My approach

I have been blogging over the years about the gradual development of my systems thinking approach. My suite of materials, both workshop materials and consultancy materials have seen many iterations and are based on my work since 2006, predominantly with the viable system model and also with other systems thinking approaches. A lot has also come from from my days of strategy, transformation and improvement prior to becoming a systems practitioner.

A question I am often asked is ‘How do you use the VSM if you work in complex adaptive systems which include people?’ The answer is easy really. The technical side of the VSM is useful in helping me to understand the functions, dynamics and communication in a situation. Alongside that, I have also turned my work with the viable system model into a human focussed suite of materials, based on Creating the Conditions for Change at each fractal level of the system, bringing humanity back into the work by focussing on what we need and want to feel nourished when going about our work.

These 2 things together are 2 sides of the same coin. The more technical side (using VSM) and the more people orientated side. The coin is wrapped up in a swathe of self-development and inner self confidence relating to the people involved in the situation (working at the level of a VSM on an individual). The work stemmed from me revisiting my viable system model work and realising that whenever it worked well was when I used it to ‘create the conditions for change’ to enable a more effective working ecosystem.

For the people side of things, I developed something I call the ‘Systems Thinking Change Wheel’. It is a set of questions, inspired by the VSM, that helps people who aren’t embedded in systems thinking get to grips with some of the more human elements in their situation. Below is an updated 2022 version from the original, which was released as part of my workshop materials in 2019. There have been five updates to date.

The wheel gives us important areas of focus for each fractal later in our situation and a set of questions to consider. Sitting under the wheel is a booklet summarising how and why we need to Create the Conditions for Change, related to each area of the wheel.

The real power lies in the action cards, which accompany the booklet. There are around 120 actions that help you to consider what to put in place, at each level of the system to create a healthier, more human centred, work ecosystem. Observation, learning and adaptability are central. Self development, humility and humanity are also key and exist throughout. There is also a big focus on creating what I call relationship enablers and developing interaction channels, again stemming from my work with the viable system model.

The following (from my approach) is related to what I call the more complexity orientated side of the coin, but using inspiration from the VSM.

Starting with the individual – In any situation, we need to look at ourselves as much as anyone else. The Creating the Conditions for change kit can be used on ourselves, at a personal level, to create our own learning system and support our own inner development. It considers how can we become more self-referencing, embrace our autonomy and peer support each other. The action cards include suggestions for this and many other things. It is at this level where I kick start the process. Once people can apply the thinking to themselves, it becomes easier to apply it to the other system levels. I use this level with both a personal development lens and a coaching others lens.

At a team level – we apply the same thinking at a team level. The focus here is not just on your own team but forging relationships across teams. Sharing resources, re-imagining roles, how we communicate and make decisions differently are a key area of focus in the actions at this level. They seek not only to make the team effective but to support the learning and development of the individual, in line with their own professional identity and purposes.

At a service level – again, it is the same thinking here but with slightly different actions. Collaborating, seeing wider than your own service, promoting joint decision making and reviewing your system for signs of system ‘sickness’ come into play here, as well as many other actions. Collaborations at a service level, set the ethos of collaboration at the team level below.

At an organisational level – here we start thinking about deliberate reciprocation strategies and acknowledgement of the benefits of cross organisational working. These reciprocations strategies enable collaborations at a service level below.

Multi-organisational level – we have many actions relating to the level of multiple organisations working together. Not least, undertaking system health checks to expose whether policies, procedures, funding etc are helping or hindering and whether power and information is nurturing the system or harming it. Co-creating together, enabled by deliberate reciprocation strategies is key and link to the enablement of such reciprocation strategies at an organisational level below.

Systems change – we then flow into the area of system change and this is where it gets really interesting, and I have captures some additional elements in the Systems Change Wheel

Exploring and Enabling Systems Change

What I have found in my work on systems change is that nurturing people and bolstering their confidence is a critical factor, as is harnessing the collective power of those at every level of the system. Co-creating, using small scale prototyping is something I have brought in from my days back in improvement, pre systems thinking. Specifically, from my days in pharmaceutical specials manufacturing.

The power in all of this is that insights are shared at multiple levels of the system. When we take action at multiple levels, concurrently, powerful change can come from something seemingly very small.

I have not included details of the more technical side of the coin here. This is where I use the VSM in its more traditional sense and can be accessed via my consultancy practices.

In addition are the skills and behaviours I advocate to support the approach. These were part of the original 2019 workshop materials and I have recently updated the infographic, which is shown below.


Systems thinking training, coaching and on-site consultancy. Support with systems change programmes. Systems thinking lecturing and tutoring.

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