The art of pushing complexity onto your customers

My experience of moving home lately has left me exasperated, exhausted and a little bit angry. The actual moving isn’t the issue, but changing my address has been a complete nightmare. It has shown me how far away from customer service organisations have moved. Their desperate quest to cut down on staffing and save money has left behind an inadequate and frustrating mess of nonsensical procedures for customers to navigate.

I’ve had them all, the six forms that can only be printed, filled out by hand and sent by snail mail, the irritating phone menus that take you round and round in loops for what seems like forever, the ‘you have to wait at least a week for this because when you email it to us, our worker in the office has to print it off, scan it then email it to me so that I can action it’. Yes, really, you read that right. Maybe they haven’t heard of a forward button on an email? And I had this twice, believe it or not.

I’ve had the phone menus that take you thorough about four menus, take a raft of details over and over again and then cut you off with no action. I’ve encountered a complete lack of flexibility in these processes, unable to deal with anything other than basic requests. I’ve navigated websites that had what I needed buried, about four menus in. And the bots, oh the bots….dont you just love ‘em? No, I really don’t. Online web chats are rarely much better with staff following a script and devoid of real interaction. ‘Hello’ ‘hello I need to change my address’. Two minutes later, yes a whole two minutes, ‘How can we help you’ erm….didnt I just tell you how? And so it went on…… One webchat interaction took just over 20 mins of painful, monotonous interaction and I still didn’t get my address changed at the end of it. I’ve been through, ‘can you come to the branch’ no, not during covid, I cant. ‘What about printing this form off’ errmm….nope, my printer is packed. ‘We are on the phone, can’t you just deal with it over the phone’? ‘No, you need to re-register for phone interactions’. ‘But I’ve already registered, that’s how I’m speaking to you now’. ‘No, we need you to register again because it needs to be logged in our system in a different way’. Seriously, I mean seriously? I’ve had equipment not turn up because the person I spoke to said yes, but computer said something different. I’ve had a raft of computer generated correspondence that was not relevant to my situation. The cherry on the cake are the parallel systems. One automatically generating correspondence and a parallel process doing something else and the two never speaking to each other, so what you end up with as a customer is huge mess of incorrect information, not relevant to your situation at all.

I have a whole list of people to contact, it’s taken days and I’m only a third of the way through. This is a significant difference to a number of years ago when I just had to pick the phone up and it was all done in a couple of days.

But, why am I mentioning this, other than to have great big moan? I am mentioning it because all of these companies have tried to deal with their variety by taking steps that suit themselves, and not the customer. Their purpose is to make their lives easier, not their customers. The have effectively reduced their variety by pushing more complexity onto the customer. They might use fewer staff and save money that way but are completely clueless about how the customer is impacted by their ridiculous processes.

My biggest worry though, and this is the element that has left me angry, is that a number of these organisations claim to be ‘systems thinkers’. In fact, the one that was the very worst to deal with, having excessive phone menus that gave a huge list of ‘codes’ for what department you might want to talk to, makes the biggest claim to be systems thinkers of all of the organisations I encountered. I went round and round on their website, being sent in a loop and never getting anywhere, for so long that I gave up. Next, I tried phoning and ended up on a roundabout again. Eventually, I got to speak to someone. ‘Oh, you need to do that on the website’. ‘Nope, it won’t let me do it because…’. ‘But you need to do that on the website’. ‘It won’t let me because……and I’ve been going round in circles for 20 mins now and getting nowhere. All I want to do is change my address’. ‘Oh, ok then, I’ve just changed it’. Simple as that! I was fuming at the push off when it was clear it could be done really easily.

I can tell you, with some confidence, that pushing your complexity onto the customer is not systems thinking, it is nonsense. Where is the thinking? Are customers so insignificant nowadays that making simple things so difficult is ok? You really need to have a re-think.

In contrast, I dealt with a company who has won awards for ‘customer service of the year’ a number of times. They came recommended to me. Their process was simple, quick, took about 5 mins. The staff were great. They deal with the complexity of my ask, that had some additional requests, easily and effectively.

Then a second organisation. One quick phone call dealt with the address change and some additional requests quickly, effectively and in about 5 mins.

It isn’t hard. It really isn’t. Your fancy IT processes deal with complexity really badly, from a customer’s perspective.  Many of these companies have been wooed by the thought of doing something radically different in dealing with their demand. What they have, in fact, developed is a Frankenstein’s monster, devoid of thought and lacking in the purpose of being useful to customers.  How very sad that they think this is the way forward.

Creating the conditions to support learning about systems thinking

I often blog about my work on ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ in terms of how we nurture our working ecosystem to enable change to happen. This means change in ourselves also. I have been working for quite a number of years now on ways to help others on their journey into systems thinking and systems change. One thing I am sure of, is that giving someone a concept that they have never come across before and expecting them to understand it, just because you have explained it, is not going to get you very far.

In my opinion, systems thinking is an experiential journey. Only when you have been on the journey, often aided by someone shining a light into the dark corners and helping to unlock your own inner wisdom will things start to make sense. This often takes for the person to be along side you, to link the concept to what you are seeing in front of you and how you are feeling and experiencing it at the time. It can also come in the form of engaging and enlightening stories. Stories that are authentic, that demonstrate a deep engagement with a situation and highlight not just how a systems thinker understands things but how they feel and experience them also. These are the experiences that make things ‘real’. These are the things that people can relate to. These are the unwritten things that help people with understanding and are critical scaffolding for the learning journey.

We need to help people stand in the waterfall of the journey and let the whole experience wash over them, immersing them fully in it. Letting them feel the sting of the rapid flow and the gentle trickle closer to the edges. Helping them to experience the invigoration and the point at which it makes you feel cold. Helping them not to be scared but to step right in to the flow.

The conditions we create around the learner to enable them to experience systems thinking concepts allows them to enact a journey of learning with that concept that is different to being given a concept and told to apply it. The journey is stronger when it is experienced. My style of helping others to learn? Create the right conditions and take them on a journey. A journey of many emotions and feelings. An adventure of sorts. Who knows how it will end?

The systems thinker, the shaman and the addict

I’m emotional, overwhelmed and amazed. I feel warm inside, relaxed and hopeful. The last four months has been some journey. When I embarked on it, I never imagined that I would be in an online room with a shaman and an addict and we would do such powerful work together.

It wasn’t just us in the group, there were others too. All authentic, passionate people who work from the heart with humanity and humility. I embarked on the journey as a co-facilitator and bringer of systems thinking expertise into a programme to help people empower themselves to instigate and contribute to system change in the city in which they live. I don’t think I have come across a group so positive and passionate about creating change. The shamanic development of our ‘tribe’, the systems and complexity thinking and the powerful, gritty, real stories from people with lived experience of multiple complex needs coupled with some powerful prototyping tools, coaching and storytelling skills from other facilitators that we brought in and we have an intoxicating mix.

One thing that pulled the group together was the lack of work titles. Everyone came into the programme as themselves. They brought their whole selves, their vulnerable selves, their authentic selves. They brought their cats, dogs and children. They brought a sense of being real, being authentic and wanting to share.

Developing a more embodied approach was key and people went for it, easily and confidently. We shared, laughed, cried and learned our way forward together.

For a number of years now, I have advocated for people who would not normally identify as being a ‘systems thinker’ as being some of the strongest and most insightful systems thinkers I know. They knock the spots off any loud-mouthed show-offs out there who can talk about it but have no clue how to put it into practice. The key ingredient?…………………humility. The group had the humility to self-reflect, not to judge, to connect and form relationships that I believe will be long-lasting.

I heard stories of addiction that pulled at every heart string. Of struggles and barriers that we build into people’s lives that take away their dignity and throw them to the ground. I heard stories of passionate workers who refused to give in and determinedly navigated an unimaginably complex web in order to support others. I heard stories of people who realised that yes, they were leaders, even when they weren’t at the top of the hierarchy in an organisation. I heard stories of light bulb moments, of finding different ways to have conversations and of self-belief when realising that what they were thinking and feeling was legitimate, had a name and now they could articulate it and work with it.

Creating the conditions for change is the most important element of systems change, in my opinion. Without it, nothing else matters. The relationships, the trust, the sharing, the compassion and caring. Without it, we just have changes that are often meaningless, soulless and cold. Bring in humility, bring in humanity, bring in love for other human beings and it’s a powerful mix.

This side of systems thinking is not always palatable with people. Those who can’t understand other people, see things from their point of view or can’t self-reflect enough to allow a deep blending of others’ thoughts with their own. It’s how powerful change happens though; of that I am sure.

Creating the conditions for change

At the moment we have some incredibly potent conditions that are enabling change to happen. Hard as it seems, some significant good could come out of our current experiences. That is, if we can recognise what the enabling factors are so that we can replicate the positive elements in times that are not so fraught.

When the time is right, I will continue to run my workshops on creating the conditions for change.

The approach I use in my workshops weaves together a number of systems thinking concepts and ideas, such as organisational cybernetics and social and technical aspects of a situation. It helps people consider how they might expand their multitude of responses to the complexity in which they exist in their working environments, enhancing their variety and adaptability to enable them to survive and thrive over time.

My approach considers concepts such as variety and self-regulation and seeks to enhance peoples decision-making capabilities. It helps people to consider how to work creatively within their boundaries of autonomy and control to enable better and more responsive problem solving and widen their range of responses to the complexity in which they are embedded.

It helps people to consider how groups can work together in an adaptable and flexible way, maintaining an appropriate balance of autonomy and spanning beyond the restricting boundaries of their work ‘function’.

It helps people to think beyond the confines of their organisation to consider how they might interact with others to develop social-systems with the ability to communicate, learn and grow, with a focus on enabling and developing relationships, developing channels of interactions and seeking to create the conditions for change.

 

 

Training Courses Available

The following one-day training courses are now available

Both of these training courses require a minimum of 10 people, maximum 20. They are intended for groups of people who work together across a geographical place, and especially for those in public services.

Costs vary, depending upon number of delegates, location and provision of rooms and refreshments. Please get in touch if you are interested in running a session for your organisation/ group of colleagues.

Creating the conditions for change with systems and complexity thinking

Who is this training for?

This training if for anyone who is interested in creating the conditions for change using insights from systems and complexity thinking. It is particularly useful for front line teams and managers involved in system change.

What will I learn?

You will learn about the conditions that are required to make effective change in any situation. You will learn how to look at things from different perspectives, how viable systems work and what features are required in a system to enable system change.

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking?

No prior knowledge of systems thinking is required for this course. All concepts will be fully explained.

What will the format of the training be?

This is a highly interactive session using my Systems Thinking Change Wheel and action cards to understand system change. A case study will be used to apply the thinking to, and by prior arrangement, this can be a case study of the ‘place’ in which you work.

There will be some presentation whilst explaining concepts. However, the majority of the day will be group exercises and application of the thinking to the case study. You will identify where conditions might hinder system change and where effort can be injected to help create the conditions to enable system change.

Applying the viable system model

Who is this training for?

This training is for anyone who has an interest in applying the viable system model to a situation. You can be from any kind of work background, as long as you have an interest in the subject matter.

What will I learn?

You will learn the basics of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. You will learn about the five sub-systems of the model and what their functions are. You will also learn how to apply the model to a real-world situation, learning what to look for and how to spot areas for potential improvement in a situation, based on a diagnosis using the model

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking or the viable system model?

It does help if you have some knowledge of systems thinking but don’t worry if you don’t. Systems thinking is such a wide field that any key concepts etc will be explained throughout the session. It is important to do this because of the wide range of interpretations that exist.

What will the format of the training be?

There will be some element of presentation when explaining the model. The majority of the day, however, will be your practical application of the model to a given case study. You will undertake a diagnosis of a messy situation, using a number of ‘guides’ that you will be provided with to help you along. It will be a mixture of thinking about certain elements alone and in groups and you will be guided by the trainer throughout.

The case study will be a case study that the trainer has worked on. That way, she can share real insights as to how the model can be applied and what you can look for when trying to identify areas for improvement. It is a case study is from public services. This area has been chosen for its ‘messiness’ which gives opportunities to demonstrate areas for improvement in many places. You do not have to have experience of or a background in public services to understand the case study or undertake the diagnosis. In fact, it can sometimes help if you don’t know much about the situation in the case study.

Other bespoke systems thinking courses are available, which can be designed to meet your needs. Please get in contact to discuss your requirements.

pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Feedback from a previous course:

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.

The viable system model in today’s world

I ran a training session on the viable system model yesterday, using a case study and my own practitioner experience to make the model ‘come to life’ for those in the room.  I think I was blessed because the group were fantastic and exactly in the right mind space to be receptive to the session.

I’m not really interested in regurgitating reams and reams of academics or unpicking a project that took place 50 years ago. I’m interested in being mindful of the past but working in the context of today. How people use the model now, today, in their own work environments. How it feels, what the barriers are and what insights it can unlock.

What I was hoping to demonstrate was that with no prior knowledge of a particular organisation, within one day of applying the model, some very powerful insights can be gained.

I also shared the way I have been using the model lately and how I have been considering how its application contributes to the conditions required to enable the development of skills and behaviours that can bring the humanity back to our work.

I talked about the impact of identity, relationships and new models of power and control. Purpose, meaning and strategies of collaboration and reciprocity. Policies of collaboration, sharing, empowering and enabling. Leaving efficiency behind and focussing on effectiveness and ensuring you have system ‘health checks’ in place that monitor the ability to adapt, flex, pivot and change. I talked about coaching, supporting and holding each other to account. Autonomy and accountability and at the same time, support for risk taking and failing.

When you take this mindset and couple it with the viable system model, you end up with a very powerful model for a different kind of organisational governance.

Does the viable system model have a place in today’s world – yes, it does. Can sharing about the VSM evolve beyond its highly technical model – yes, it can. Are people out there using it – yes, they are, and they are willing to bring the humanity back into the work and work with passion towards what they believe to be a positive way forward.

…….and the feedback was great!

‘Eyes on- hands off’ – are you ready to make the change?

What can public services learn from General Stanley McChrystal’s approach – Team of Teams?

I was pointed towards this podcast by my colleagues Mike Haber and Tim James www.bosslevelpodcast.com/general-stan-mcchrystal-and-a-team-of-teams/

I was totally inspired by General Stanley McChrystal so I went on to read his book, Team of Teams.

I loved the book, not least because of his amazing work but because his application of systems thinking is not relayed via technical accounts of what a system is or what a viable system etc. is, but because he tells a story; the story of how he applied an approach that was effective, that worked and he did it in the real world.

So, what is it all about?

The forward of his book starts by telling us, ‘Whether in business or in war, the ability to react quickly and adapt is critical, and it’s becoming even more so as technology and disruptive forces increase the pace of change. That requires new ways to communicate and work together. In today’s works, creativity is a collaborative endeavour. Innovation is a team effort.’

20th century organisation is of little use in the 21st century and yet many organisations cling on to it like an old friend, preferring to focus on things like reducing variation, separating out planning and execution via organisational charts and having managers who focus on keeping things in working order and maintaining morale. But, as General McChrystal points out in his book, ‘You cannot force the complex to conform to rules meant for the merely complicated’. Our new environments demand new approaches.

These new approaches are ones of agility, coherence of purpose and strategy and evolution through adaption. They are dispersed, organic, associative networks with a culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking (rather than simple execution of demands) and they are nurturing of competence and adaptability.  They are approaches of decentralised teams who are well co-ordinated, have tight accountability and widespread information exchanges. Change is less about tactics or new technology but is more about internal architecture, culture and people as interchangeable parts. They are approaches where people have a willingness to ‘know what we don’t know’ and ‘expect the unexpected’. To enable the required agility, the approaches need to make a shift from strategic planning and predicting to reconfiguring. After all, ‘setting oneself on a predetermined course in unforeseen waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg’ (Henry Mintzberg). Adaptability, contextual understanding, flexibility and collective responsibility for success, and what that responsibility entails, should be new predominant features.

He also clearly states that, ‘an organisation’s fitness – like that of an organism – cannot be assessed in a vacuum; it is a product of compatibility with the surrounding environment.’ Contextual awareness is imperative.

What did he do?

‘Team of Teams’ focusses on the transformation of an elite military organisation, the Joint Special Operations Task Force, in the midst of a war.

For General McChrystal, different thinking and a different approach weren’t really optional. He was not just dealing with, ‘looking at the same roads with faster traffic; we were looking at an entirely different and constantly shifting landscape.’ It soon became clear to him that the old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer existed and ‘adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency’.

General McChrystal set out to look for familiar structures and patterns hidden in the chaos around him and started focussing on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. He set out re-structure his teams to develop a more networked, non-hierarchical operation.

His re-structuring was focussed on the principles of extremely transparent information sharing to develop a ‘shared consciousness’ and coupled with this was a decentralised decision-making authority, which he called, ‘empowered execution’.

What I see in what General McChrystal did is very transferrable to the world of public services and especially to those moving towards more team based working across multiple organisations.

Let’s take a look at some of the key points/ thinking behind his transformation.

Some key points/ thinking about the approach

  • Focus on connections between things, rather than the things themselves. ‘Resilience is the result of linking elements that allow parts of the systems to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage’;
  • Predicting and planning should no longer be the main focus because we exist in an ecosystem, much of which we have no control over;
  • Efficiency is important but ability to continually adapt to complexity is imperative. The old world, where efficiency was enough, no longer exists;
  • Move away from the fragility of being damaged by shocks and aim to be an organisation that can benefit from shocks, because it can adapt quickly;
  • Focus on an organic and associative network that is decentralised, well-co-ordinated, with tight accounting, widespread information exchange and agility and resilience;
  • You should only empower if the recipients of new found authority have the necessary sense of perspective to act on it wisely. Empowerment without sharing doesn’t work, neither does sharing without empowerment. You must have shared consciousness and empowered execution together;
  • Focus on purpose and adaptability, rather than procedure and efficiency;
  • Create adaptability whilst maintaining traditional strengths. Hierarchy needs to exist but needs to understand that it is part of a network;
  • Shift the focus from categorisation to integration – become a network;
  • Contextual awareness is key.

Some key points/ thinking about the leadership style

  • Replace command structures with teams but maintain a hierarchy to set boundaries. However, the hierarchy should behave differently. Teams need autonomy to make decisions and the hierarchy needs to let them do it. The leader needs to let the team problem solve and they need to be one of the team. ‘Team players should not have to consult with the coach before taking a shot.’
  • The leader should ensure their subordinates know the leader’s decision-making processes, so they can make decisions themselves on the leader’s behalf. Agility and adaptability is achieved by loosening control. The leader has ultimate responsibility still;
  • Adopt an ‘eyes on – hands off’ leadership style. Push decision making and ownership to the right level for every action;
  • Lean towards enabling, rather than directing and aim to build trust and common purpose. Pump information out and empower people at all levels;
  • Maintain consistent example and message. The most powerful instrument of communication is your own behaviour;
  • Dissolve the barriers of silos and floors of hierarchies. ‘As our own environment erupts with too many possibilities to plan for effectively, we must become comfortable sharing power.’

Some key points/ thinking about the teams

  • ‘Design your teams and their development to foster emergent intelligence that can thrive in the absence of a plan’;
  • What makes teams adaptable is key to transformation. ‘Adaptability is built through trust and a shared sense of purpose’;
  • People act as interchangeable parts. They change to suit the environment. General McChrystal found that the lack of traditional hierarchy meant that there was no internal anarchy by removal of significant individuals. The hierarchy is maintained but in a different way. There should be a combination of management and team work;
  • Let the ones who want to quit, quit;
  • Collective team consciousness is required. Trust and purpose are KEY. Teams need to believe in the cause;
  • The team must act as a co-ordinated whole. Teams whose members know each other deeply perform better;
  • The team should be collectively responsible for the team’s success and understand everything that that responsibility entails;
  • They need to build these things as instinctive behaviours that are triggered by communication;
  • Trust and communication are more important than technical skills;
  • Teams need to produce clear, sufficient information about their operations so the hierarchy can watch from a distance;
  • Have flexible, multi directional communicative bonds. Have a strong lattice of trusting relationships. Horizontal connectivity is important. There MUST be meaningful relationships between teams;
  • ‘Interconnectedness and the ability to transmit information instantly can give small groups unprecedented influence’;
  • ‘Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.’

Some key points/ thinking about culture

Most systems thinkers will stress that culture is an emergent property of the system. This system is designed to enable the following culture:

  • A culture that rewards individual initiative and critical thinking, rather than simple execution of demands;
  • Nurturing of competence and adaptability;
  • Empowerment/ self-organisation and freedom to act;
  • If you receive a complaint, you own it;
  • ‘Use good judgement in all situations’

So, what about scaling up?

  • Scale up the teams by building a team of teams;
  • Relationship between constituent teams should resemble those of the relationships between individuals in teams;
  • Teams are bound by common purpose, rather than outperforming another team. They are a friendly force, not a competitive rival and they understand the impact of their work on other teams;
  • You don’t have to know everyone in the other team but you do need to know someone. Job swapping can be beneficial;
  • All teams co-operate to achieve strategic and tactical success by sharing and connecting the dots;
  • Have daily communications between teams with counterparts. Conduct daily analysis and have quick data exchanges. Make sure you have everyone in attendance who is required to make a decision;
  • Fuse generalist awareness with specialist expertise. Settings must allow teams to work together;
  • Key leaders move between teams often to share information;
  • Have quick feedback loops to update information to inform next actions – this allows quick, iterative adaption;
  • Have fluid integration between operations and analysts – build trust, co-operation and working together for the greater good.

How can this help public sector leaders?

Public sector leaders who now have to merge teams across organisational boundaries, deal with ever changing complex environments, modernise working practices and develop effective strategies may want to pick up on General McChrystal’s change of focus – from heavy planning to adaptability, from silos to shared consciousness, from command and control to empowered execution and from a narrow internal focus to internal focus coupled with contextual awareness.

Nowadays, being aware of the bigger picture is imperative. Quick re-calibration of short-term plans can allow problems to be addressed quickly and enable improved operations. Leaders may want to shift from moving players on the chess board to shaping ecosystems. They may want to create and maintain the teamwork conditions required to balance information and empowerment and develop cross functional co-operation. They may want to explicitly articulate priorities and delegate decisions with no incongruence.

What General McChrystal states in his book and what is very clear to me is that what is required is,

‘a complete reversal of the conventional approach to information sharing, delineating of roles, decision-making authority and leadership’ which is precisely what he did with his Task Force.

Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal

 

A new challenge for systems practitioners

I read many posts about why systems thinking isn’t adopted more widely. I won’t get into that argument right now because I have a new concern on my radar. Working with public sector organisations, I am encouraged by the forward thinking of some emerging leaders and their positivity and desire to think differently. But, I am recurrently seeing a phrase that should fill me with delight and yet it is having the opposite effect. The phrase is this, ‘We are implementing a model of systems thinking and system leadership’. When I ask people who are implementing this model of systems thinking and system leadership what a system is…..well, unfortunately, they can rarely tell me. When I ask people what systems thinking is, the response is nearly always, ‘all organisations working together.’ Yes, this may be one element but it isn’t the totality of what systems thinking is. My worry, as a systems practitioner, is the extent of the challenge I now have in undoing the false beliefs about what systems thinking is. It was easier when people knew nothing. At least then I was starting from a blank sheet. I’ve always had some concerns in this area but lately it is escalating. It is escalating because the words ‘systems thinking’ are, in more recent months, being used more frequently and sometimes quite inappropriately and no-one is there to challenge that when it happens.

My shout out to all the systems practitioners out there, in particular those who have come through the Open University Systems Thinking in Practice qualifications and who are working either as consultants or covertly in organisations (especially those working in public services) ………please show yourselves. Now is not our time to stay quiet. Now is our time to expose the thinking, methods, models etc that we use and share them widely.

Systems thinking can be a massive asset to pubic services as they try to navigate the monumental complexity and change they are currently having to navigate. Tell people about boundaries and environments, tell them about emergence, self-organisation and feedback, tell them about the methods and models we have access to and can help them to learn, tell them about mental models and patterns of behaviour, tell them about structural coupling, tell them about dynamics, stocks and flows, tell them about leverage points, tell them about archetypes, tell them about systems laws and variety. Tell them about Barry Oshry’s tops, middles, bottoms and customers. Tell them about metaphors and clean language. Tell them about complex adaptive systems. Tell them about purpose and identity. Now is not the time to keep quiet.

In the past, I have worked very covertly in organisations, keeping systems thinking fairly quiet and just ‘getting on with it’ so I can totally understand why people do this. But, times have changed. At the moment, we have a huge opportunity to influence new thinking. Let’s do it! Let’s get a truer understanding of what systems thinking is ‘out there’ and make it accessible to all. We learnt it, so others can learn it too.

For those of you reading this who are in public services and don’t know what systems thinking is and are confused about systems leadership – look to systems practitioners to help you. There are many of us out there. Some working inside organisations as members of staff, some, like me, working as consultants. We are dedicated to helping others learn the systems thinking mindset and we would be only too happy to help.

 

Applying systems thinking to commissioning: who will be the future system leaders?

I often wonder just who the leaders in the commissioning landscape will be moving forwards. Times are changing rapidly, organisational boundaries are blurring and merging and new integrated teams promise to be one of the enablers of different ways of working.

To survive in this new landscape will take a crucial shift in our awareness of the situations in which we operate and the ways in which we think. Fragmented, linear thinking is no longer appropriate for dealing with the wealth of complexity in today’s world. It is going to be ever more important to grow the state of mind from which one operates in order to survive. We should be mindful that what we are looking at is determined by how we are looking and a process of stepping outside of our normal ways of thinking may be required. (Jan de Vische, 2014)

Those of us who engage with systems thinking are very aware that, ‘A systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.’ (Churchman, 1968) and some core concepts of systems thinking are ‘gaining a bigger picture (going up a level of abstraction) and appreciating other people’s perspectives.’ (Chapman, 2004) These are easy things to say, I guess, but much harder to put in practice if you are not used to it and yet I feel they will be important skills for the leaders of the new commissioning landscape as they lead within a wider system and not just the constraints of one organisation.

To see the wider system people must first move beyond the strongly bonded relationship they have with their current organisation, which will inevitably be hierarchical. Fritjof Capra in his book, The Systems View of Life, reminds us that people see their position in a hierarchy as part of their identity. Therefore, to me it is easy to imagine why people may not want to see other perspectives as they are happy to see the world as they currently do and feel happy with their current identity within the existent hierarchy.  Because of this, the demise of organisational boundaries and traditional hierarchies may generate some existential fears and I wonder to what degree this will hinder people’s ability to organically adapt to their new circumstances.

On a positive note though, it may act as a catalyst for new, emergent thinking. I wonder if those caught in this huge and prolonged change realise that there is a different kind of power they can harness instead of the traditional power gained through hierarchical positioning? It is the power to empower others. Capra tells us that the network is the ideal structure for exerting this kind of power, which, in my mind, fits perfectly with the newly emerging commissioning landscape. I feel that future system leaders will be those who can effectively facilitate the new connectedness, rather than resist it. They will be the ones who can develop rich connections, recognise new centres of power, grow alliances, partnerships and new relationships, learn their way forward with others and not be afraid of failure. They will be the ones who support new mechanisms of learning, grow shared values as oppose to being chained to one organisational culture and they will nurture a true sense of community.

The systems leaders will be those who can effectively work with the flux, rather than hide from it and they will be committed to the success of the whole, rather than one part of it. They will be able to focus on similarities rather than differences and will have a committed focus on deeper learning. Their tolerance for uncertainty will be enhanced, they will embrace new freedoms and they will accept the need for a longer-term focus.

I believe the new way forward has the potential to open up a plethora of freedoms and choices, which I believe will be hugely beneficial, because as von Foerster reminds us, ‘the more freedom one has, the more choices one has, and the better chance that people will take responsibility for their own actions. Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.’ (Ison, 2010)