What can a professional ice hockey player teach us about system change? Quite a lot, I believe!

I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Brackenbury talk about his work on ‘Optimising Human Performance’ this week. No, he isn’t an academic or a systems practitioner, he is a professional ice hockey player and coach and yet he applies elements of NLP and viable system modelling to his training and coaching and what a result he gets! (http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=12084)

Rather than describing his methods in detail, I’m going to cut straight to what I, personally, saw in his work that resonated with me about applying the viable systems model, on the ground, for transformation or system change. This is what I call ‘the glue’, the stuff that makes it work and, sadly, the stuff that people often miss out and then wonder why they are not getting results.

Elements of the VSM that I saw in his work, with my own comments added underneath:

• The importance of effective and quick data sharing across the whole group and good general sharing mechanisms, to allow continual adjustment

  • this is a very important aspect of viable systems. Real time data sharing is one of the key information flows that enables a system to be viable. The quicker and more real time the data, the more chance you have of enabling continual adjustment and adaptability which are absolutely key, particularly for system change.

• Having a dynamic approach

  • Again, absolutely key to enabling an effective viable system. A dynamic approach supports ongoing adaptability and encourages change

• Have a number of contingencies in place and accept that things can’t be heavily planned

  • This is a key mindset for ongoing adaptability and regeneration. Heavy planning is not as important as being able to adapt

• Continual feedback and learning across the system

  • Between every element of the viable system model is a feedback loop. Understanding these feedback loops can be a key element of success. Also, If the system is not undertaking double or triple loop learning, then it is unlikely to be viable in the longer term.

• Have strong control mechanisms in place (i.e. coaches)

  • Having things in place that can bring the system back within its control limits is key for a viable system

• No so much focus on the ‘cogs’ but lots of focus on the regulation (particularly self-regulation)

  • Focussing on the interactions, rather than focussing on the ‘things’, is key to understanding how your system is working, particularly when enacting system change

• Measure in detail and understand the behavioural side of things

  • Part of the monitoring loop and links to self-organisation

• Looking at the athlete holistically within the systems in which they sit

  • As you would look at the system, the system in which it sits and the systems within in. i.e. the 3 levels of recursion you would work with, with a viable system model

• Train for deception – train to create it and train to read it

  • I think this is one of the most important things he said. If you train for deception you are telling you brain not to have a fixed way of doing things. Be prepared for anything, to go in any direction. Just like the speedy self-organisation sometimes required to respond to your environment in real time. This was an EXCELLENT piece of advice, encouraging exactly the right mindset to enable system change

• Look for people’s responses. Look for patterns

  • A true system thinker!

Aspects that I picked up in his talk that I think are essential to your leadership style when using systems thinking in practice (with my comments underneath):

• The importance of identity, culture and being part of something important

  • Absolutely yes. Identity is extremely important for a viable system. If you don’t know your identity and you can’t self-regulate then it is unlikely you will be able to engage in the self-organisation required to maintain viability. If you don’t feel like you are part of something important, you are in the wrong place!

• You have got to let go of the ego

  • This is absolutely spot on! Using systems thinking, if you don’t let go of your ego you will never break through the barriers to allow yourself to see what is happening in the situation. You will always have an ‘ego filter’ that tells you why something isn’t so. You have to be humble to use systems thinking or you will never challenge yourself and never become as adaptable as you need to be

• Identify the value added for the individual to highlight why they would do something

  • Absolutely! This is like ‘show, don’t tell’. You have to highlight what the value would be to the individual of using systems thinking or viable system modelling, not sell the thinking or the model per se, or you are wasting your time. Show the value, not the ‘thing’

• Respectful relationships are key

  • Obvious, really

• You need the courage to be vulnerable

  • This is absolutely key when using systems thinking and viable system modelling for transformation or system change. If you aren’t prepared to be vulnerable enough to go on a journey of discovery, then any attempts at applying different thinking will be a complete waste of time

• Do not get locked into one paradigm

  • Absolutely! And yet so very difficult. Many people do not understand that they are locked in a certain paradigm and awareness of this can be a key enabler in system change. It can alter mindsets and open up a whole new set of perspectives.

• You need observation of behaviours and a focus on continual self-regulation

  • Again, absolutely, yes! This links to the competencies that are required for managing complexity and managing in complexity. Gareth Morgan’s work on competencies required in complexity fits nicely here. If you don’t know his work, his book, ‘Riding the Waves of Change’ gives an excellent account of these competencies

• Embrace failure and embrace fatigue

  • Because of you don’t accept failure and fatigue you won’t have the grit required to deal with what viable system modelling exposes. You will definitely not be able to ‘put things right’, you will only be able to make things improve somewhat from where they are now. So, you need to be able to accept a degree of failure and this will, at times, leave you fatigued

• You must be aware yourself of what you are asking others to do – you need to know how they will experience something

  • Another thing that I think is KEY. I get a little tired of hero ‘leaders’ and consultants telling everyone to be hugely radical, when they have never done that or experienced that themselves. Sometimes, system change does not happen like that. In complexity, huge radical changes are sometimes not required. A number of smaller changes, at the same time, can often work better and be more sustainable, in my experience. My advice would be not to encourage everyone, in every situation, to be radical if you don’t know what you are asking them to do. At best it might cause lots of upset and at worst, it could lose them their jobs.

Some very key insights there, in my perspective. Thank you, Curtis, for a very interesting talk. I wish we could find more of this to share with the wider systems thinking community and with students. I think we have far too much regurgitation of the diagram of a model and far too little about practical application and especially the aspects relating to people and competencies and behaviours that are required to make it all work in practice.


Are you riding the waves of change or drowning in the turbulent seas? What can we learn from Gareth Morgan?

‘Imagine a long, open Hawaiian beach. The surf is rolling in, and the waves are speckled with surfers and surf-boards. Some surfers are riding the waves with flowing determination. Others are flying high into the air and plunging deep into the foam. The image provides a metaphor for management in turbulent times. For like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean.’ (Gareth Morgan, 1988)

What are you doing right now? Are you surfing, swimming or drowning? Are you surrounded by beautiful fish or man-eating sharks? Today, in public services, it is all too easy to feel like the surf is spinning you around, dragging you under and then crashing you against the rocks. But, back in 1988, Gareth Morgan gave us some great insights into the management competencies that would be required moving forward, to help us surf like a professional.

Morgan reminds us that, ‘many organisations and their managers drive toward the future while looking through the rear-view mirror. They manage in relation to events that have already occurred, rather than anticipate and confront the challenges of the future.’ He is clear in highlighting that organisations are becoming flatter and more decentralised. Self-organisation is occurring where autonomy is given to remote staff groups who are controlled from a distance.

With these changes comes the undeniable need to think and work differently. Possessing specific skills and abilities and combining technical, human and conceptual skills to create efficiency is no longer enough. To date, many organisations have tended to be successful because of very tight centralised control. Direct control can often feel like an attractive and comfortable way to manage. It suits those at the top who often can’t let go because their concept of being organised is linked to controlling and monitoring their constituent teams/ services. There is also some fear that the people at the bottom will not be driven to the same excellence in decision making as those at the top. But what can replace this direct control and how do people need to work to make it happen?

Moving forward, control will look more like management of relationships across a network, rather than management of discreet activities. ‘A network must be managed as a system of interdependent stakeholders, with collective identity and management philosophies that recognise the importance of mutual dependence and collaboration and a collective sense of accountability and control.’ ‘Collective identity’ itself will be a particular challenge, in my opinion. It is all too often that teams/ services/ organisations cling on to their identity for dear life and even after years of restructuring/ integrating/ changing, being dragged under the water over and over again, they still emerge flustered, gasping and adamantly refusing to let their old identity go.

Morgan tells us that, ‘Increasingly, the leadership process will become identified with an ability to mobilise the energies and commitments of people through the creation of shared values and shared understandings’. Development of operational skills will be only one part of the story. Developing attitudes, values and the mindset to allow teams to confront, understand and deal with forces inside and outside of the organisation will be the other side of the coin and the two must work in harmony together. Navigating the forthcoming waves with foresight and flexibility will be imperative to survival.

Management competencies will look and feel much different to those of today and will include:

  • Developing contextual competencies – building bridges and alliances, reframing problems to open up new possibilities, acting nationally and locally, developing a new approach to social responsibility;
  • Reading the environment – scanning and intelligence functions, forecasting, scenario planning and identifying major occurrences that could shape the future environment;
  • Proactive management – developing proactive mindsets, managing from the outside in (keeping in close contact with the evolving environment and enhancing capacity to rise to challenges and opportunities in an ongoing way) positioning and repositioning skills (the ability to manage tension between present and future so that you can position for the future whilst avoiding collapse in existing operations);
  • Promoting creativity, learning and innovation;
  • Skills of remote management (helicoptering, managing through an umbilical cord, promoting self-organisation, managing ambiguity and managing the balance between chaos and control);
  • Using I.T. to drive improvements;
  • Managing complexity (many things at once, transitions and multiple stakeholders)

The manager may no longer be able to function as a technical specialist who is also responsible for managing people, as is so often the case today. He or she will have to be become much more of an all-round generalist. Traditional supervisory roles are likely to disappear and the important competency may then lie in the ability to get employees enthused and fully absorbed with the new corporate philosophy, rather than to follow instructions in a mechanical way.

Innovation will be essential and with it comes the need to improve lateral interactions. Team managers will need to be able to:

  • Talk to and work with one another, embedding really successful interactions;
  • Develop a sense of common purpose;
  • Engage in effective conflict management and be able to read and handle hidden tensions;
  • Be a general resource to teams, a trouble shooter, a networker between self-organising teams, linking those teams to the wider organisation;
  • Take a more hands-off approach to management so that the initiative and control is passed to others;
  • Feel comfortable dealing with loosely structured situations and only intervene when necessary and in ways that empower;
  • Be aware of feedback systems that keep them informed without giving direct operational control.

In addition, organisations will need to adopt a risk taking ‘see if this works’ attitude, developing a supportive culture to experimentation. They will need to give parameters within which to operate, monitor on the basis of results and give teams the autonomy to operate quickly and flexibly to the changing environment. Planning can be bottom up, with management ensuring that plans fit with the organisation’s overarching vision. However, early warning systems should be built in to let managers know when intervention is required. Those mechanisms should seek to maintain the autonomy of the teams.

To deal with accountability, organisations and their managers should create systems of values, so employees can share and understand the mission and general parameters that guide action, rather than developing a set of rules as bureaucratic organisations do now. This, in itself, will require a mind-set shift from current day. Future managers will have to become as skilled in the art of empowerment as traditional managers are skilled in exercising direction and control.

Anticipating, communicating, sharing, inspiring, empowering, facilitating, networking, motivating are all words which are likely to become more and more common place in relation to management competencies.

As Morgan tells us,
‘You must have a remote type of management facility – the Europeans call it the helicopter principle – where you hover like a helicopter over the scene. If something goes wrong, you can come down and resolve it, but essentially you operate at a distance, and let the operation go.’

Which, I dare say, will be easier said than done for most organisations……

(Riding the waves of change, Gareth Morgan 1988)