Practitioner Survival Guide

There are huge benefits to being a systems practitioner but you do have to prepare yourself for the challenges you will face. After all, this is a different model of thinking. It brings to the surface things that  systems practitioners perceive as obvious, but many people can not see them at all. Once you make these things explicit, people wonder how they ever could have missed them.  It is essential that you are mindful of this and work cautiously and wisely.

Let’s see it from the point of view of a non-systems thinker – you have been doing or perceiving something a certain way for most of your life. Then,  you are exposed to a different way of thinking that surfaces things you have never seen before. How do you feel?  It’s quite natural for this to not feel good at first. Therefore, you, as the systems practitioner, must be aware of this when you are practicing.

From my personal experiences, here are some things that have helped me to positively infect others with the systems thinking bug. It’s the survival guide that I remind myself of on a daily basis:


Don’t use lot of technical language. I find it beneficial to convert things into a language people understand. Then, I slowly introduce some of the systems thinking language, bit by bit. Always remember – you must ensure that they understand what you are talking about before you introduce technical language, or you will end up with a lot of confusion. Account for this and work it into how you practice and you will be fine. I often think in systems talk but have to speak in NHS speak.

Be Creative

You don’t have to get everyone on board with systems thinking all at once. I find that if you talk about systems thinking to people who have never seen it in practice, it is a wasted conversation. I go by the “show don’t tell” rule, at first. I use systems thinking in my work first, before telling anyone what it is. This very often prompts the questions “How did you do it?” or “How did you know where to start?” and “How did you know what to do?” I let the work do the talking. Once people start asking  question, that is when I introduce systems thinking. Here are some ways that I “show” my systems practice to others:

             Introducing the tools and techniques

There are many ways to introduce people to the tools and techniques of systems thinking. For example, if I have to talk about a complex subject in a Board meeting I will sometimes put a multiple cause diagram on screen as I am talking.  People then become used to it and start to understand how the diagram works. Over time, I have found people become quite dependent upon seeing the diagrams and then move on to asking, “How do I do one of those myself?”

             Training sessions

I’ve already spoken, in one of my posts, about using systems thinking games when delivering training. This is a brilliantly creative way of introducing systems thinking concepts. Your training session doesn’t have to be about systems thinking. You can incorporate some of the concepts into any kind of training. For example, I  used systems thinking games when training people on quality assurance. I introduced the concept of multiple perspectives to get people to understand how some quality incidents occur.

            Reviewing organisational strategies

When I have reviewed organisational strategies I have used viable systems modelling (VSM) to diagnose how strong those strategies were. I was then then able to give specific reasons for supporting (or not supporting) a particular strategy. In my experience, when people see that I have used something better than a “good guess” they become curious. This is when I have had my opportunity to introduce systems thinking.

The ways you can be creative with systems thinking in the workplace are endless.  Expose people to its concepts, tools, techniques and methods gradually, and show its positive benefits. People will then start to become interested.

Managing Upwards

I have found managing upwards to be an essential skill when you are a systems practitioner; particularly if you are not at the top of the tree yourself.  If you expose something that isn’t quite working as well as it could be, in your organisation, you have to be mindful that someone, somewhere, might not want that weakness exposing. You must work with sensitivity and try and bring people on board gently. Remember – you are not trying to stand on the shoulders of those above you in the hierarchy; you are there to support them. Make sure they feel that.

Beware the power of systems thinking – adopting a systems thinking leadership style

There is no doubt about it, systems thinking is powerful. That power can be intimidating. ALWAYS, be mindful of this. I find that this is where strong leadership skills are essential. Listen to people (I mean really listen) and choose your moments carefully. Don’t go wading in with what you think are “all of the answers,” particularly if people are feeling vulnerable about something already. Have empathy and be aware of the wider context. Have a commitment to helping others grow, rather than focussing on self-promotion. In my experience it isn’t what you do with systems thinking but it is the way that you do it that is important.

Be aware that systems thinking can be overwhelming

Someone once said to me that they loved having me in their team, I always knew what to do, I made the team look good but, no matter how gentle my approach was, they felt incompetent around me when I used systems thinking. This wasn’t what I wanted to hear! It was devastating news to me. I immediately took a “design turn” (yep, that’s a systems thinking concept) and took an even softer approach. I worked almost covertly, just to make sure people were comfortable with my approach. Sometimes (although not always) that is a compromise you have to make. You have to walk the fine line between systems thinking being helpful and revealing or overwhelming and scary. Cross the line at your own peril!

Remember other motivations

Always remember that other motivations will be at play in the situation you are dealing with. Systems thinking is extremely ethical. Other motivating factors in your situation may not be as ethical. Proceed with caution.

Be mindful of how you are being perceived

When I first started using systems thinking I thought I was flying. In fact, I was flying about as well as this……..


………..straight into the nearest tree!

I was naïve and too enthusiastic with systems thinking. I did not understand how systems thinking would be perceived by others. Nowadays, I use my systems thinking much more wisely.

Learn how to deal with systems thinking confusion

I think I have discovered a new medical condition. It’s called, systems thinking confusion. That’s because systems thinking is:

  1. Extremely uplifting, but other motivations can block its use, which can be disheartening.
  2. Exhilarating, yet extremely frustrating at times.
  3. Exposing, but you have to proceed with extreme caution.

It’s amazing to know what to do, when you don’t know what to do (this is what systems thinking teaches you). However, the leadership style and cautious journey might be difficult for some. If you do stick with it though, the rewards are immense. The key is managing your own emotions and leadership style. Once you are able to do this, you will find it much easier. After all, self-reflection is a key part of systems thinking. Don’t just learn to do it; learn to work effectively and sensitively with it.

Find a support network

I practiced for a few years without a really good support network. With hindsight, this was a mistake.  It is really useful to have a good support network around you for when you want to discuss ideas and further develop your thinking. You need a forum where you can be encouraged, not criticised; nurtured, not driven out. Fortunately, I now have a brilliant systems thinking support network. It is filled with people I admire and who support and encourage me. This is essential for my development as a systems practitioner. I would definitely recommend finding yourself a systems thinking network.

Simplify, support, share and sustain!

Systems thinking can be bewildering to someone who has not been steeped in its concepts and methods. It is very easy to forget what it was like when you first came across the concepts and they scared the living daylights out of you. Remember this when you are exposing new people to systems thinking. Use easy to understand examples, which clearly demonstrate what you are saying. Then, follow that up with a real live example that they can relate to. e.g. show how you have used a method or concept in the workplace and what the outcome of using it was. Show how you might have thought about that situation without the method/ concept and then with; show the difference.

Again, show, don’t tell

Tell a story

People love stories….and they remember them! Stories cross boundaries. If done well, they engage, enthral and appeal to the emotions. They stimulate discussion and provoke engagement. They light the candle of familiarity which lies within us all. They can help you to “sell” the value of the thing(s) you are talking about and are an easy way to leave your audience wanting more. The power of story-telling knows no boundaries. Try and master the art, it’s well worth it.

Sell the right thing!

Always remember – sell the problem you solve, not the product you use


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s