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.

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Why the viable system model is perfect for exploring and understanding the complex world of public services

 

It was over a year ago that The Guardian informed us of ‘a warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) that councils will soon need to make deep cuts to essential services. This will include anything from road repairs, parks, children’s centres, waste collection, leisure centres and libraries.’ Yes, one year ago. At that time, a third of local authorities expected their parks to decline within three years, things like meals on wheels and debt advice centres had already disappeared and managers were being forced into ‘one or the other’ dilemmas. (https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/feb/28/uk-government-cuts-parks-libraries-local-government-nhs-prisons)

The NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer was, and still is, being disrupted by endless reorganisations.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/18/10-truths-about-britains-health-service).

In 2016, health expenditure in the UK was 9.75 per cent of GDP. This compared to 17.21 per cent in the USA, 11.27 per cent in Germany, 10.98 per cent in France, 10.50 per cent in the Netherlands, 10.37 per cent in Denmark and 10.34 per cent in Canada. (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

In 2016, the NHS was dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

Sobering, isn’t it? We were warned back then that public services required better management. But what? Where to start? And how?

What if there was a way to look at public services how we might look at large, interactive socio-ecological systems? What if there was a way to look at public services that would help us to consider their ongoing co-evolution within a complex environment?

Well, after using the viable system model and blending it with other systems thinking approaches for over 10 years in public services, I believe there is such a way and I think the idea is beautifully explained in the teachings from the book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’ by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker.

Whilst it does not always explicitly mention public services in the book it isn’t hard to apply the thinking to the public services context.

The book talks about ‘open systems’ –  systems that are open to exchanges of energy and information with the environment with which they co-evolve. It tells us that, ‘all living systems are networks of smaller components, and the web of life as a whole is a multi-layered structure of living systems nestling within other living systems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2001, p6) which sounds somewhat like our public services to me. These ‘living systems’ may remain stable for certain periods of time but they do occasionally go through points of critical instability, where new forms of order might spontaneously emerge. This means that the ‘state’ of the system is not predictable and what is created may be dependent upon the systems structure and the path of development when new order emerges – Capra, 2008 (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p8). Again, this is sounding very familiar with my experiences of public services. These systems are otherwise known as a Complex Adaptive System. Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control. Now, again, that sounds to me a little like the direction of travel being encouraged in public service transformation. At the moment the central control still predominates but I can foresee a time where this might be less so.

But wait, those versed in management cybernetics (where the viable system model sits) might now be saying that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like or moving towards, an open system?

This is where the writings of Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. P15).

So, for me, over time, the viable system model has been hugely eye-opening and one of the most powerful ways to expose understanding of how a complex situation is working. A viable system can be described as, ‘a system which is able to adapt and maintain an independent existence as it co-evolves with a changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13) It is always embedded in, and composed of, other viable systems.

Espinosa and Walker explain that Stafford Beer, the developer of the viable system model understood that, ‘the focus of VSM anlaysis is to observe the ability of the organisational system to handle the complexity of tasks required to fulfil its purpose in the context of a highly complex changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13)

Stafford Beer argues that for a system to be sustainable, proper structures need to be in place. These are neither centralised nor decentralised but have the right balance between the two and are capable of dealing with the complexity in their environment. He sees planning and policy based on government being the facilitator of radical change which emerges at a local level (Espinosa, Walker, 2011). Viable systems have adaptability and flexibility, awareness and self-reliance and have the capacity to innovate and induce change in other systems in pursuit of their own purpose.

Think about that for a moment………. If integrated teams, and other such teams, got this right, their reciprocation may form a structural coupling that allows all organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way so that the purposes of the wider whole can be fulfilled. Espinosa and Walker tell us that sustainability is not about constancy but is about the ability of the living system to co-evolve with its environment. Could the right balance between centralised and decentralised structures and emergent local level change move us towards a more sustainable way of providing public services?

I think this is what we may already be seeing in some areas. But can these teams engage in the right kind of decision making that does not put anyone in a catastrophic domain? I’m not sure that we are there yet, with this one. That kind of decision making is different to what currently exists and may take a little more building of trustful relationships, different competencies and different ways of evaluating success across the whole of the network before it comes to fruition. Our idea of governance may well need to be different before governmental and non-governmental agencies can make effective decisions together. As Espinosa and Walker inform us, there currently may not even be a suitably acknowledged theory of governance to take account of the concept of sustainability. So, when public sector managers are troubled about how to enable this new world to ‘work’ isn’t it acceptable that, at the moment, they might not be 100% sure, as everyone tries to learn their way forward together?

The VSM, taking its inspiration from the natural world, helps us to identify structural factors which may constrain viability. It guides us through investigating how the system manages its interactions, identifying learning problems caused by communication issues that affect the system’s ability to deal with complexity, how our mental models affect what we observe and how to do a rapid, but very accurate, diagnosis of complex systems. It helps us to understand that empowerment enables the quick responses required for co-evolution and that our organisations are currently likely to be built for a much less complex world and their current structures are not adaptable or flexible enough for any kind of rapid response.

The VSM helps us to consider conflicts of interest and how to maintain stability, working towards collaboration rather than competition. It encourages us to understand that performance can be better together than if we were working in isolation. It supports us in understanding how joint management decisions, across a number of organisations, could activate a support network if one organisation becomes a risk to the cohesion of the whole. Of course, here is where we need a different kind of performance measurement and decision making, as we all know what it’s like when organisations have opposing performance indicators that encourage perverse behaviours of ‘self-preservation’ of the individual organisation.

The VSM helps us to bridge strategic criteria across different levels and consider effective bargains around financial, technological, physical and skill-based resources. This may, however, give some challenge to what are current ‘corporate norms.’ New ‘norms’ will need to develop over time. Questions we may well need to consider are:  What is the new context of the whole? What is the identity of the whole? What raft of creative and feasible strategies and policies are required to realise this new identity?

Espinosa and Walker are clear that sustainability will take cognitive, structural and political change. Policies will require a different focus around ‘deliberately building trust, understanding leadership in a collaborative context, building co-ordination mechanisms so that true collaboration can flourish and identifying critical measures for sustainability.’ We will need to observe and measure in as real-time as possible. Risk will need to be considered differently. We will need different information flows and we will need to make and assess decisions differently. Autonomy and empowerment will be critical to progress and we will need to be able to openly learn from mistakes, without fear of reprisal. We will require a new perspective of control that aims for a culture of respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity.

Seeing and enacting public services as a dynamic, adaptive, self-organising whole will no doubt be an enormous challenge. There is, however, as we have learned, a model of thinking that can help us to understand the emerging patterns of complex interactions. A systems thinking and complexity approach is exceptionally powerful and ‘the VSM is unprecedented in its power to diagnose and solve complex organisational problems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011).

Personally, I strongly believe that whilst you can use consultants to undertake a VSM diagnostic for you, the systems thinking and complexity way of understanding is far more powerful when it becomes part of your culture. In my opinion, the better use of specific systems thinking consultants is to use us to guide you through how to apply a systems thinking and complexity mindset. Use us as facilitators of a process of learning in your context. In my experience, this takes more than a one-off interaction. You may need our help and support over a period of time. But, we can help you to get started and we can guide you towards a way of considering your situation that will give powerful insights and help you and your partnerships to learn your way forward together.

Espinosa, A, Walker, J 2011 A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application. Imperial College Press