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

What do you do, when you do what you do?

SmallLogoWhat do you do when you do what you do? Have you ever thought about it? One of the things I like about systems thinking is that it gives you the time to react and articulate feelings, consider different viewpoints and create space to challenge your own understanding. What am I doing? Why am I doing it like that?

Do you routinely open up your own perspective or do you prefer to stick to one specific mindset? Do you know that you prefer one specific mindset? Have you ever challenged that mindset?

Systems thinking can help you challenge yourself, expand your understanding and help you to appreciate multiple perspectives. This, in turn, can be a powerful mechanism for building mutually respectful relationships.

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This can be a huge asset when dealing with the large complex situations and the people in them. After all, they are living systems. How can we expect to understand the behaviour of the system if we don’t understand our very own habits and behaviours? Think about what you do when you do what you do and challenge yourself, every now and then. It’s a healthy thing to do.

The games we play

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Yes, that’s right, we play games. It isn’t all statistics and theories in this field! The first thing I like to do as a systems practitioner is to appeal to people’s human side. After all, it is people we are dealing with and it is usually them I am trying to help.

Many people in the Western world have a bias towards dogmatism. Therefore, I often find it a good idea to expose this, just so people believe it exists. I don’t mean embarrassing people or putting them on the spot, but showing that we are all very much alike and respond in a very similar way to the stimuli around us. It is easy to fall into our dogmatism “trap,” no matter how much we try to avoid it. So how do we break the habit? We play games, of course! Well, I do anyway; especially if I am delivering training courses. I don’t mean training courses particularly about systems thinking either. You can incorporate systems thinking into any kind of training.

For example, I was asked to deliver quality assurance training in an NHS organisation. Brilliant! What better opportunity. Ensuring quality means you have to have an understanding of the situation you are in and why any failures in quality might have happened. If you are steeped in dogmatism you will inevitably fall into the trap of attributing blame and potentially miss the real reason for the failure. So, I like to open up people’s minds and expose them to the concept of multiple perspectives. “What do you mean, multiple perspectives?” I hear you cry. Yes, multiple perspectives; they really do exist. Our own perspective of something is not necessarily a true reflection of the situation we are observing. It is merely our own view of that situation. The person next to us might very feasibly have a completely different perspective of exactly the same thing. To demonstrate the concept of multiple perspectives I use an exercise from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows.

bookIt’s the one called, Circles in the Air. I have a lot of fun with it and delight in seeing people walking down the corridor days later with a pen in the air, trying to work out whether they are moving it clockwise or anticlockwise!

 

If you haven’t used this book before, I highly recommend it. There’s even a DVD with it to demonstrate the exercises. It’s quite easy to demonstrate how our brains make lightening quick associations, how we might perceive things differently from someone else and how we are easily guided into misconceptions by our past experiences.

I like to break down these barriers first and show people that we are all human and we all fall into the same traps. It helps to erode the stigma attached to “getting something wrong.” After all, you need humility to apply systems thinking. You have to be willing to challenge yourself. If you want people to come on board, you have to show them they are human and it’s ok to make mistakes. Only then might they be amenable to reviewing their current practice and taking on board new ways of thinking.

Moral of the story – play games, appeal to people’s human side and enjoy it. Applying systems thinking isn’t about being boring and stuffy. For me, it’s about infecting others with your systems thinking bug. And, once they have the bug, I’m pretty sure they won’t want to get rid of it.