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

What does the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach do for you?

It is an approach helps you to organise for learning and adaptability and bring humanity back into your work ecosystem. It gives principles and ideas that open up options for you, so that you can structure, coordinate, communicate and make decisions in relation to your own context. It helps you to monitor for system health. It also takes into account the value proposition between different parts of your system and helps you orchestrate value between stakeholders.

It helps you to consider how you spot new trends and things you might need to respond to. How you bring that information into the organisation and prepare for the future. It helps you to consider alternative governance arrangements. It helps you to scale the approach by repeating it at different levels, from a single person up to a whole place and beyond.

What kinds of organisation is the approach applicable to? All organisations. I first developed this approach on a single individual. I then used it on teams, services, departments and to consider whole organisations. I have used it in private industry, public services, charities and voluntary groups. It is particularly useful for those working on systems change in a place. It helps you to consider the conditions for change that might enable and support systems change.

Copyrighted in 2019, after a number of years of use, my approach is built on my experiences of my work with Stafford Beer’s viable system model for 15 years. My work and approach is a creative interpretation of this model. As I applied the model in multiple contexts, I started to capture the things that people actually ‘did’ when the model worked well for them. Adding to it over the years has led to the development of this approach in an incremental way, based on my actual experiences.

New, updated, workshop materials were developed in 2019 so that I could share the approach with others more easily and they could use it themselves. There is now a supporting booklet and 120 action cards to help people apply this approach for themselves.

Can we buy the materials? I have sold them to people in the past, but the main distribution of my materials is via my workshops and my consultancy practices directly with organisations. It is always much better to set the context and work with people on how to use the materials, if they are to get the best out of them.

In 2022, a new updated booklet, infographic and actions cards will be the main kit for my consultancy practices and workshops.

If you are interested, please get in touch: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Insights from the Viable System Model for Personal Development, Coaching and Creating the Conditions for Change

In my Creating the Conditions for Change work, we focus on the individual as much as the wider system. Learning and development starts with ourselves, and this is where exploration of our fractal layers in the system starts.

I started using the viable system model for my own learning and development back in 2011 as part of an Open University course, U810 Continuing Professional Development in Practice. Its value was immediately obvious to me and it became not just part of my own CPD but the first area of focus in my consulting and coaching practices. If a person can master their own learning and development, they can then use the same techniques on the team, department, organisation, place, can’t they? Yes, they can, and it is often how I help others to embed the thinking of the viable system model without ever mentioning its name.

A number of people have asked me about this lately and in my Creating the Conditions for Change work, every area I work on is firstly focussed on the individual – how do we learn, change and adapt? How do we develop our skills and talents for self-referencing and self organisation? How do we enable ourselves to instigate and make change? How do we create connections with others, build our networks, collaborate, reciprocate and encourage our own human system coherence? How do we allow ourselves humanity and healing in our everyday lives? How do we ensure that what we are doing this in line with our identity and our own stated purposes? How do we make sense of the world around us and pivot when we need to? How do we accept our responsibilities, be accountable to ourselves and develop our own identity, purposes and goals? If we can’t start with ourselves, then we are going nowhere.

The viable system model was initially useful for me personally for clearly setting out the configuration of my own development, so that I could see how it fit together as a viable system. I was able to identify how my cyclical second order thinking and co-creation of knowledge and insight were acting to co-ordinate and performance manage my own development as a learning system. This is something I might not have otherwise recognised. This is one of the reasons that learning became a central element of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel, a key diagram in my Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials. If we master how we learn, then we can master how the system in which we are embedded learns and the system in which that sits and so on.

The viable system model enabled me to identify areas I needed to strengthen in my own learning and development system. System 3, where I needed to strengthen how quickly I could bring new thinking into my everyday practices, giving sufficient time to both personal, work and development aspects of my system. System 5, where I needed to better govern the balance between looking forward and dealing with the everyday and refine what my identity was and would be going forward.

The viable system model was also a useful framework that enabled me to understand that strengthening the capability of the control function of my learning system in future would develop requisite variety and would keep my system under control.

It also enabled me to make explicit the value of my intellectual capital and enabled me to identify risks to my learning and development system. This is something I see people almost ‘throw away’ in practice as they hand their power to others and hide their skills and talents.

It encouraged me to use my own autonomy in future and take control over my learning and development activities to mitigate against risk to me as a system and strengthen my personal viability, rather than undertaking learning and development activities to please the agendas of others.

After using the viable system model on myself and realising its value, it became a staple in my consulting and coaching practices. My aim – to enable others to do the same for themselves and then, in turn, for others they encounter on their life journey.

Joe Navarro explains it beautifully in his new book, ‘Be Exceptional’ when he says these three things, ‘self-mentorship is a gift you give yourself’,  ‘luck is the residue of the hard work we put into our self apprenticeship’ and ‘delight in where you learning quest takes you’.

Note: this work is part of my Creating the Conditions for Change consultancy, training and coaching kit. If you build directly on it, do remember to act with integrity and reference it appropriately.

Slithering snakes in the world of systems

Do you work with ethical integrity, or are you a slithering snake? Most slithering snakes do everything they can to convince themselves that their actions are legitimate. They very rarely are.

This week, I saw my Creating the Conditions for Change work exploited. I know exactly by whom and why.

Creating the Conditions for Change was developed over the course of 10+ years. It was an iterative process that stemmed from the early days of my work with the viable system model. I have several iterations showing its development and where that development came from. What I realised I was doing was not ‘making change’ per se but creating the conditions for more healthy work ecosystems to thrive. The central element was learning, as you can see in the diagram below.

The change happens as an emergent property of creating the right conditions. Conditions that support empathy, sharing, nurturing, humanity. Adaptability is key as we synthesise together and co-create using small scale prototyping. Nurturing each other via peer to peer collaboration, developing the right system conditions, monitoring for system health and co-creating our way forward in a more human centred way.

Creating the conditions for change for more healthy work ecosystems became my brand. It is on my LinkedIn profile, my website and penetrates every element of my blog posts over years. Using systems and complexity thinking to explore and immerse ourselves in the context of the situation, working with people in a way that bolsters their confidence, nurtures them and encourages them to nurture each other, harnessing their collective power, considering the situation from a position of empathy, co-creating with cycles of prototyping and then embedding this, using my knowledge of fractal structures, at every level has become my UK registered copyrighted work. Work that I have developed over many years, with lots of action research and incremental improvement. This has become my theory of change.

Just because you have seen my work, doesn’t mean its yours. Just because you like the sound of it, doesn’t mean you created it. If someone gives you a drive in their car, you don’t suddenly expect to own their car, do you? If you build on my work, at least have the decency to reference it.

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.