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

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

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

I look at the bigger picture

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

I ‘see systems’

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

I don’t look at problem/ solution per se

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

I respect different views and perspectives

I use a number of techniques (like diagramming) to work with different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The diagrams might include visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

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

This is a very under-rated exercise. It is extremely valuable. In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not as valuable as someone else’s interest. Just knowing that the person working with you and the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I support collective decision making

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

I share whatever I can to help you learn

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

 

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

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What Margaret Wheatley tells us about ‘a simpler way’

As I sit here reading, ‘A Simpler Way’ by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers I feel like I am standing beneath a refreshingly cool waterfall of positivity. Only seventeen pages into the book and I am awash with words like: belief, behaviours, learn, surprise, optimistic, creative, purposeful, meaning, play, freedom, creativity, experiment, accomplish, explore, diverse and identity. I already feel inspired, eager to read on.

I usually like to pull out some key quotes from the books I read. So far, I would be reciting the whole book! To me, I feel they state the obvious. That which is inside of us all, desperate to get out – that we are here to explore, to discover and create, to belong and have meaning in our lives that supports our identity. An identity that we choose.
We are reminded of the errors of Western culture that leads us to believe that ‘the world is hostile, that we are in a constant struggle for survival, that the consequence of error is death, that the environment seeks our destruction.’ No wonder some people wander through their lives full of fear.

We are also reminded that, ‘the universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what’s possible at all levels of scale, from microbe to cosmos.’ Life’s natural tendency is to organise, and that act is an act of creating identity. Think about that for a moment. Think about its relevance in terms of the workplaces and jobs people have now. Think about it in terms of the identity of the teams and groups you meet or are part of. How much of the ability and opportunity to be creative and to develop identity do you think members of those groups have? And I wonder what impact this has on them? Does it impact on their belief in themselves? And the group as a whole? After-all, ‘belief is the place from which true change originates’.

In our workplaces we often strive to ‘be right’ but ‘there is no one answer that is right, but many answers that might work.’ This is something that is all too often forgotten. ‘Nature encourages wild self-expression as long as it doesn’t threaten the survival of the organism.’ I wonder how much better we might feel if this approach was applied in our workplaces?

The authors introduce us to the word, bricolage – the process of creating living things, which is a big difference to the analysis we so often use today, where our ‘analytic plans drive us only towards what we think we already know’. They also remind us that ‘in human attempts to construct functioning ecosystems, scientists cannot predict what will work.’ So why do we believe that in our living work systems we can predict and heavily plan for the future? The only thing we can know is that the system will seek stability. We really have little idea what that stability might look like.

They bring to our attention the importance of relationships. The more relationships, the more ‘expressions, more variety, more stability, more support’. ‘New relationships create new capacities.’ And don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be a traditional ‘niche’. ‘Life creates niches not to dominate, but to support. Symbiosis is the most favoured path for evolution. Niches are an example of symbiosis’. Support; don’t dominate! Remember that when we are stuck in a particular worldview we may explain the world of organising in terms of competition and used this to explain the behaviours that we see. It’s time to change those mental models so that seeing support and collaboration predominates over seeing competition and heroes. Understanding our relationships and interdependencies is far more powerful.

The authors talk about the importance of experimentation. Why do we insist on relying on others to give us ‘the answer’ rather than experimenting to see what works? Words and phrases like: experimentation, inquisitive, discovering, new possibilities, expand our thinking are all words and phrases that should be on the tip of our tongues. Sadly, they are not, as we all too easily forget that someone’s experiences can never provide models that will work exactly the same for us. I particularly love the reminder that, ‘fuzzy, messy, continuously exploring systems bent on discovering what works are far more practical and successful than our attempts at efficiency.’ If only we would just believe it! Make errors, learn more, repeat……

‘When individuals fail to experiment or when the system refuses their offers of new ideas, then the system becomes moribund. Without constant, interior change, it sinks into the death grip of equilibrium. It no longer participates in co-evolution. The system becomes vulnerable; its destruction is self-imposed’. You have been warned! Adaptation is key. Moving forward means sharing your information, linking with others and communicating and enabling your ability of self-organisation.

So, what are some of the lessons this book gives us?

  •  Change beliefs – support people in believing in themselves
  • Allow people to explore, to discover, to tinker, to fail, to experiment and to learn
  • Allow people to be part of creating the identity they carry around with them. ‘Every act of organising occurs around an identity. Every change occurs only if we identify with it.’ Identity is the most compelling organising energy available. ‘A healthy system uses its freedom to explore its identity’
  • Seek coherence – we can’t resolve organisational incoherence with training programmes about values, or with beautiful reports that explain the company’s way, or by the charisma of any leader. We can resolve it only with coherence – fundamental integrity about who we are’. ‘With coherence comes the capacity to create organisations that are both free and effective. They are effective because they support people’s abilities to self-organise. They are free because they know who they are’.
  • Create order through freedom – ‘Coherent organisations experience the word with less threat and more freedom. They don’t create boundaries to defend and preserve themselves. They don’t have to keep others out. Clear at their core, they become less and less concerned about where they stop. Inner clarity gives them expansionary range. Such clarity creates order through freedom.’
  •  Understand the link between behaviours and belonging – ‘Large organisations spend a great deal of time and resources on training people in behaviours under such topics as diversity, communications, and leadership. But these behaviours are not a list of rules or techniques. They arise from agreements about how people will be together. Often these agreements are unspoken. We can’t train people to be open, or fair, or responsible if the real agreement is that we must succeed at all costs, or that we have no choice but to keep laying people off. Training programmes can never resolve deeply incoherent messages. Neither can legislation. Behaviours are rooted in our agreements. They change only when we bring to light these unspoked commitments. Our behaviours change only if we decide to belong together differently’.
  • Trust people to self-organise
  • Build connections, relationships, and networks to enable greater capacities and opportunities for sharing information. Focus on connectedness and interdependencies, not competition and heroic ‘leaders’. Remember that, ‘no self can survive behind the boundary it creates. If it does not remember its connectedness, the self will expire.’
  • Focus on adaptability and co-creation, not analysis and heavy planning. The less we rely upon rigid plans and the more we design for regeneration of our ecosystems the more viable we become. And remember, ‘invention always takes shape round an identity’.
  • Do not try and ‘direct’ the system. We can’t do this, we can only disturb it. We can never give an instruction and expect someone to follow it precisely. We can never assume that someone sees the world as we do.
  • Embrace the concept of emergence – this is the capacity we discover when we join together. New systems have properties that appear suddenly and mysteriously. These properties cannot be predicted. The implication is that we can’t visualise our future and work back from that, planning every step in detail. We must start at the beginning and be clear in our intent and willing to discover as we go along. Anticipate rather than plan and acknowledge that we don’t know exactly how the work will unfold.

There is so much more to be said about emerging organisation, but this blog is already very long. I’ll save the emerging organisation topic for a second, separate post as I also want to talk about it in terms of viable systems and the links to information flows. It’s a very important topic, in my opinion, and deserves the space to give it further exploration. So too is the importance of identity – another blog post coming soon!

With that in mind, I will leave you with some quotes I particularly like:

‘Our wonderful abilities to self-organise are encouraged by openness. With access to our system we, like all life, can anticipate what is required of us, connect with those we need, and respond intelligently’.

I wonder, every day, why so many people, organisations or groups of organisations cannot and do not take this on advice on board, instead insisting on trying to engineer human contribution.

‘The systems we create are chosen together. They are the result of dances, not wars.’

‘A Simpler Way’ by Margaret J Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers