Where did Stafford Beer go?

Yes, I know he is dead. But where did he go? Over the years from him practicing, where did ‘he’ go? Let me explain…

I am a qualified Systems Practitioner. I have a wealth of experiential and academic learning in the field of systems thinking. Something I use a lot is Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I know it technically. I use it in my work and have done for many years. I learnt it as part of my BSc and then my MSc. Never, during my formative years, did I pick up from those more experienced than me, the extent of deep spirituality and love which formed part of Stafford Beer himself. What I did pick up was an elitist atmosphere of those who ‘knew’ the model and those who were deemed ‘enthusiastic amateurs’ by others. They knew what the model was, but did not know how to use it. It was all about the model. Nothing but the model.

But, with every model comes a person. With every approach comes a person. There is one thing that I have learnt in my years as a Systems Practitioner is that people love to take an approach and erase the person behind it. However, it is the person and their values, their ethics, their thoughts, their deep feelings and ethos in life that makes an approach. Not a model drawn on a piece of paper.

A number of years ago I realised just how versatile the Viable System Model was when I used it for continuing development of myself, as part of an OU PDP course. I then turned my use of the Viable System Model into my systems thinking approach, Creating the Conditions for Change©. This approach is very ethically driven. It aims to bring humanity back into our working lives. It respects individuals and all of the values and gifts they bring with them to the party. It focusses on the people in the situation and it came directly from my learning from using the Viable System Model. One of the words that comes up most often when I engage with groups using the Creating the Conditions for Change© approach is the word ‘love’. Over and over again. This is to do with how I practice and encourage others to ‘be’ in a situation.

So, when sitting in a Metaphorum webinar this month hearing Vanilla Beer talk about the spiritual side of Stafford Beer, I believed that we had somewhat lost the man behind the approach as the years had gone by. Over the last year, I have had a couple of people approach me who know my work and have said that they knew Stafford Beer and they believed he would have liked where I was going with this work. I cannot say whether I agree with them or not as I never knew him myself. However, I do think we have lost the spiritual side of the Viable System Model somewhat and I believe my work is reinvigorating that side of things.

In the Metaphorum conference, Vanilla Beer said, ‘You cannot point to the VSM and say ‘love’.’ On the contrary, I think you absolutely can.

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An update on the System 3* function in the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

When I incorporated a ‘system health check’ element into my Creating the Conditions for Change© consultancy approach, using insights from the Viable System Model, it opened up people’s perspectives to things that were vitally important to their team/ service/ organisation wellbeing and yet were going unnoticed.

The action cards in my consultancy approach (which are questions and prompts about important things to consider) are related to things such as the collaborative and adaptive capabilities of the team/ service/ organisation in focus. Some of the seemingly invisible elements that can bring things together and encourage effectiveness if working well.

Drawing on my blog from 2021, based on work from several years prior, I will remind you of some of the things I monitor for when looking for system health. These are elements that I devised based on my work with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model, which has been a stable in my practice for many years now.

Carrying out the health checks means looking at (amongst many other things):

  • If internal structures are hindering rather than supporting the work
  • If information is being used as a means to gain power in a situation or is it being used to nourish a situation
  • If reciprocation is happening across boundaries
  • If co-creation is happening across boundaries
  • How flexible processes and people are. Can they adapt, pivot and make change in appropriate timescales
  • Can a deep dive be carried out quickly enough when required

My action cards that support my consultancy approach give options for all scales in the system, from individual to organisation and beyond. My workshops also give a sense of the skills required to be a system health check monitor.

It was examination of what the viable system model system 3* could look like, over the course of what is now over 13 years in my work, that encouraged me to make it one of the priorities in my Creating the Conditions for Change consultancy approach.

I have done significant work with it in the NHS in the past, in my roles as Strategy and Commissioning Manager, Commissioning and Transformation Manager and Assistant Quality Assurance Manager and in my private sector roles as Senior Operations Manager and Production Manager in GMP environments, which focussed on quality and improvement.

My work nowadays is also in place-based systems change, which also benefits from the same approach. The versatility of my approach is far beyond what I ever expected when I developed it. It is an approach that is now being widely experimented with by others and my website archive of my past reflections has been viewed heavily by visitors from all over the world. It took many years of deep exploration to get the approach to where it is now and I am currently working on developing it even further. It is essentially a way of using the Viable System Model as a learning system.

Authentic approaches can take time to mature, especially if truly based on insights and learning from your own genuine work.

Insights from the viable system model for developing my own system and ‘Creating the Conditions for Change©’

I recently mentioned to a group of students that I used the viable system model to develop my own personal system, incorporating my own personal development. They asked me to show them what I did and this is the session that I ran for them. It is not a refined session but more of a talk through of what I did, why and what insights it gave me. I also describe how the insights from my work of 15+ years with the viable system model, and particularly the work on developing my own personal system, turned into the building blocks for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change©’ approach to making change and supporting systems change.

You can watch the video of the session on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXobE_5x9r8&t=10s

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.

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!

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.