We have four brilliant speakers lined up for the summer open meeting. This day is open to members and non-members and is a bargain at only £10! Book early to avoid disappointment: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/scio-open-event-summer-2016-london-all-welcome-tickets-25271087503
SCiO are very proud to host Nora Bateson for a talk on systems thinking in identity on Monday 18th April 2016. Only £10 and open to members and non-members. Location: Manchester Business School. You can book via Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/scio-open-meeting-agm-spring-2016-manchester-all-welcome-tickets-21731720160
I don’t usually air my bigger, more challenging, dilemmas as a systems practitioner out loud, not in public anyway. But, today is different. Today, I am facing the world with a dilemma I never thought I would have. Even in my wildest imagination I did not expect it. Today, I am contemplating the barriers to entering into and being accepted by the world of systems practitioners, but not for just anyone…..for systems practitioners!
My dilemma is twofold really. Firstly there is the question, ‘Why is there such a barrier to entering fully into the systems practitioner community’ and secondly, ‘What do I class as the ‘systems practitioner community?’ and based on my answer the question is, ‘Is there really a barrier or is it just a matter of perception? And who is the community anyway?’
I entered the world of systems thinking back in 2007 when studying the Open University undergraduate systems courses. I took to it straight away and knew it was my vocation. It seemed to fit perfectly with how I wanted to see and challenge the world around me, so off on my systems journey I went. I have to say it has been a bit like a voyage on a treacherous sea at times and that wasn’t during my time going through the formal education part of it either. It has been since becoming a ‘systems practitioner’ and trying to enter into and engage with that pre-existing community.
So, what is my issue? My issue is that it is common place to hear systems practitioners verbalising the ‘no one understand us; no-one wants to know about systems thinking’ plea to the world, but I question if this is really true? My experience has been that when I use the concepts and methods etc of systems thinking in the workplace, people tend to respond on a scale from generally receptive to overawed. That is, of course, if I don’t use the words ‘systems thinking’ but just get on with it, instead of trying to preach about it. I have trained many a team in the basic concepts and methods, without telling them that it is system thinking. The results have been overwhelming positive at times and I know many of those I have trained use the concepts and methods on a regular basis. I often find people huddled in corners doing causal loop diagrams or teams discussing multiple perspectives as they deal with their everyday workplace issues. And then I come across those in the workplace who just seem to naturally think in a systems thinking way and when I compare their work to, say, soft systems methodology, they look like remarkably similar ways of understanding a situation and yet there is no mention of ‘systems thinking.’ So, for me, I wonder if there is such a big barrier to systems thinking? At this point in time I think systems thinking if far more mainstream than we give it credit for. What isn’t mainstream is what I call ‘systems thinking preaching.’ We don’t have to be evangelical about systems thinking we just need to get on and do it. Then, when it works, we infect others with the ‘bug’, pass on the knowledge and its use spreads like a virus. There are over 1,400 people registered on the Open University systems thinking alumni Linkedin group. You can’t tell me there aren’t systems thinkers out there!
So, with all that in mind, why I am perceiving that there is a barrier to fully engaging with the systems practitioner community? The answer is a difficult one because to answer it I have to consider who/ what the systems practitioner community is. You see, there is a community out there of people who have been systems practitioners for a lot of years. They are hugely experienced and knowledgeable and a massive asset for newer systems practitioners to tap into and learn from. Most are amazingly helpful, once you can get to them. But, are their boundaries too tightly guarded? And is that created by their own perception that they are an exclusive community of practice? Or perhaps an intentional desire to remain guarded? I don’t know; I don’t have the answer. What I do know, though, is that I have tried – and am still trying – to bridge the gap between the experienced and the newer practitioners; to bring the communities closer together. To share learning and I mean share, not be preached to. Both sides have something to learn in this exchange. However, my personal experience is that of a huge ocean with rolling waves to be crossed and I’m bobbing around in my little boat, being battered by the giant sea swell. Those with little experience want to learn without being strongly criticised. They need to make up their own minds about what works and what doesn’t. The more experienced want strong challenge and rigor. After all, they are the ones pushing beyond the limits to expand knowledge and understanding. Neither is wrong, they just have different needs. I, therefore, am contemplating if the two worlds can effectively come together harmoniously to help one another? It is possible I think, but dependent upon one thing……the desire to come together.
Yes, I did really say that…the desire to come together. Does it really exist? I don’t have the answer but I do know that if one community doesn’t let the other in then they will continue on their separate journeys and to me that is a great waste and a massively missed opportunity.
In answer to my own questions I seem to be coming to the conclusion that the barriers may just be perceived. I think this because of what I, personally, have in the past perceived the systems practitioner community to be. I used to consider it quite an exclusive club. But, nowadays, I don’t consider it an exclusive club at all. I consider it to be all of the systems practitioners out there. The consultants, the academics, the internal agents……anyone and everyone who is applying systems thinking.
I used to wonder whether more experienced systems practitioners would let me go on their journey with them. Nowadays, I wonder if they want to come on my journey with me? I may have had my boundary around the ‘systems practitioner community’ too tightly drawn in the past. What if I move the boundary? Now, this will make some of you twitch and convulse a little, I’m sure. That is because we haven’t yet mastered how to co-ordinate the two communities so that they can work harmoniously together, so moving the boundary to include the two is not going to make things better. It might well just make them worse. But what if we don’t move the boundary? Do we then just remain as is; separate and divided? Do we just need to make our current boundaries a little more porous so we can facilitate more and better exchanges between the two worlds? Maybe this is the answer. Maybe it just needs a little more effort from both sides and like I said………a DESIRE to move forward together.
Is the desire there? Now that remains the ultimate question…………………………..
These meetings are open to all and are extremely cheap! Only £10!
This is a great question and one I was asked very recently. It’s a common problem – when you want to use something but you are not an expert in it, so you do not know how to extract the correct concepts or methods that will be useful to you in a particular situation. I do find this to be a barrier to the wider adoption of systems thinking, but don’t despair! Some systems practitioners are working hard to find the ways in which systems thinking concepts and methods can be used more easily and share that learning.
A colleague of mine, Mike Haber from SCiO, had a great idea to produce some flash card. The cards give us a concept or the name of a method, a brief description of what it is and a link to further information. “But how can they be useful?” I can hear you say. In my opinion, they can be extremely useful in workshops, to open up perception and support us to think about a situation in a different way.
I was lucky enough to be at a SCiO Open Day session when Mike introduced his idea to us. As a group we were given a flash card and asked to apply the concept to a situation we had been provided with……and, you know, it worked! I have to admit, I was a little sceptical at first, but not anymore. I saw their value instantly. So, when I did a systems thinking session in the workplace recently and a non-practitioner said that they liked what they saw but how did they extract the right concept etc without being a practitioner, it really hit home for me.
We often hear systems practitioners say that they struggle to get people on board with systems thinking. But, is it us who needs to think again? I think we do. We need to think about accessibility; about how to make it easy. Even if this means using only one or two concepts, it’s one or two more than none!
It’s food for thought but, in my opinion, if we do want systems thinking to be adopted more widely we need to get creative and be more innovative in our style. Don’t baffle and bewilder. Support, share and sustain instead.
Well done Mike!
Like an energy saving lightbulb:
- It is illuminating – it gives light to areas of darkness
- It is energy saving – it saves me and others wasted time. It uses less energy but still gives an illuminating effect.
- Once you use it, you don’t want to be without it.
- It is sustainable
- It considers the wider environment.
- It sheds a new type of light on situations.
- It is a quick and easy method of seeing your way forward
But, you have to have something to plug it into to feel its benefits; you need an opportunity to use it!
Do you have low level chaos, bottlenecks, inefficient flows and oscillations in performance in your organisation/ service? If so, put your blame thrower away and look for co-ordination failure.
Co-ordination mechanisms are those things that systems practitioners know as existing in system 2 of the viable system model. They are the things that prevent primary operations from causing chaos for one another. They create stability and keep conflict to a minimum. They are things like: shared protocols, common standards, timetables and communication mechanisms. They are simple things; things we take for granted. Yet, without them we can descend into unfathomable chaos. For example, imagine a school without a timetable! The whole system would start to crumble very quickly.
But, in many change programmes, the co-ordination mechanisms are often overlooked. It is not unusual for it to be taken for granted that they exist. They go unscrutinised when it comes to making improvements and often deemed too insignificant to focus on. Sometimes all you need is a tweak in the co-ordination mechanisms to make a big change.
Remember – the small things count!
It’s really important for systems practitioners to take into consideration the context in which their system sits (the environment). It contains things that are not necessarily part of the system per se but have an influence on or are influenced by the system. There are a number of challenges that can be posed by the organisational environment:
The world is ever changing, no matter what field of work you are in. Those of us working in health and social care know this all too well. To deal with this we need to be more flexible, maybe have a flexible workforce and our organisational structure needs to support ongoing change. Modelling our organisation using a viable system model (VSM) can help us gain an understanding that enables us to build such flexibility into our organisational structure.
Decentralising decision making can help us deal with the complexity from our environment. It gives us flexibility and autonomy to make change (within given parameters, of course). Again, the VSM can help us to consider how we might configure our organisation to deal with complexity from our environment.
This can sometimes come from the threat of competition. Two options we have are to co-operate with others and develop a status quo or we can be more aggressive ourselves and gain a greater market share. Either way, we need to be flexible in our approach, which modelling using the VSM can help us with.
A great book on the use of viable systems modelling is, ‘The Fractal Organisation’ by Patrick Hoverstadt . A brilliantly written book which makes the VSM easy to understand. It is always my first point of reference when I need a little extra help. Available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Fractal-Organization-Sustainable-Organizations/dp/0470060565
“Epistemology, what’s that?” I hear you say. Epistemology is the history of you. It’s a philosophy thing – the theory of knowledge. Why do you think the things you do and behave the way you do? Why are your beliefs justified? Why is it that you know something, or don’t know something?
Whilst systems practitioners may not be epistemologists, we are aware of epistemology and work with an awareness of it. We are aware that everyone has limitations to their knowledge. Everyone’s image of the world is only partial. We know that people will often build a model of the world in their own mind as how they WANT to see it. This means that sometimes they will see ONLY what they want to see and not the other aspects of the situation.
Working with epistemological awareness helps systems practitioners be receptive to all information about a situation. It makes us more able to take multiple perspectives on board. That way, we aren’t intimidated by complex situations; we are able to embrace them.
More about complexity and epistemology can be found here: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/computing-and-ict/systems-computer/managing-complexity-systems-approach/content-section-2.3
Sometimes we engage in single loop learning only. This occurs when strategies, tactics and assumptions are changed to remedy errors (www.open.ac.uk); solving problems without really finding out their cause. There may be occasions where this type of learning is appropriate. However, there are more powerful ways to learn.
Where possible, systems practitioners engage in double loop learning. We look deeper into the cause of a problem before taking any action. We don’t just look at how to do something better, we look at whether or not we are doing the right thing. And, of course, once we ascertain that we are doing the right thing, then we look at how to do it better. This is where we consider at multiple perspectives. We are aware that a situation can be perceived differently by different parties, which is why we try to get to the bottom of what is really causing a problem before we take action. When we do this we are learning to change
There is triple loop learning also, which involves learning how to learn. We reflect on our ways of learning so that we understand them and can tell if we really are learning.
What is most important, I think, is that we are aware of how we learn. We are aware that there are different types of learning and we are prepared to challenge ourselves.
More on single, double and triple loop learning here: http://oro.open.ac.uk/37718/1/Connections%20613_Final%20PrePub.pdf