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
As you will have gathered by now, the approach I use, which has been the staple of my systems thinking and my business for a number of years is ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’. It is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model, focussed on people and supporting the skills, talents and potential of every human being to flourish. The central strategy of my approach is learning and adaptability. Like the viable system model, I scale by repeating my approach at every systemic level (a person, a team, a service, an organisation, across organisations). I do not focus on ‘making a change’ but on creating a more supportive ecosystem from which change can emerge.
The 2 over overarching diagrams representing my approach are as follows:
Here are some more insights from my Creating the Conditions for Change action cards, which are heavily used in my workshops.
If you are interested in my materials, do contact me directly.
At the level of the individual
Informal reciprocation arrangements between individuals
Building personal relationships with those outside of your immediate area of work
Learning how to self-reference and supporting each other’s abilities to self-reference
Let others know how you like to work and how you might work best with others
Peer support each other and engage in reflective conversations and learning together, rather than competing with each other
Be the system health check monitor
Consider your identity – is it aligned with the purpose of your role and your organisation?
Consider how the insights you bring can enhance the working environment
At the level of the team/ service/ organisation
Purposefully creating reciprocation arrangements between teams
Purposefully building relationships with teams with whom you could work in a complimentary way
Supporting teams to self-reference or, where appropriate, self-organise
Have an appropriate balance of specialist and generalist roles that give flexibility so that the team or service can be adaptable to change
Purposefully build into your daily routines ways to engage in reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
Ensure appraisals of staff praise for flexibility, sharing, helping others, forming relationships and reflective practices
Instigate monitoring practices that monitor for effective system characteristics
Develop rotas/ work plans etc that bring humanity back into working practices
Check your protocols do not disempower but support people if they want to empower themselves to take action
Devolve decision making to the appropriate people
At the multi-organisation level
Purposefully creating strategic reciprocation strategies across organisational boundaries
Purposefully building mutually beneficial relationships with other organisations
Developing structures that support departments, teams, cross organisational groups to self-reference and/ or self-organise
Support those who understand and implement systemic leadership practices
Monitor across organisational boundaries for system health
Bring a level of humanity back into expected performance levels
Ensure your policies do not hinder those who want to empower themselves to take action
Devolve decision making to the appropriate service/ department/ team
Skills for some of the above are that of coach, learner, supporter, activist, prototyper, contextualiser and innovator.
The more we create the conditions for change at each systemic level, the more adaptability we might have when we do identify a change we want to make.
This is a small snapshot from only 10 of my 120 action cards that cover my approach. It took over 10 years of learning from using the viable system model in my work to convert elements of the model into ‘what people actually do when they enact this’. It is detailed, specific and my style is highly recognisable and appreciated by those with whom I use this approach.
I work both on site with groups to help them apply this approach to their own situation and I run workshops using a case study scenario to show how to apply the approach in detail.
This work is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and do not copy my materials without permission
There are around 120 actions that go with my Creating the Conditions for Change approach. A note to those in the world of complexity, these actions are not ‘things you should do that will definitely make your system work better’. They are areas for consideration that can help you create the conditions for change that may support you in taking your identified next steps effectively.
The action cards are part of a copyrighted kit that I have used both for consultancy and in my Creating the Conditions for Change workshops for a number of years now. They cover all sections of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel
Here are some examples from the kit:
Co-creating, considering self-organising/ self-referencing teams, peer to peer accountability and investigating and implementing change within the span of your autonomy
Explore, experiment, fail and learn using small-scale prototyping to enable a learning process
Make sure people know how to innovate if they want to
Consider purposes and how the world can be different because of you and your role
Align personal purposes with purposes of the wider system (where appropriate)
Connect through vulnerability and bring the humanity back into the work
Actively engage in reflective conversations to learn
Purposefully create reciprocation strategies with others
Co-ordinating, collaborating and supporting. Building communities, networks and collaborative relationships. Create internal system coherence.
Have open access to information (where relevant) and make sure information is nurturing, not being used for power
Understand and actively work with feedback loops
Ensure structures enable the ability to work collaboratively
Build in mechanisms to enable reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
Implement relationship enablers and interaction channels
Use stories as benchmarks about how your system is working
Deliver – bargaining for resources and managing performance. Bringing humanity and balance back into working relationships. Making joint decisions and goal setting around resources, performance and goals
Instigate different models of power and control so that operational staff feel empowered to act
Support others to enable themselves
Aim for meaningful work and wellbeing for all
Help people to push outside of their comfort zone
Allow autonomy, within relevant boundaries
Do not fight power imbalances. Turn them into something else
Change the nature of relationships
Purposefully build strategies of reciprocation
Form a culture of honesty and trust
Instigate positively orientated peer to peer performance management and share ideas with anyone falling behind
Appraise for sharing, collaboration, supporting others and forming relationships
Monitoring – conducting system health check. Monitoring for signs of effective system characteristics. Monitoring for congruence between the systems and its vision.
If the system is suffering, look too see if it is lacking information about itself
Monitor the system’s ability to reciprocate. Build reciprocation strategies into protocols and strategies
Monitor the ability to flex, change, pivot and adapt over time
Monitor for congruence between the actual purposes of the system and its proposed vision
Adapt – trend spotting and fitting with a changing environment. Enabling pivoting. Building external relationships and gathering intelligence about the environment
Understand and purposefully use structural couplings
Scan the environment for new models of doing and bring the relevant elements back into your system
Make explicit external relationships and strategies of reciprocation
Shifting power, creating new structures and identifying identity. Identifying elements of joint vision, meaning, identity, purposes and goals. Devolving accountability and allowing autonomy. Seeking to ensure the old paradigm does not hinder the new
Ensure a sense of curiosity and innovation is fostered throughout the system
Check if the system is achieving intended purposes
Ensuring sharing of knowledge is inherent in the system
Critique system boundaries
Ensure a strong and appropriate identity
Actively critique your structure to make sure it is designed to create the conditions for change
Ensure there are policies to allow people to empower themselves, collaborate and build relationships and learn from each other
Instigate different power structures
Ensure no selfish goals predominate
These and many others are part of the Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials and my own personal approach.
All materials are covered by UK copyright. They should not be replicated in commercial approaches. If you use them, please act with integrity and reference appropriately.
I have been blogging over the years about the gradual development of my Creating the Conditions for Change kit for those in public services and beyond. My suite of materials, both workshop materials and consultancy materials have seen many iterations and are based on my work since 2007 with the viable system model, other systems thinking approaches and some of it is from my days of transformation and improvement before then.
The kit is multi-faceted, consisting of my approach to systemic inquiry, using a blended systems thinking approach (below)
and my application of the viable system model and other systems thinking. It includes a suite of materials to support identification of patterns of system behaviour that may be harming your team/ service/ department/ organisation/ cross organisation working (viable system model system archetypes).
I have also turned my work with the viable system model into a human focussed suite of materials, based on Creating the Conditions for Change at each fractal level of the system and bringing humanity back into the work by focussing on what we, as human beings, need and want to feel nourished in our working ecosystem. This work stemmed from me revisiting my viable system model work and realising that whenever it worked well was when I used it to ‘create the conditions for change’ for a happy, nurturing and effective working ecosystem.
My workshop materials consist of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel
The wheel gives us the areas of focus for each fractal later in the system. Sitting under the wheel is a booklet summarising how and why we need to Create the Conditions for Change, relating to each area of the wheel.
The real power lies in the action cards, which accompany the booklet. There are around 120 actions that help you to consider what to put in place, at each level of the system to create a healthier, more human centred, work ecosystem. Learning, adaptability, and how we make change are central. Bringing humanity back into the work is a key element and exists both as an area of focus in the wheel and in the actions throughout. There is also a big focus on creating relationship enablers and developing interaction channels, again stemming from my work with the viable system model.
Starting with the individual – how we can use insights from the viable system model to look at ourselves and our own development. In any situation, we need to look at ourselves as much as anyone else. The Creating the Conditions for change kit can be used on ourselves, at a personal level, to create our own learning system and support our development. It considers how can we become more self-referencing, embrace our autonomy and peer support each other. The action cards include suggestions for this and many other things.
At a team level – we apply the same thinking at a team level. The focus here is not just on your own team but forging relationships across teams. Sharing resources, re-imagining roles, how we communicate and make decisions differently are a key area of focus in the actions at this level. They seek not only to make the team effective but to support the learning and development of the individual, in line with their own professional identity and purposes.
At a service level – again, it is the same thinking here but with slightly different actions. Collaborating, seeing wider than your own service, promoting joint decision making and reviewing your system for signs of system ‘sickness’ come into play here, as well as many other actions. Collaborations at a service level, set the ethos of collaboration at the team level below.
At an organisational level – here we start thinking about deliberate reciprocation strategies and acknowledgement of the benefits of cross organisational working. These reciprocations strategies enable collaborations at a service level below.
Multi-organisational level – we have many actions relating to the level of multiple organisations working together. Not least, undertaking system health checks to expose whether policies, procedures, funding etc are helping or hindering and whether power and information is nurturing the system or harming it. Co-creating together, enabled by deliberate reciprocation strategies is key and link to the enablement of such reciprocation strategies at an organisational level below.
Systems change – we then flow into the area of system change and this is where it gets really interesting.
What I have found in my work on systems change is that nurturing people and bolstering their confidence is a critical factor, as is harnessing the collective power of those at every level of the system. Co-creating, using small scale prototyping is something I have brough in from my days back in improvement, pre systems thinking. Specifically, from my days in pharmaceutical specials manufacturing.
The power in all of this is that insights are shared at multiple levels of the system. When we take action at multiple levels, concurrently, powerful change can come from something seemingly very small.
This kit and my approach is developing all of the time. A new iteration with even more insights is underway….who knows where it will go next……
Services are available in using this kit to help you understand your system, consultancy services, workshops and training in the approach and in systems thinking in general. The kit has been used in multiple contexts, both public and private sector.
For further information for your organisation contact: email@example.com
Please note that all materials are copyrighted. If you build on them, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.
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?
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.
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
I have been contemplating for some time now – beyond my professional work, beyond the confines of the assignments I was involved in and into a place I couldn’t really articulate. I felt….different somehow…. but I wasn’t sure how. However, over the last couple of weeks I have interacted with groups and individuals in a way that has gifted me the reflection time and space to start and make sense of it. I knew it was there……I just couldn’t get it out.
What has been happening in our world for some time is real. It is scary and the most scary thing for me is that we are awake to it but have not yet worked out how to mobilise to prevent or change it. I am talking about the power, domination and control we see in our world. I have been considering whether it is actually possible to get past the billionaire giants? The tech giants? The egotistical manipulators? Can we get past the corrupt Governments and individuals? How do we harness our interconnections in a way that enables our creativity, our ethics, our values, our inner peace, and freedom to emerge? To allow our differences but connect our similarities.
Our minds are being poisoned by messages via our technologies and ‘fake news’ and it is driving horrible divisive behaviours. I heard Vandhana Shiva say, ‘the new colonisation is the poisoning of our minds’. It really struck a chord with me. Those consumed with power and control seem obsessed with manipulation of the masses and the breakdown of our own intelligent thinking. Are we going to allow it? Many aren’t, and I feel reassured by that but will the combining of huge egotistical powers continue to overwhelm us?
Maybe this time of coronavirus is a time when we can move away from the world we are currently stuck in? Structures and ways of being that were previously ‘invisible’ are now visible. Will our awareness of our interconnectedness prevail? Will we be able to harness our connections in a way that allows us to use them as a positive advantage for the greater good of humanity? These seem like big questions, but ones that our current situation is enabling us to contemplate. How do we anchor new patterns going through and coming out of this global crisis? Can we achieve system synthesis? Should we? Do we need to change our framing and narratives to allow us to discover new pathways to knowledge? Can we re-shape our structures? Our behaviours? How we think? Are we listening to the current situation and each other deeply enough to learn? And how are we making sense of it all? We are all creating but do we understand how we are doing that?
I feel like I need to be still. To listen and sense make. I have been going through it for about a year and right now it is at its strongest. I have gone through the moral outrage…….but where now? The inner place we come from will tell us and I hope the collective positive humanity driven minds prevail. Will we operate from a deeper place in future? Who knows? We are re-imagining – good luck to us all.
This website is not for the consultant level systems practitioner. It is for the beginner or anyone who might have heard of systems thinking, doesn’t know what it really is but would like to find out more. Also, people often learn about systems thinking but then have difficulty applying the concepts in the real world. This website is for those people. It intends to give practical examples and advice about how some of the tools and techniques used in systems thinking can be used in every-day situations. You do not have to aim to change the world with systems thinking! Nor do you have to be an expert or know everything about systems thinking to put some of its concepts into practice.
Systems thinking is used with primary school children in some countries. It is for people of all ages. If you are reading this then, yes, this website is for you.