Zoom out from the service

Taking the System Thinking Change Wheel into a different context took me to an area of familiarity – the NHS. Leadership development is always on people’s lips and in their thoughts, it seems, at the moment.

For this session I used a case study example of something I have worked on to run a workshop. It was a complex NHS service that, like most, was interdependent with a number of other health and care organisations and services. Nothing is stand alone in the NHS. Just about everything is a complex web of interconnectivity and interdependence, including multiple organisations and a multitude of people and processes.

Knowing about systems thinking is one thing. Knowing enough about it to be able to work effectively with it, without having to spend a long time studying about it, is another. Clients usually want to jump straight in and get to grips with the complex situation they face.

I sometimes find that people’s default position in the NHS is to try and improve the processes in a service, rather than zooming out to see the wider picture and think about the wider system aswell. This means that options for change and improvement are limited and an easy way out is to blame staff for poor performance of the service. But there is another way to expose more about the situation, leading to a wider range of opportunities for change and improvement.

The workshop

We start the day by exploring the biggest challenges people have whilst trying to make change and we have some discussions around what makes systems viable. It is an interesting and enlightening session with lots of interactive exercises and moving around. Ideas are flowing and people are engaged.

Then, we move quickly into a case study – no time to lose. After a short run through of the case study the room is split into groups and each group is given a section of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel to consider. Without considering any actions at this time, each group are given a different set of questions about the situation to discuss. More information is available to help discussions along, but only if people request it. It helps those in the room think about what information they might need to understand why the situation is like it is.

Bringing all of the discussions together exposes a tangled web at many levels of organisation – an individual level, a team level, an organisational level and at a wider system level. The information in the room is rich and enlightening.

 

 

 

 

We move on to using the action cards – a different set for each group. They get going, identifying areas where there is strength in the situation – where things are going really well. Then, it is on to the areas that need more work. Finally, the groups are given tokens that represent resources – money, people, equipment, innovation, training etc. They are challenged to show where they would invest time/ effort/ money and why. Not surprisingly, this does not go on blaming staff or just telling the service to ‘do better’. They don’t know it, but they have just done quite a sophisticated diagnosis of the situation. The levels in the situation are easily visible, the imbalances creating havoc are visible and they have identified many areas for improvement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The benefits

The groups discussed, supported each other, considered the wider picture, motivated each other, challenged, contextualised and shifted each other’s perspectives several times. It was a joy to watch.

Using insights that I brought from the actual situation I had worked on, we shared stories and feelings and insights. We looked at things from several angles and quite unbeknown to them, they were collectively ‘systems thinking’. They were also co-creating a potential way forward. The vibe was high energy and I even heard the words, ‘oh, this is fun’ at one point. We explored the balance between autonomy and control, empowerment, adaptability, trust, power and enabling structures.

We explored the role of managers, flexibility, pivoting and the balance between generalist and specialist roles.

There were a few shifts in thinking that day and an assuring buzz in the room. We were focussing on how to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’, rather than focussing on individual ‘do this’ ‘do that’ actions. Each situation requires actions that are contextually specific. The trick for me is to guide people in the right direction and then encourage them to decide on those context specific actions themselves. No ‘lift and shift’ answers here.

Creating the Conditions for Change Workshop – available face to face when distancing guidance permits and very soon to be available as an online session

Thinking of hiring a systems thinker but wondering what they actually do?

I am often asked what a systems thinker is and what they do in their work. Of course, there are many academic responses to this and systems practitioners (and others) can spend an inordinate amount of time debating the answer. Whilst this might be helpful to the academic advancement of systems thinking, it doesn’t really help people in organisations who just want to know, ‘If you come and work with me, what will you do and how will it help me?’

There is a huge breadth of differences in how systems practitioners work and the approaches they use. So much so, it is impossible to answer on behalf of everyone. However, I can tell you some of what I do in my work and what I might focus on (which will invariably change depending upon the context of the situation). No references to academics or academic text, just ‘plain speak’:

I look at the bigger picture

I don’t just look at one tiny area. I zoom out and look at your problematic situation and the context in which it sits and how they impact one another now and/or how they might impact one another in the future.

I ‘see systems’

I look at things as systems. This means that I do not jump to blaming staff for the problematic situation. Nor do I jump straight to reorganising, restructuring, outsourcing etc. Issues in problematic situations are usually systemic and I seek to understand why they are really happening before making any kind of recommendations or changes. This doesn’t mean taking a long time either. My approaches can help me make recommendations or changes very quickly sometimes.

I don’t look at problem/ solution per se

In complex situations there is no problem/ solution per se. There is only and improvement from where you are now. Yes, in improving the situation you may solve some kind of problem along the way, but I look at how I can help you to be adaptable so that you can deal with your own issues on an ongoing basis

I respect different views and perspectives

I use a number of techniques (like diagramming) to work with different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The diagrams might include 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.

I allow time to accommodate conflicting interests and help people work through their own understanding of the situation and that of others

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. Just knowing that the person working with you and the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

I explore organisational arrangements and governance and diagnose what is preventing the system from operating to its maximum effect

This is done via systems modelling. I use a very powerful diagnostic approach to explore your situation and work out why things aren’t working quite as you want them to be.

I examine the thinking behind some of the faulty decision making in the system

It’s easy to have faulty decision making without even realising it. All of us are guilty of it at some time or another. It might be that there hasn’t been enough information when making the decision or someone might have been given poor advice. If a decision hasn’t given the outcome that you wanted it to, I can often pick up in my diagnosis why this might have been the case.

I use methods, concepts, tools and techniques to examine and deal with complex, dynamic and diverse problematic situations

I don’t just ‘wing-it’ or do what someone else has told me to do. I have applied systems and complexity thinking to my work for over 10 years. I use a variety of approaches that have sound theory behind them and I have, at some time, ‘tested them out’. I do try new things also, to ensure that my approaches keep developing and my thinking is ‘fresh’.

I support you to manage the complexity and manage in the complexity and encourage adaptability as key to your system surviving

I look to see what makes your system breathe, what makes its heart beat, what conditions have to exist to enable it to live, what makes it die. I look at how your system interacts with the environment around it. I look at what interdependencies exist, or don’t exist but should or could. I look for the drivers of your complexity and I look for the energy levels in your system – are people and processes energised, frantic? Are they stressed, fearful or in despair? Or are they asleep, calm, laid back with not a care in the world? I don’t just consider, ‘What is this thing?’ I consider, ‘What does it do?’

I examine the potential consequences of different configurations of the wider system

This is another place where I use some systems modelling. I use a number of approaches, depending upon the context of the situation. These approaches help me to understand what configuration might be most useful to you and allow you to be more adaptable moving forward.

I support collective decision making

Particularly in complex situations a collective decision can mean you get buy-in right from the start. Not all decisions can be made collectively of course but I do try to avoid top down dictates. I believe in the expertise that exists in systems and can often be ‘hidden’. I like to tap into that and make sure it is utilised and people are recognised for it.

I share whatever I can to help you learn

I don’t believe in keeping my ways of working to myself. When I work with you I put as much effort into sharing as I do into doing any other aspect of the work. The more systems and complexity thinking I can ‘infect’ you with the better, in my opinion. I try not to use technical language and complex ways of describing things. I try and keep it as simple as possible so that you can use the learning yourselves and pass it on to others.

 

Systems thinkers can bring a very different perspective to your work. They can help you understand why something keeps happening over and over again and can help you find options for improvement that you might never have thought of.