Blended Systems Thinking Approach 1: enhancing understanding to enable co-evolution in complex situations (diagnosis and design)
Imagine if there was an approach that allowed you to quickly and powerfully understand how your system works.
Imagine if there was a way to be more adaptable so your system can thrive and survive in the longer term.
There is such an approach. It exists in the form of the Blended Systems Thinking Approach that I have developed over the last 10+ years of applying systems thinking to complex situations.
Traditional methods of working rarely seek to understand and work with complexity. Many systems were designed in a time when being adaptable and flexible were not as important as they are today. Many organisations continue to use approaches that might have been useful to them in the past but are of little use in complex situations. Approaches like Plan Do Check Act does not deal with complexity. Lean does not deal with complexity. Six sigma does not deal with complexity. So, we need a different approach to deal with the challenges of today.
My approach is a systems and complexity thinking approach that can be used to help you make change. It can be used to diagnose a situation to give a whole range of options for improvement, to design something from scratch or to change a situation by understanding and shifting a range of perspectives, reframing, aligning values and perceived purposes and by helping systems to build a co-created identity with all partners.
With this approach I do not seek to focus on ineffective long-term prediction and rigid planning. We all know that this is relatively pointless in complex situations. Instead, I help people to understand the complexity in which their situation sits and understand why things may not be working as expected. My aim is to enable the adaptability and flexibility required for organisations to thrive and survive, on a long-term basis, in a complex, and sometimes rapidly changing, environment.
One of the models I use to guide my approach is the VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL, with other methods/ models/ concepts etc being added in appropriate places to enhance the understanding of the complex situation. The process followed for each of the following three types of activity may be different. However, they all draw upon the elements outlined in the approach, albeit in different ways or in different sequences. This approach can be used to:
- Diagnose – based on identifying the areas where you are not managing the complexity in your system, identifying how your system self-organises and how adaptable you are.
- Design from scratch – focussing on the perceived or intended purpose of the system, based on the multiple perspectives of the stakeholders. Taking into account POSIWID (the purpose of the system is what it does) and aiming for sufficient adaptability to manage your complex situation. Designing for positive emergence, where possible.
- Change – based on understanding and shifting perspectives, reframing, aligning values and perceived purposes and building a co-created identity. Building capacity by focussing on interconnections, interdependencies and interactions, enabling effective communication exchanges and relationships and aiming for flexibility and adaptability.
I have no rigidly fixed way of going from A to B with my approach, just a range of options that I might use, depending upon the situation I face. I encourage critical observation throughout and whilst I will draw upon various elements of my approach in a sequence that fits with a specific diagnosis, there are some things I always do first. For example, a boundary critique. The complexity of the environment is infinite, so you need to decide what you want to focus on. A boundary critique defines the limits of what is to be taken as pertinent in the investigation, so it is beneficial to surface those judgements at the very beginning, if possible. This is why I always start with the boundary critique. I use Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to assist me, which gives some really easy to follow questions to get me started. What I try to do is identify what selectivity is occurring and I question the practical and ethical elements of those judgements with stakeholders. CSH is great for this and worth getting to grips with. I interview people, talk to groups of stakeholders, have workshops and might use other techniques, such as questionnaires, to bring in as many perspectives as I can, without it getting too overwhelming. I try not to go ‘too big’, or it tends to become unmanageable. I then identify what kind of tensions, values, conflicts and expectations exist and work with the stakeholders to decide what is going to be inside and outside of the boundary.
The viable system model (VSM) addresses how an organisation manages complexity. It looks to establish the necessary and sufficient structural preconditions for viability. It gives powerful insights around self-organisation and adaptive management. In public services, for example, it can help us understand what is required for us to move more towards a model of self-organised networks.
When we use the VSM it is important that we are also able to empower people. It is essential that any networks we create are able to build trust and understand how collaborative leadership works. Bottom up learning processes can help with this empowerment and this is an essence of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), so I bring in some of the CAS thinking here, to ensure that those learning processes are considered and embedded.
All of this self-organisation, networks, bottom up learning etc pushes us towards models of thinking and working that require people to have new and different competencies to what might have worked in the past. Nowadays, we require a focus on autonomy, accountability, respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity. This is where I bring in the work of Gareth Morgan who clearly outlines the competencies required in a more complex working environment.
Of course, there are also multiple perspectives in our situations, particularly when working towards things like leadership of place in public services. To help me work effectively with these, I draw in some Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) which uses techniques like rich pictures to capture and communicate these perspectives in an unthreatening way and conceptual models to help me visually work with and communicate current or future concepts.
I also need to get a grip of the dynamics in a situation and the feedback loops between elements of the VSM. For this, I use some basic Systems Dynamics and in particular causal loop mapping. These diagrams can display a huge amount of complex information on one page that takes minutes to understand and yet would take numerous pages of complicated text to explain. The systems dynamics helps me to understand the structure that determines the behaviour over time of the situation I am looking at, so it is a valuable addition to my approach. In much of what I do it is essential to change the connectedness and the nature of interactions and the systems dynamics helps me to understand how I might do some of this.
If I think it necessary, I will pull in a number of other approaches. One of which might be to explore the structural couplings in a situation. Structural couplings are things like the other organisations you might interact with in a mutually beneficial way, whilst still preserving your identity and viability; the recurrent interactions leading to structural congruence. So, it is not hard to imagine how investigating and understanding the structural couplings can enhance the value of the core viable system modelling approach.
I look for improvements that are both systemically desirable and culturally feasible. When it comes to making improvements, I use small scale prototyping to enable a more entrepreneurial approach and I aim for the ability to regenerate and co-evolve within your context.
It is important to add that I strongly advocate a facilitative and coaching style in my work. I do not work individually but I bring people, from all levels of an organisation, along for the ride with me. I try to teach as much about the thinking process as possible along the way as it is important to me that people can learn the skills for themselves. This type of change requires ongoing understanding and learning and I put as much effort into that (sometimes more) as I do in undertaking the actual diagnosis. I act as a facilitator of others’ learning. I do not use a traditional ‘problem’ ‘solution’ style of consulting. I work on the ground, and with all levels in the organisation, to facilitate learning in their context. My aim is to develop a working context that allows people to deal with complex situations so that the organisation becomes adaptable, can thrive and survive and co-evolve with its ever changing environment.
There are a number of strengths to my approach:
- It develops understanding in your context – it is a uniquely different way of thinking about and diagnosing your current situation;
- It is widely applicable – from large organisations to small services;
- It has rigour – it uses tried and tested methods, models and concepts;
- It develops a wider range of co-created options for improvement;
- It enables you to work with intimidating large complex situations and diagnose for yourself why certain things keep happening or are getting worse
And it can bring a number of benefits, such as:
- Giving your organisation the ability to adjust, modify and change, to take advantage of opportunities and cope with the consequences of shock or stress;
- Helping you increase your capacity and capability by helping you to understand the underlying structures that drive behaviours and outcomes;
- It develops a strong foundation for decision making to give benefits across the system;
- It helps you to manage complexity to improve problematic situations and capitalise on opportunities
And some additional benefits:
- It can help to identify and strengthen the voice of any marginalised groups, who currently do not have the voice or positive influence they might have;
- It can explicitly identify the power dynamics, so that you can develop strategies for dealing with them;
- It encourages stakeholders to drive the systemic change;
- It can help to identify potential conflict situations;
- Organisations/ teams who learn by evolution/ regeneration tend to create an environment of ongoing innovation;
- It encourages a greater entrepreneurial mindset by helping you to identify opportunities to innovate;
- It helps you to understand what is required to give energy to and scale up new ideas;
- It encourages you to experiment and identifies that failure is temporary and, in some cases, a necessary pre-cursor to success;
- It can give you a different response to conflict.
The Blended Systems Thinking Approach 1 – enhancing understanding to enable co-evolution in complex situations and building the conditions for change