How do we learn?

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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

 

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How can systems thinking help your change programme?

 

SmallLogoWe are all aware of how difficult it is to deliver a change programme in our organisations. People don’t generally like change. Or, do they? Is it the change they don’t like, or the way the change is forced upon them? It is often more about the way the change is done, rather than what the change is, that is the problem.

You will find that systems practitioners do the following when they are leading change:

  1. We give people a safe space and an opportunity to react and articulate their feelings.

Many systems thinking methods and tools are aimed at allowing people to articulate their feelings. For example, we use “clean language” exercises so that people’s true feelings can be expressed. We try hard not to influence but to listen

  1. We respect different views and perspectives

We use diagramming techniques such as Rich Pictures to display different perspectives in a non-threatening way. They are made up of pictures and visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

  1. We allow time to accommodate conflicting interests and we help people work through their understanding of the situation

This is a very under-rated exercise. It is extremely valuable. In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not as valuable as someone else’s interest. We help people to work through this by unfolding the complexity in a situation so that we all get a good understanding of each other’s interests. Just knowing that the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

  1. We identify causes of failure in a situation

We don’t play the blame game! We use methods and diagrams to identify causes of failure in a situation. This takes away the usual blame game and puts the emphasis where it should be – on how they system is working (or not working, as the case may be). Blame is a trap that systems practitioners try very hard not to fall into.

  1. We believe in collective decision making

We don’t make decisions on our own. We believe in collaboration and coming to joint decisions (whenever possible). We don’t force our own views on others but work through the situation together with people so that we ‘learn our way forward together.’

That’s just a taster of what systems practitioners consider during a change programme. More to come in a later post!

Systems Thinking and Health

SmallLogoSystems thinking is immensely useful for understanding complex health systems. It’s perfect for those large, complex, interconnected, messy situations that health and social care services are embedded in. Understanding them is imperative if we are to make the right changes to empower people to understand and look after their own health.

There are lots of articles about health systems around the world where systems thinking is being successfully applied to give excellent outcomes. See the useful links page for more information!

Before you can learn, you have to unlearn

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Our perspectives and worldviews are held powerfully in our minds. So, can we unlearn them to make way for a new type of learning? Apparently, yes! But, how can we unlearn the perspective that has been so deeply set into our mind during our formative years? Well, we need to expose ourselves to the positives of doing so, before we can be convinced.

One way to do this is to expose ourselves to systems thinking. Mind you, doing so will certainly open us up to our vulnerabilities. But then, this is the good bit…….if we do this, there is the chance that our vulnerabilities will no longer scare us and so their power will dissolve. If our vulnerabilities start to dissolve then maybe we will be more open to saying “I don’t know” or our fear of failing may be minimised. We might, then, escape from the reinforcing feedback loop of routine – comfort – complacency – reluctance to change – routine.

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Self- reflection is a major part of systems thinking. The bonds in the feedback loop above are so strong they can be excruciatingly painful to break. However, once broken we gain the benefit of being able to shift our mindset to a place that gives enlightening new insight and allows us to take the fear out of embracing the complexity in which we are engulfed.

 

 

What do you do, when you do what you do?

SmallLogoWhat do you do when you do what you do? Have you ever thought about it? One of the things I like about systems thinking is that it gives you the time to react and articulate feelings, consider different viewpoints and create space to challenge your own understanding. What am I doing? Why am I doing it like that?

Do you routinely open up your own perspective or do you prefer to stick to one specific mindset? Do you know that you prefer one specific mindset? Have you ever challenged that mindset?

Systems thinking can help you challenge yourself, expand your understanding and help you to appreciate multiple perspectives. This, in turn, can be a powerful mechanism for building mutually respectful relationships.

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This can be a huge asset when dealing with the large complex situations and the people in them. After all, they are living systems. How can we expect to understand the behaviour of the system if we don’t understand our very own habits and behaviours? Think about what you do when you do what you do and challenge yourself, every now and then. It’s a healthy thing to do.

The games we play

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Yes, that’s right, we play games. It isn’t all statistics and theories in this field! The first thing I like to do as a systems practitioner is to appeal to people’s human side. After all, it is people we are dealing with and it is usually them I am trying to help.

Many people in the Western world have a bias towards dogmatism. Therefore, I often find it a good idea to expose this, just so people believe it exists. I don’t mean embarrassing people or putting them on the spot, but showing that we are all very much alike and respond in a very similar way to the stimuli around us. It is easy to fall into our dogmatism “trap,” no matter how much we try to avoid it. So how do we break the habit? We play games, of course! Well, I do anyway; especially if I am delivering training courses. I don’t mean training courses particularly about systems thinking either. You can incorporate systems thinking into any kind of training.

For example, I was asked to deliver quality assurance training in an NHS organisation. Brilliant! What better opportunity. Ensuring quality means you have to have an understanding of the situation you are in and why any failures in quality might have happened. If you are steeped in dogmatism you will inevitably fall into the trap of attributing blame and potentially miss the real reason for the failure. So, I like to open up people’s minds and expose them to the concept of multiple perspectives. “What do you mean, multiple perspectives?” I hear you cry. Yes, multiple perspectives; they really do exist. Our own perspective of something is not necessarily a true reflection of the situation we are observing. It is merely our own view of that situation. The person next to us might very feasibly have a completely different perspective of exactly the same thing. To demonstrate the concept of multiple perspectives I use an exercise from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows.

bookIt’s the one called, Circles in the Air. I have a lot of fun with it and delight in seeing people walking down the corridor days later with a pen in the air, trying to work out whether they are moving it clockwise or anticlockwise!

 

If you haven’t used this book before, I highly recommend it. There’s even a DVD with it to demonstrate the exercises. It’s quite easy to demonstrate how our brains make lightening quick associations, how we might perceive things differently from someone else and how we are easily guided into misconceptions by our past experiences.

I like to break down these barriers first and show people that we are all human and we all fall into the same traps. It helps to erode the stigma attached to “getting something wrong.” After all, you need humility to apply systems thinking. You have to be willing to challenge yourself. If you want people to come on board, you have to show them they are human and it’s ok to make mistakes. Only then might they be amenable to reviewing their current practice and taking on board new ways of thinking.

Moral of the story – play games, appeal to people’s human side and enjoy it. Applying systems thinking isn’t about being boring and stuffy. For me, it’s about infecting others with your systems thinking bug. And, once they have the bug, I’m pretty sure they won’t want to get rid of it.

Who is this website for?

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This website is not for the consultant level systems practitioner. It is for the beginner or anyone who might have heard of systems thinking, doesn’t know what it really is but would like to find out more. Also, people often learn about systems thinking but then have difficulty applying the concepts in the real world. This website is for those people. It intends to give practical examples and advice about how some of the tools and techniques used in systems thinking can be used in every-day situations. You do not have to aim to change the world with systems thinking! Nor do you have to be an expert or know everything about systems thinking to put some of its concepts into practice.

Systems thinking is used with primary school children in some countries. It is for people of all ages. If you are reading this then, yes, this website is for you.

What is a Systems Practitioner?

SmallLogo A systems practitioner is someone who is able to put systems concepts into action. This might be in their work, everyday personal life, or both. Systems practitioners often use systems ideas to investigate, evaluate, and make changes in complex situations. Some people think that systems practitioners “look at our systems.” To some degree we do. However, what we mainly do is to take the concepts of how a system works and apply them to situation so that we can work out what is happening in that situation and how we might improve or change it.

But what is a system? Well, a system can be defined as anything consisting of two or more parts which work together as a whole to give a property/ properties that do not exist in one of the parts alone.

For example, a car car  can be classed as a system. It consists of a number of parts which, together, give a mode of transport. Transport is the emergent property of the system. It emerges when all of the parts work together. Singularly the engine is not a mode of transport, nor are the wheels or the seats etc. Without the rest of the car they are not a mode of transport.

Systems have various properties. Here are a few of them:

  1. they have emergent properties (i.e. being a mode of transport is the emergent property of the car)
  2. they self-organise (i.e. they are dynamic, they change)
  3. they exhibit “feedback” (i.e. they consist of information flows or loops of causes and effects)

Systems practitioners tend to focus the connectedness between the component parts in a system. These parts can be: people, departments, services, organisations or sometimes whole societies. A system is however big or small you want it to be. Our intention is to understand the system, as a whole, so that we can predict its behaviour. We tend to do this because if we reduce the situation into smaller “bits” and tweak or change only one bit and not the others we will have more chance of failure. But, if we look at it as a whole then we usually have more chance of success. It is not an “ivory tower” academic discipline. It is very pragmatic and practical. Systems practitioners consider the impacts and unintended consequences of actions as well as the actions themselves.