When the unwritten rules run rampant, it’s the worker’s fault, they say. ‘The culture around here is bad!’, they hear it every day. But where have the unwritten rules come from? Did they just creep in here, somewhere along the way?
Recruit, train and promote but only in one way. Structures put people in boxes and take their identity away. Cliques are formed with ‘buddies’ for safety and (un)fair play because when the unwritten rules run rampant, cunning games are played.
Micro-managing criticism, the soul is destroyed today. Autonomy to make decisions, I’m afraid that has gone away. Our gifts, our skills, our talents, can we show you them today? You are just a minor in this hierarchy, please put them away.
When the unwritten rules run rampant, it’s the worker’s fault they say. Belittling and undermining, doesn’t that pave the way for those unwritten rules to come out to play? Holding somebody back is the agenda for the day. Controlling every movement, across work lives and play. ‘Be my loyal follower’, there is no other way.
Bone-tired, weary managers, unsupported from above. Stuck in no man’s land where there is no humanity or love. Policies hinder their way forward yet still they get a shove, from the unforgiving, overbearing, hard hand from above.
Staff hold the weight of a dozen people, as complexity comes their way. The result of broken processes, at least one new one a day. They struggle under the crippling weight as corners are cut and protocols fade. Their values are smashed and battered, as profits get in the way. ‘That’s unfair!’, I hear you say.
When workers and managers are tired and can take no more today. Where do you think the unwritten rules come from, when they come out to play?
Part of the ‘spotting patterns’ element of the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach
We like to think we are but more often than not we fall into traps that prevent us from being rational and our empathy seems to float away. But why is being a rational, empathetic human being important in systems thinking? I didn’t coin the phrase, by the way. I came across it when reading a book by Joe Navarro www.jnforensics.com @navarrotells (Twitter) and I give full credit to him for the inspiration I gained from his writing and the way he shares his insights.
It struck a chord with me because I have done some intense work on systems change over the last few years. During this time, I have been supporting people to engage with systems thinking and systems thinking approaches. However, there was always something else in the room. Something more powerful. Something more relevant. Something I could not reach out and touch physically, but I felt it in terms of the energy vibration in the room. It was the connection of the people, bonding together through mutual trust and respect. It was embracing difference, vulnerability and a sense of self-worth. The more I connected with it, the more powerful it became. The dynamic felt different. It was warm and encompassing. I felt my heart rate slowing, my shoulders dropping and the muscles in my face relaxing.
It was a powerful experience but a one off, surely? Only, it wasn’t. It repeated itself every time. I came to realise that systems thinking approaches were useful, but certainly not everything. The more powerful energy in the room was the strength that was coming from within each and every one of us. It was the energy vibration that bonded us together.
When I read Joe Navarro’s work, I immediately thought, ‘This guy’s a systems thinker!’ I asked him if he had heard of systems thinking. He hadn’t. He said it was just about being a ‘rational, empathetic human’. Never before had such a simple phrase held so much meaning for me. It is easy, when you are embedded in systems thinking, to think that everything that might look or feel similar to the systems thinking you practice is systems thinking. Is it? Is the systems thinking label detrimental? Does it get in the way of the seemingly simple focus that we have been enacting in the work? It opened my eyes and brought a different dimension to the work. I thought back to every time I had worked in an effective team. It was when the people had a deep but relatively quiet inner confidence. They weren’t fighting a battle with their egos. They weren’t trying to be something they weren’t. They weren’t trying to be first or best or ‘the only one’. They were being confident, rational empathetic human beings, who dared to be vulnerable, nurtured each other and kept far removed from the traps of jealousy, criticalness and blame.
Why do we sweep things under the ‘systems thinking’ label? Is it the right thing to do? I don’t think so. What we have been working with is far simpler, yet deeper and somewhat more difficult in modern times. I am excited to see and feel where we go with it next.
Part of the Creating the Conditions for Change approach
Back in 2018 I blogged about my work in public services and the complimentary nature of complex adaptive systems and the viable system model which I was bringing into my work (which was incorporated into the Creating the Conditions for Change workshop materials).
I was inspired by the writings of Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker in their book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’. It made me feel like I wasn’t going mad when, in my work, I believed that VSM and CAS were complimentary to each other.
Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control.
As I said in my blog in 2018, those versed in management cybernetics and the viable system model might say that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like an open system?
Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. p15).
Think about that for a moment………. If groups like integrated teams and those working on systems change etc get this right, manipulating their reciprocation strategies (which features heavily in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach) may form a structural coupling that allows the organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way.
Working with these insights helped me to create the workshop materials for Creating the Conditions for Change. I was already heavily working with the VSM. However, I had tipped early on from a point in my VSM work where I was considering management principles to where I was considering leadership and how the same principles apply to human beings and systems change, which was ongoing work from 2011. What is it the people need in complex situations? I started to consider the attenuation of fear and anxiety and the amplification of confidence and curiosity. I remembered the exceptional peer to peer support my work in pharmaceutical specials included. I remembered the self-organising and relationship building in my managerial roles. I remembered how, in my NHS work that when the relationships and interaction between teams was poor, everything suffered.
I believed back then, and I still believe now, that CAS and VSM are complimentary frameworks. I believe this because I got to where I am in my work via the viable system model and yet I work successfully in complex situations. Those who don’t know my work with the VSM often immediately assume I come from a world of CAS and living systems. That wasn’t where I started nor, indeed, where I start now.
What amazes me is the infighting between those who focus on VSM and those who focus on CAS. In my opinion, their quest to be seen as the best and their argument about what came first, systems thinking or complexity science misses the point. What is it that emerges when these two frameworks are used together? Something quite powerful, in my opinion.
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(part of the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach by Pauline Roberts, Systems Practitioner)
We’re tired, aren’t we? All of us. Exhausted, some of us. We live our lives at a pace that barely gives us time to stop and think. Barely gives us time to consider our own health and wellness. Barely gives us time to contemplate saying, ‘no’. The work I have been doing in systems change exemplifies this. People are tired. Exhausted. They want and need rest. There is little work-life balance. 9-5 Monday to Friday has become excruciatingly punishing. Tempers are fraught. Mental health is suffering. People are tired. When we are in this state, our energy is depleted by even the simplest of daily tasks. Our cognitive abilities are muted, and our enthusiasm and motivations dulled.
Over the years I have worked with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I have applied it in a wide range of complex situations and the insights it gives me into the world of work, and indeed our lives, are never ending. From his neurocybernetic model of an enterprise, management principles emerged. From my academic learning and application of these principles, insights into change and systems change emerged. Inquiring into the complex situations I was faced with by exploring boundaries and purposes as conceptual constructs became the norm. Considering the perceptions of the observers of the systems in which I was embedded and observing became the norm and my insights grew.
Where Stafford Beer highlights to us that manipulation of complexity should be the task of the manager, I contemplated, ‘But what are the tasks of the leader? The system leader? The system changer?’ It was deep in contemplation about this when the insights from the viable system and wider work by Stafford Beer and the work of Ross Ashby started to come to light. In our management systems if we need to attenuate complexity, what is it we have to attenuate (and amplify) for the people in the system? For them to work without becoming burnt-out?
Fear! We need to attenuate fear. And anxiety, stress, fatigue, panic, anger, jealousy, sadness, lack of confidence and our ability to tumble into imposter syndrome. Only when we attenuate the negative elements of these emotions and reactions will we have enough energy to be able to effectively manipulate the possibilities of the environment around us to our benefit. Of course, not all fear is bad. Not all anxiety is bad. Not all anger and jealousy is bad. But it does become bad for us if it is overwhelmingly caused by our working conditions and by those who we interact with on a daily basis, who are in the same stage of depleted energy as ourselves.
Using the viable system model in my work, I will routinely contemplate variety attenuation in terms of implementing things that co-ordinate the work, so that the people doing the work are supported better. I contemplate the resources required and the perverse performance indicators that might be in place. I contemplate how we might balance the variety equation in terms of dealing with demand. In addition, my Creating the Conditions for Change approach focuses on how we can attenuate the negative emotions and/or feeling of burn-out we may experience in the workplace and how we can amplify our positive energy, so that we can engage with the complex situations we are embedded in to a greater and more effective degree.
In my work with Creating the Conditions for Change there is a strong focus on increasing confidence and reducing fear. A focus on peer-to-peer support, collaborations, storytelling, reciprocation strategies and relationships. On networks, communities, honesty, openness, trust and vulnerability. On sharing and making meaning together. On coaching one another and learning together. On humanity, authenticity and integrity. On self-referencing and identity.
It is not just the working environment we need to optimise. It is ourselves and our own health and wellness. It is these conditions that support us, nurture us and enable us to embrace our own humanness, that we need to optimise. It is the kindness we seek and want to give to others that we need to optimise. Only then will we have amplified our energy levels to be able to have effective energy exchanges with others and with the environment around us. We are a major part of our work ecosystems. The same principles I would apply to any other elements of the work are what I would apply to us. For me, those insights came from both systems thinking in general and very largely cybernetics and the work of people like Stafford Beer and Ross Ashby. They existed in a different time and in a different context, but the same principles apply, in my opinion.
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Creating the Conditions for Change was a strong addition to my systems thinking approach, which I incorporated into my work in 2011. In 2019 I developed materials to help others use the same approach. The materials accompany a workshop describing the approach and where participants get to use it on a case study of a piece of work I actually did. The materials consist of a 20 page A4 booklet, a Systems Thinking Change Wheel infographic and a set of 120 action cards.
It is a set of principles about working on change, systems change, improvement and strategy. A summary of what my approach is about:
It is about purposefully observing – ourselves and the situations we engage with
It is about purposefully learning
It is about adapting over time
These three things are central to the approach and are embedded throughout. It is also about:
Dealing with complexity at the right place – not passing it around like a hot potato
The right people having autonomy to make decisions, within reasonable boundaries –a model of decision making
Distributing power and control – a different model of governance
Having the right balance of autonomy and control
Considering everyone as a leader – a different model of leadership
Recognising and purposefully working with awareness of purpose and identity
Bringing humanity back into the work
Using the gifts that everyone brings
Supporting people to take measured risks
Self awareness, vulnerability and allowing people to say ‘I don’t know’
Co-creating with others
Building collaborations and relationships – deliberately building in relationship enablers and interaction channels
Monitoring, not just performance managing – monitoring for system health
It is all about
Building healthy work ecosystems
Creating the conditions for change at each level – an individual, a team, a service, an organisation, a place
It is NOT a productised model. It is a set of ideas, principles and questions that you can apply to a situation to help you to create the conditions for change for the moves you want to make next. It is heavily based on Stafford Beer’s viable system model and it a creative interpretation of that model but focussed on what humans actually do and what can bring humanity back into the work.
Please note that the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and reference extracts if you build on them or paraphrase them.
For further information about Creating the Conditions for Change, please contact: email@example.com
In my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach this area of focus is concerned with how you explore the interface between your system and the wider context, identify future emerging trends and bring that external information into the system and share it to help develop structures and practices that will be fit for the future.
An excerpt from my 2019 booklet tells us,
‘If you have decided that some change is necessary, in line with future trends and external requirements then work with operational managers to discuss those requirements. Plan together how the future of your system might work. Implement change in a way that does not disrupt the ability of the system to function now. This is where small scale prototyping can come into play, as you learn your way forward together.
At the same time, you might want to consider something called ‘structural couplings’- what is it in your environment that you interact with in such a way that you change it and it changes you? How are you co-evolving together? Are you? Do you need to? Do you need to stop co-evolving together? Think about the relationships, not the things and how might you work with that relationship to bring about positive change?
Form the relationships you need to with external agencies and make sure relationships, influence and partnerships are explicitly considered and are considered as important as any other element in the system. This is another place where you can build your reciprocation strategies, with outside organisations or other systems.
What skills or roles support this category: Be the trend spotter, the opportunity seeker, the strategist, the contextualiser, the risk taker and the enabler. Know your external environment, as much as you can, and do not get stuck in yesterday (unless that is potentially beneficial for you).’
Please note that the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and reference extracts if you build on them or paraphrase them.
For further information about Creating the Conditions for Change, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in 2018/2019 I ran a number of workshops on using insights from the viable system model when designing services and organisations. I also ran a number of meetup groups to share the insights with a wide range of people. These insights are the other side of the coin of my Creating the Conditions for Change work. There is the side that helps you to design your service/ organisation etc and the side that helps you to create the right conditions for it to adapt and survive over time (if that is your intention, of course).
The two sets of information and guidance have successfully formed my consultancy approach since 2016 and were part of my approach as an internal agent in employed roles prior to 2016. When I work with organisations I seek to pass on as much insight as I can to them, so that they too can apply insights from these approaches for themselves.
This week I have been talking to clients about designing services. Some of the insights I shared are below. They are by no means comprehensive, and they need to be coupled with my Creating the Conditions for Change actions, which give insights about the ‘how to’ when seeking an adaptable service with learning and humanity at its core. However, they are a useful guide when considering designing a service or organisation from scratch.
Things to consider:
Who are the stakeholders in the situation and what are their needs?
Which of their needs do you want to respond to?
Can you respond to all of their needs? If not, why not? Do you want to be able to?
Make a purposeful decision about what needs you can meet and make your boundary explicit to all involved.
Things to consider:
Is everything true demand? Very often, demand is created by failure elsewhere in the system and not by justified needs. This kind of demand can be created by lack of capacity in another service, poor information, lack of appropriate pathways for other kinds of care and support, delays elsewhere in the system etc.
Do an analysis of the type of demand you are seeing.
Is there any demand you can influence or change?
Make a purposeful decision about which of the types of demand you will respond to (for example, are you going to pick up things that another service cannot provide?)
Considering your purpose(s)
Now, consider what your intended purpose will be:
Do your exploration with other stakeholders, if required.
Make a conscious decision about your intended purpose(s).
Make the boundaries of your decision explicit and make sure you communicate the boundary to others. It is important that you make meaning of this choice with others so that the decision is properly understood.
Your operations (pink)
Communication exchange and value exchange
How will you identify and get access to the people you want to support? How do you know you will find out about their needs in a timely way?
What will your value exchange be? It can be useful to explicitly consider your value exchange with those your service is intended for. What is your offer and what do you expect to happen as a result? What do you expect from them? Remember that the process is two-way.
How will the communication between yourselves and the people you want to support happen? How will a feedback loop of communication work? Remember the process is two-way.
Consider the speed of this exchange. How quickly do you want this to happen?
How will you know that the communication exchange and the value exchange are continuing to work effectively over time?
Your operations – this is where you transform the needs into something else
Once you know what needs you want to respond to, think about what operational processes are required to meet those needs. Design against the demand you intend to deal with.
Now consider the activities that people will do within those operational processes. Make sure that the activities bring value to the process and are not just, ‘how we always do things’.
Closing the feedback loop
How do you know your activities and operations are providing the right result? This is an essential part of the process that feeds back into your service to allow adaptability of both your processes and the offer you make to those you are providing a service to.
How will you close this feedback loop? How will you know that what you did provided the right result for the person you are helping?
How will you gather this information?
Where will you feed it back into?
Will the people involved in the operations of your service have the permission and skills to make any changes, if required? If not, how do they access permission or pass the request to someone else? Will it be actioned or ignored? Ignoring when you need to make a change means you might not have adaptability and it could damage your viability.
Co-ordinating what you do (purple)
Consider how you are going to make the operations run smoothly.
It is important to make sure that staff have the right support in place to help them do their job in the best way possible. This support can be things like: quick communication, IT systems, HR processes, schedules, guidelines….anything that helps to co-ordinate what they do.
It is important that operational teams work in a way that supports rather than hinders each other. Collaboration, not competition is important.
Design how the information exchanges between teams inside the service will work and the information exchanges between the service and other teams outside of the service.
Consider how you will ensure that any corporate instructions are given to teams in a timely manner. Will they have the time, capacity etc to respond to them? How will you check?
Delivery – day to day management of your service (blue)
Decide who will manage the operations and what kind of autonomy they will have.
Purposefully consider how decisions will be made.
Decide who will allocate resources to the operations. How will that work?
Who will do the performance management? How? How often?
How will you check that you have appropriate resources to enable the required performance? Make sure there is a joint decision about resource allocation and performance management and they are not done in isolation.
Decide what things you will measure and why. Are you intending to measure the right things, not just the things you can easily get data for?
Consider how you will know if the service is working as intended?
Monitoring how effective you are (turquoise)
Consider how you will check if things on the ground are really working. This is not the same as looking at performance indicators. Performance indicators can tell you anything you want them to tell you. What is it really like, for the people you are trying to help and the people working in your service? This should not be a senior manager having a look, as this can come across as micro-managing and can damage trust with the teams. What other ways can this be done?
Think about how you will really know what it is like to experience your service from the inside and the outside.
How will you check that what you aim to do is really happening?
Intelligence and adapting for the future (green)
Purposefully consider how you will monitor what is going on in your external environment. For example, how will you know about new ways of working that would be useful to you? How will you find out about new legislation and guidance etc? How will you know if something is happening that will significantly increase or decrease the needs of your population?
If something in the environment is happening that you might need to respond to, make sure you have a way of checking that your internal operations are set up to respond. If they are not, then make sure there are ways that you can discuss the new requirements with your teams and decide together any changes that might be required.
Consider who will be responsible for developing your strategy for moving forward. Make sure it is a workable strategy, based on adaptability.
Could you adapt quickly if you needed to? Consider what might prevent you from adapting and what you might be able to do about it.
Governance and identity (orange)
Consider what your ethos, values and goals are.
What will the identity of your service be?
Consider how you will consciously devolve power and control to the relevant parts of your service, so that they can be adaptable and respond to any ‘shocks’ from the environment.
The external environment
Make sure you understand the diversity of your environment.
How do you find out about new rules, regulations, laws etc?
Are there any services out there for whom you are creating some kind of chaos? Are you duplicating with anyone? Are you confusing any pathways that are already in existence?
Who will you work closely with? In partnerships with?
What strategies of reciprocation do you need to make with people and organisations outside of your immediate service or organisation?
NB: colours represent corresponding areas of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and Creating the Conditions for Change actions
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My Creating the Conditions for Change work started in 2011 when I used the viable system model for my own professional development in an Open University course. It was then that I realised the versatility of the principles and ideas of the model. You don’t have to use it as a model to be followed to give you a ‘perfect’ system. In fact, I don’t believe that works. Situations are too nuanced for that. It takes for you to consider and use multiple approaches, models, methods and concepts to engage with complex situations. I use the ideas and principles more like a framework for understanding. I believe it is important to understand what you might be seeing around you, so that you know what moves you can make next when making change. This is how I use the insights that the model gives me. To observe, to understand and to learn.
In 2019 I launched materials to supplement my Creating the Conditions for Change approach which were specifically to help in the facilitation of my workshops. Both my approach and my ways of working have continued to evolve over the years.
In 2021, I updated my materials to give greater emphasis to ‘observation’. Observational skills are critical in my work. When we become distracted by that which is around around us, it can be easy to lose our observational skills. Real-time observation has been a key element of my workshops and interactions, particularly when supporting those focussing on system change. Skilful observation opens up our insights, our creativity and our opportunities for innovation. It can help us to effectively influence and develop relationships. The relationships that are so very critical to our work.
Observing and being able to decode our observations is a critical (and yet often overlooked) skill. So much so that it is central to my approach. Now supplementing my initial kit are additional materials aimed at ‘spotting patterns’. So far, they are bringing a valuable addition to the way I support those engaging with complex situations. Not only have my materials been complimented widely but also my approach and engagement with those I work alongside.
‘Thank you for doing what you do so well and helping to make my job easier’
‘There was so much praise for your workshops. Not just what you did but for your whole approach and delivery’
I recently mentioned to a group of students that I used the viable system model to develop my own personal system, incorporating my own personal development. They asked me to show them what I did and this is the session that I ran for them. It is not a refined session but more of a talk through of what I did, why and what insights it gave me. I also describe how the insights from my work of 15+ years with the viable system model, and particularly the work on developing my own personal system, turned into the building blocks for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach to making change and supporting systems change.
It is an approach helps you to organise for learning and adaptability and bring humanity back into your work ecosystem. It gives principles and ideas that open up options for you, so that you can structure, coordinate, communicate and make decisions in relation to your own context. It helps you to monitor for system health. It also takes into account the value proposition between different parts of your system and helps you orchestrate value between stakeholders.
It helps you to consider how you spot new trends and things you might need to respond to. How you bring that information into the organisation and prepare for the future. It helps you to consider alternative governance arrangements. It helps you to scale the approach by repeating it at different levels, from a single person up to a whole place and beyond.
What kinds of organisation is the approach applicable to? All organisations. I first developed this approach on a single individual. I then used it on teams, services, departments and to consider whole organisations. I have used it in private industry, public services, charities and voluntary groups. It is particularly useful for those working on systems change in a place. It helps you to consider the conditions for change that might enable and support systems change.
Copyrighted in 2019, after a number of years of use, my approach is built on my experiences of my work with Stafford Beer’s viable system model for 15 years. My work and approach is a creative interpretation of this model. As I applied the model in multiple contexts, I started to capture the things that people actually ‘did’ when the model worked well for them. Adding to it over the years has led to the development of this approach in an incremental way, based on my actual experiences.
New, updated, workshop materials were developed in 2019 so that I could share the approach with others more easily and they could use it themselves. There is now a supporting booklet and 120 action cards to help people apply this approach for themselves.
Can we buy the materials? I have sold them to people in the past, but the main distribution of my materials is via my workshops and my consultancy practices directly with organisations. It is always much better to set the context and work with people on how to use the materials, if they are to get the best out of them.
In 2022, a new updated booklet, infographic and actions cards will be the main kit for my consultancy practices and workshops.
If you are interested, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org