another team, for example, should not be seen as wasting time, but a valuable interaction channel and relationship enabler that can open up the support for ongoing collaboration and learning’.

The action cards

There are a number of action cards relating to this section. These are things we can do to enact this area of focus in reality. Here is an example of a few of them:

The skills required

My approach also outlines skills that are useful in enacting this section of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel. These are skills we could and should be advocating for and supporting in our organisations. Here is a taster of a few:

  • Storyteller
  • Information sharer
  • Facilitator
  • Relationship builder
  • Innovator
  • Networker
  • Enabler

Each section of my wheel goes through a similar format to the above. I outline important areas of focus and the questions we can ask ourselves about those areas. I go on, in the booklet, to talk about these key points, giving rationale for why they are important. My suggestions, which have been part of my copyrighted workshop kit for a number of years, have come from over 10 years of working with the viable system model in practice and the learning I have gained along the way. The key focus is on development and support of each individual and harnessing their skills and talents to the full, encouraging them to work authentically and without fear.

The action cards tell us the things we can actually do, at each systemic level of our system (person, team, service, department, organisation, place) to enact the points mentioned.

Putting all six areas together gives a very powerful way of Creating the Conditions for Change in our working ecosystems. The focus is on what we can actually do to make a difference.

All materials are copyrighted and part of my consultancy and training kit. If you build on any of my ideas, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

The systemic levels of my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach

As you will have gathered by now, the approach I use, which has been the staple of my systems thinking and my business for a number of years is ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’. It is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model, focussed on people and supporting the skills, talents and potential of every human being to flourish. The central strategy of my approach is learning and adaptability. Like the viable system model, I scale by repeating my approach at every systemic level (a person, a team, a service, an organisation, across organisations). I do not focus on ‘making a change’ but on creating a more supportive ecosystem from which change can emerge.

The 2 over overarching diagrams representing my approach are as follows:

Here are some more insights from my Creating the Conditions for Change action cards, which are heavily used in my workshops.

If you are interested in my materials, do contact me directly.

At the level of the individual

  • Informal reciprocation arrangements between individuals
  • Building personal relationships with those outside of your immediate area of work
  • Learning how to self-reference and supporting each other’s abilities to self-reference
  • Let others know how you like to work and how you might work best with others
  • Peer support each other and engage in reflective conversations and learning together, rather than competing with each other
  • Be the system health check monitor
  • Consider your identity – is it aligned with the purpose of your role and your organisation?
  • Consider how the insights you bring can enhance the working environment

At the level of the team/ service/ organisation

  • Purposefully creating reciprocation arrangements between teams
  • Purposefully building relationships with teams with whom you could work in a complimentary way
  • Supporting teams to self-reference or, where appropriate, self-organise
  • Have an appropriate balance of specialist and generalist roles that give flexibility so that the team or service can be adaptable to change
  • Purposefully build into your daily routines ways to engage in reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
  • Ensure appraisals of staff praise for flexibility, sharing, helping others, forming relationships and reflective practices
  • Instigate monitoring practices that monitor for effective system characteristics
  • Develop rotas/ work plans etc that bring humanity back into working practices
  • Check your protocols do not disempower but support people if they want to empower themselves to take action
  • Devolve decision making to the appropriate people

At the multi-organisation level

  • Purposefully creating strategic reciprocation strategies across organisational boundaries
  • Purposefully building mutually beneficial relationships with other organisations
  • Developing structures that support departments, teams, cross organisational groups to self-reference and/ or self-organise
  • Support those who understand and implement systemic leadership practices
  • Monitor across organisational boundaries for system health
  • Bring a level of humanity back into expected performance levels
  • Ensure your policies do not hinder those who want to empower themselves to take action
  • Devolve decision making to the appropriate service/ department/ team

Skills for some of the above are that of coach, learner, supporter, activist, prototyper, contextualiser and  innovator.

The more we create the conditions for change at each systemic level, the more adaptability we might have when we do identify a change we want to make.

This is a small snapshot from only 10 of my 120 action cards that cover my approach. It took over 10 years of learning from using the viable system model in my work to convert elements of the model into ‘what people actually do when they enact this’. It is detailed, specific and my style is highly recognisable and appreciated by those with whom I use this approach.

I work both on site with groups to help them apply this approach to their own situation and I run workshops using a case study scenario to show how to apply the approach in detail.

This work is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and do not copy my materials without permission

Creating the Conditions for Change – the action cards

There are around 120 actions that go with my Creating the Conditions for Change approach. A note to those in the world of complexity, these actions are not ‘things you should do that will definitely make your system work better’. They are areas for consideration that can help you create the conditions for change that may support you in taking your identified next steps effectively.

The action cards are part of a copyrighted kit that I have used both for consultancy and in my Creating the Conditions for Change workshops for a number of years now.  They cover all sections of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel

Here are some examples from the kit:

Co-creating, considering self-organising/ self-referencing teams, peer to peer accountability and investigating and implementing change within the span of your autonomy

  • Explore, experiment, fail and learn using small-scale prototyping to enable a learning process
  • Make sure people know how to innovate if they want to
  • Consider purposes and how the world can be different because of you and your role
  • Align personal purposes with purposes of the wider system (where appropriate)
  • Connect through vulnerability and bring the humanity back into the work
  • Actively engage in reflective conversations to learn
  • Purposefully create reciprocation strategies with others

Co-ordinating, collaborating and supporting. Building communities, networks and collaborative relationships. Create internal system coherence.

  • Have open access to information (where relevant) and make sure information is nurturing, not being used for power
  • Understand and actively work with feedback loops
  • Ensure structures enable the ability to work collaboratively
  • Build in mechanisms to enable reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
  • Implement relationship enablers and interaction channels
  • Use stories as benchmarks about how your system is working

Deliver – bargaining for resources and managing performance. Bringing humanity and balance back into working relationships. Making joint decisions and goal setting around resources, performance and goals

  • Instigate different models of power and control so that operational staff feel empowered to act
  • Support others to enable themselves
  • Aim for meaningful work and wellbeing for all
  • Help people to push outside of their comfort zone
  • Allow autonomy, within relevant boundaries
  • Do not fight power imbalances. Turn them into something else
  • Change the nature of relationships
  • Purposefully build strategies of reciprocation
  • Form a culture of honesty and trust
  • Instigate positively orientated peer to peer performance management  and share ideas with anyone falling behind
  • Appraise for sharing, collaboration, supporting others and forming relationships

Monitoring – conducting system health check. Monitoring for signs of effective system characteristics. Monitoring for congruence between the systems and its vision.

  • If the system is suffering, look too see if it is lacking information about itself
  • Monitor the system’s ability to reciprocate. Build reciprocation strategies into protocols and strategies
  • Monitor the ability to flex, change, pivot and adapt over time
  • Monitor for congruence between the actual purposes of the system and its proposed vision

Adapt – trend spotting and fitting with a changing environment. Enabling pivoting. Building external relationships and gathering intelligence about the environment

  • Understand and purposefully use structural couplings
  • Scan the environment for new models of doing and bring the relevant elements back into your system
  • Make explicit external relationships and strategies of reciprocation

Shifting power, creating new structures and identifying identity. Identifying elements of joint vision, meaning, identity, purposes and goals. Devolving accountability and allowing autonomy. Seeking to ensure the old paradigm does not hinder the new

  • Ensure a sense of curiosity and innovation is fostered throughout the system
  • Check if the system is achieving intended purposes
  • Ensuring sharing of knowledge is inherent in the system
  • Critique system boundaries
  • Ensure a strong and appropriate identity
  • Actively critique your structure to make sure it is designed to create the conditions for change
  • Ensure there are policies to allow people to empower themselves, collaborate and build relationships and learn from each other
  • Instigate different power structures
  • Ensure no selfish goals predominate

These and many others are part of the Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials and my own personal approach.

All materials are covered by UK copyright. They should not be replicated in commercial approaches. If you use them, please act with integrity and reference appropriately.

Creating the conditions for change – VSM system 1 or co-creating?

To support my Creating the Conditions for Change workshop, a small booklet is available for attendees giving further insights into the suggestions given in the approach. It covers every section of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel, a graphic designed to show the six areas of focus that are important for us to consider.

The Wheel does not tell you specifically ‘how to do’ but it prompts you to ask questions about certain things. This can help you consider what moves you might want to take next to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’ in your work ecosystem. The same areas of focus are applied at multiple systemic levels – individual, team, department, organisation, cross organisation etc. I take my inspiration from Stafford Beer’s viable system model and my Creating the Conditions for Change approach is my creative interpretation of the viable system model and what it has taught me whilst using it for over ten years. (I started using in back in 2007) To note here is that I do not use it like a model to copy to make things better, but a model that points out things that we can focus on that can help us to Create the Conditions for Change.

One thing I always found lacking with the VSM was the focus on human behaviour and what we actually do, and this has been the main focus in my approach for many years, as a result. I have blogged about my journey with the viable system model many times over the years and a book is in progress to bring it all together into one place, to show the journey in detail.

The first area of focus is where we consider the operational things that we do and how we work together with others, both as individuals and as team. It is focussed on how we co-create together, with learning and adaptability as central important factors in the approach. There is a focus on triple loop learning throughout.

It is here where the approach tells us to consider whether self-organising or self-referencing teams are relevant to us. There is a reason for considering this. The following extract from the booklet tells us,

‘In operational teams there is a fine balance between allowing autonomy and having control. This is one area that needs exploring and an appropriate balance found. Teams should be able to make decisions, within reason, to enable them to respond to the complexity they face, without having to constantly consult with higher management. Devolved decision making, autonomy, authority to act and accountability are key things to consider here.

Teams should be allowed to, and able to, investigate and implement appropriate changes, within the boundaries of their autonomy. They should be able to engage in small scale prototyping of potential changes and be encouraged to be innovative.

One downfall of teams is that they can end up in competition with each other, which sometimes does not help but hinders the performance of the whole. Collaboration should be understood as being more valuable than competition (where appropriate) and peer to peer collaboration, particularly across traditional boundaries, should be encouraged.’

A longer summary is given in the booklet with further insights and participants also use a set of around 120 action cards which give further depth of suggestions that they might want to consider to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’. Actions focus on how we can push outside of our emotional comfort zones and support others to do the same. How we might engage in reflective conversations and change the nature of the relationships we have. This is where I bring my insights in from my case studies and share how I and others have worked on these things in the past. Considering our purposes and especially creating and re-creating our identity in line with our own ethics and values links particularly to my use of the viable system model at an individual level, a process I started doing in 2011 as part of an Open University course and have been sharing with others lately. I have been refining it when focussing on my own personal development ever since and it is a key element of enacting the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach. In the book I am writing I share how I did this bit by bit, year by year and the reasons why.

My suggestions do not just come from the case studies I have, although the thinking has often originated there. They also come from my own application of the viable system model and what that has taught me about making change. I have blogged about this area of focus many times. Most importantly, it has taught me about how human beings behave and what we might need to focus on to enable change, particularly in ourselves.

Please note that all materials on this website are copyrighted. Please act with integrity if you use anything and reference appropriately

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating the conditions for System change

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

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

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

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

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

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