An update on the System 3* function in the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

When I incorporated a ‘system health check’ element into my Creating the Conditions for Change© consultancy approach, using insights from the Viable System Model, it opened up people’s perspectives to things that were vitally important to their team/ service/ organisation wellbeing and yet were going unnoticed.

The action cards in my consultancy approach (which are questions and prompts about important things to consider) are related to things such as the collaborative and adaptive capabilities of the team/ service/ organisation in focus. Some of the seemingly invisible elements that can bring things together and encourage effectiveness if working well.

Drawing on my blog from 2021, based on work from several years prior, I will remind you of some of the things I monitor for when looking for system health. These are elements that I devised based on my work with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model, which has been a stable in my practice for many years now.

Carrying out the health checks means looking at (amongst many other things):

  • If internal structures are hindering rather than supporting the work
  • If information is being used as a means to gain power in a situation or is it being used to nourish a situation
  • If reciprocation is happening across boundaries
  • If co-creation is happening across boundaries
  • How flexible processes and people are. Can they adapt, pivot and make change in appropriate timescales
  • Can a deep dive be carried out quickly enough when required

My action cards that support my consultancy approach give options for all scales in the system, from individual to organisation and beyond. My workshops also give a sense of the skills required to be a system health check monitor.

It was examination of what the viable system model system 3* could look like, over the course of what is now over 13 years in my work, that encouraged me to make it one of the priorities in my Creating the Conditions for Change consultancy approach.

I have done significant work with it in the NHS in the past, in my roles as Strategy and Commissioning Manager, Commissioning and Transformation Manager and Assistant Quality Assurance Manager and in my private sector roles as Senior Operations Manager and Production Manager in GMP environments, which focussed on quality and improvement.

My work nowadays is also in place-based systems change, which also benefits from the same approach. The versatility of my approach is far beyond what I ever expected when I developed it. It is an approach that is now being widely experimented with by others and my website archive of my past reflections has been viewed heavily by visitors from all over the world. It took many years of deep exploration to get the approach to where it is now and I am currently working on developing it even further. It is essentially a way of using the Viable System Model as a learning system.

Authentic approaches can take time to mature, especially if truly based on insights and learning from your own genuine work.

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We’re rational empathetic human beings, right?

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

Complex adaptive systems and the viable system model as complimentary frameworks

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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Optimising our energy using insights from the viable system model

(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.

The ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach is covered by UK Copyright. Please act with integrity and reference appropriately when quoting from this website

Insights from the viable system model for developing my own system and ‘Creating the Conditions for Change©’

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.

You can watch the video of the session on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXobE_5x9r8&t=10s

Creating the Conditions for Change – why monitoring, not measuring?

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. I have previously blogged about the importance I put on monitoring, or as those who know the viable system model, sub system 3*. The situations I work with are not always single organisations. More often than not, I work with situations that have input from many organisations. In these situations, my focus is on what I perceive to be ‘the system’ – a concept that I apply to the bounded situation I have identified.

From my booklet, in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach, I state that,

‘This area of focus is about monitoring your system, making it visible to itself and being able to see, understand and change the things that make the system work in a more innovative way. Traditionally, organisations use things like key performance indicators or operational targets. You might keep some element of those, or you may not be able to get rid of them completely. However, they are not the things that will tell you how healthy your system is. The trick here is to monitor the internal context for the advocated system characteristics and monitor for high quality’.

The monitoring I encourage has a specific focus. I do not only monitor to see how work activities are working. I monitor to see how healthy the work ecosystem is. Is there congruence between the system’s actual purposes and its vision? Is the system able to adapt, flex, pivot and respond to a changing environment quickly enough? Is new information being used as nourishment, rather than power? Is co-production happening as an ongoing process, rather than a one-off activity? Is the system able to reciprocate –  between people, between teams and  between organisations? Is the requirement for reciprocation written into any formal policies and is it actually happening? Are structures facilitating, rather than interfering?

I advocate for monitoring rather than measuring, initially. I take the meaning of monitoring to be that of observing. I take the meaning of measuring as assessing the importance or value of something. In my experience, it is when we jump to measuring that we do not engage fully enough in observation and, as a result, we can easily miss things. Measuring comes later for me. It comes when I gather together the information from other elements of the system also, and then consider importance and value.

A key skill that I advocate for here is that of the ‘system health check monitor’. It takes a skilled individual to be able to observe for system health.

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Creating the conditions to support learning about systems thinking

I often blog about my work on ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ in terms of how we nurture our working ecosystem to enable change to happen. This means change in ourselves also. I have been working for quite a number of years now on ways to help others on their journey into systems thinking and systems change. One thing I am sure of, is that giving someone a concept that they have never come across before and expecting them to understand it, just because you have explained it, is not going to get you very far.

In my opinion, systems thinking is an experiential journey. Only when you have been on the journey, often aided by someone shining a light into the dark corners and helping to unlock your own inner wisdom will things start to make sense. This often takes for the person to be along side you, to link the concept to what you are seeing in front of you and how you are feeling and experiencing it at the time. It can also come in the form of engaging and enlightening stories. Stories that are authentic, that demonstrate a deep engagement with a situation and highlight not just how a systems thinker understands things but how they feel and experience them also. These are the experiences that make things ‘real’. These are the things that people can relate to. These are the unwritten things that help people with understanding and are critical scaffolding for the learning journey.

We need to help people stand in the waterfall of the journey and let the whole experience wash over them, immersing them fully in it. Letting them feel the sting of the rapid flow and the gentle trickle closer to the edges. Helping them to experience the invigoration and the point at which it makes you feel cold. Helping them not to be scared but to step right in to the flow.

The conditions we create around the learner to enable them to experience systems thinking concepts allows them to enact a journey of learning with that concept that is different to being given a concept and told to apply it. The journey is stronger when it is experienced. My style of helping others to learn? Create the right conditions and take them on a journey. A journey of many emotions and feelings. An adventure of sorts. Who knows how it will end?

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 online and face to face

Through the lens of systems thinking

The clients and their situation

It is 6 months since I was introduced to my clients. They are a mixed group from various public services who work in the same city together. To my delight, people with lived experience are included in the group working to enable systems change. They have been through an interactive programme together, introducing them to systems change and giving them the space and time to build some community together. They have some knowledge of systems thinking and I think they are ready for the next steps.

Their situation is one that many in public services are up against every day – multiple organisations trying to work together but working to different, and often conflicting, targets. Silos abound. Everyone seems to know each another but there is an elephant in the room. They always exist, right? They just aren’t talked about. Every group has their elephant, sitting silently in the corner.

Multiple and conflicting perspectives fly around like a hundred fluttering butterflies bouncing around in the wind, only these butterflies have teeth and take a bite at each other every now and then. Everything is interconnected and interdependent in some way, and power struggles are extremely evident. Those with lived experience are vocal about how services don’t always work for them. They are the recipients of the outcomes of overburdening bureaucracy and it hurts. It is destructive and breaks trust between the organisations and people in the community. My impression is that the focus is on the transactional, although there are pockets of innovation and everyone is dedicated. They are just constrained by the erratic complex, uncertain and ambiguous situation of which they are a part.

I see opposites – working together but power drives them apart, pulling in the same direction but bureaucracy throwing obstacles in their way like giant felled trees blocking a road. Sharing but lacking social learning. Can this complex situation challenge itself enough to enable people with lived experience to be seen differently, supported differently in the community and included in decision making in different and better ways? They are on their way, of that I am sure and over the six months I have known them I have seen admirable efforts to overcome long standing obstacles and challenges.

Let us begin…

They are ready now, I believe. We gather in a small room, conduct our ‘check in’ and I start the day with an interactive exercise based on viable systems. It is calming and aimed at easing people into the day in a relaxed way.

     

 

 

It is then followed by an exercise to start and lift the energy – an experience of complexity and what things might be ‘invisible’ to us yet undeniably there when we are together in a complex situation.

 

Our focus is now on the complexities of the situation and the complications that people themselves bring. Each one of us has our own epistemology, mental models, frames of reference and tendencies towards reaction rather than reflection. Are we adaptive to situations? Do we co-operate and reciprocate? Do we really see multiple perspectives, understanding that each of us will interpret the situation differently? We like to think that we do but in reality, we often do not.

Contextual awareness

Using their current situation as our context, together we start our journey of exploration. I introduce the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and share six categories that we can focus on that can, in different and complimentary ways, help us to create the conditions for change. The categories are based on work I have done over the last 10+ years using cybernetics and systems thinking to work with and in complex situations. We look at:

  • How self-organising or self-referencing teams might operate, including a focus on peer to peer collaboration and how groups might instigate and implement change within the boundaries of their autonomy
  • How the group can co-ordinate, collaborate and support across individual, team and organisational boundaries. We discuss internal system coherence within organisations and across organisational boundaries. Importantly, we include building community and networks and how co-production might be more effective
  • We move on to considering what resources are available, including the collective resources of their own experiences, skills and talents. How might some joint decisions be made when goals and expected levels of performance might be different for each organisation? Importantly, we discuss how this might be achieved at the same time as bringing the humanity back into everyone’s work and having some balance to avoid burnout
  • Of course, every ‘system’ needs some kind of monitoring, but we don’t talk KPIs and targets. We talk about conducting health checks on the system instead – is there congruence between the behaviour of the system and its vision? Is there a joint vision? Should there be? Or should there just be some element of similarity joining everyone together?
  • We then explore adaptability and how the group might change quickly enough to match changes and differing needs in the environment. We consider whether they could adapt to a sudden and unexpected change in circumstances and as I write this, I expect the group will have found their answer to this during the pandemic
  • We know there will never be a fully joint vision of the future, but the group do know that they have an element of shared purpose. The trick is in identifying that and using it to their advantage. They aim for some element of shared learning and shared meaning making. Alongside this, we consider how devolved accountability might work and highlight where there are commonalities in their identity and whether they want to create a shared identity as a group

 

Learning, change and adaptability are key throughout and using the above we move on to exploring actions within each section that can be undertaken to identify where the group are currently strong and where they need to focus more efforts, how they might synthesise their insights and move forward to co-create their future together.

Making the invisible visible

Every day people swim around in a sea of complexity that is evident, yet partially invisible to them. Events are easily seen, but the system structures, behaviours and individual differences driving the events are less obvious. Their impacts are felt but somewhere beneath the surface there is a fuzziness. They feel the waves, and often the tsunami, and yet it can still come as a surprise.

In this session we made the invisible, visible. We exposed that which we take for granted. We exposed it in understandable ways. The water in which people were swimming around in suddenly had some colour. They could see it, which meant that they now have more chance of working successfully with it and to change it, where necessary.

They were surprised by how much the session showed them. My response to that – it was already there. They already knew it. I just helped them to see it and work with it in a constructive way that they could understand. And now? Well now it is their turn to help others see the water they are swimming around in and work with it to start co-creating a different future.

The Systems Thinking Change Wheel and Creating the Conditions for Change – available as on site support or workshops (social distancing guidance permitting)

This narrative us intentionally anonymised to maintain client confidentiality