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.

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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 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.