The systems thinker, the shaman and the addict

I’m emotional, overwhelmed and amazed. I feel warm inside, relaxed and hopeful. The last four months has been some journey. When I embarked on it, I never imagined that I would be in an online room with a shaman and an addict and we would do such powerful work together.

It wasn’t just us in the group, there were others too. All authentic, passionate people who work from the heart with humanity and humility. I embarked on the journey as a co-facilitator and bringer of systems thinking expertise into a programme to help people empower themselves to instigate and contribute to system change in the city in which they live. I don’t think I have come across a group so positive and passionate about creating change. The shamanic development of our ‘tribe’, the systems and complexity thinking and the powerful, gritty, real stories from people with lived experience of multiple complex needs coupled with some powerful prototyping tools, coaching and storytelling skills from other facilitators that we brought in and we have an intoxicating mix.

One thing that pulled the group together was the lack of work titles. Everyone came into the programme as themselves. They brought their whole selves, their vulnerable selves, their authentic selves. They brought their cats, dogs and children. They brought a sense of being real, being authentic and wanting to share.

Developing a more embodied approach was key and people went for it, easily and confidently. We shared, laughed, cried and learned our way forward together.

For a number of years now, I have advocated for people who would not normally identify as being a ‘systems thinker’ as being some of the strongest and most insightful systems thinkers I know. They knock the spots off any loud-mouthed show-offs out there who can talk about it but have no clue how to put it into practice. The key ingredient?…………………humility. The group had the humility to self-reflect, not to judge, to connect and form relationships that I believe will be long-lasting.

I heard stories of addiction that pulled at every heart string. Of struggles and barriers that we build into people’s lives that take away their dignity and throw them to the ground. I heard stories of passionate workers who refused to give in and determinedly navigated an unimaginably complex web in order to support others. I heard stories of people who realised that yes, they were leaders, even when they weren’t at the top of the hierarchy in an organisation. I heard stories of light bulb moments, of finding different ways to have conversations and of self-belief when realising that what they were thinking and feeling was legitimate, had a name and now they could articulate it and work with it.

Creating the conditions for change is the most important element of systems change, in my opinion. Without it, nothing else matters. The relationships, the trust, the sharing, the compassion and caring. Without it, we just have changes that are often meaningless, soulless and cold. Bring in humility, bring in humanity, bring in love for other human beings and it’s a powerful mix.

This side of systems thinking is not always palatable with people. Those who can’t understand other people, see things from their point of view or can’t self-reflect enough to allow a deep blending of others’ thoughts with their own. It’s how powerful change happens though; of that I am sure.

The enablers of systems thinking – their amazing power and why some may find them unpalatable

In my experiences of engaging with and applying systems thinking I have come to realise that it is what many call the ‘softer skills’ that have been some of the key enablers for change. When working closely with others and applying systems thinking in a situation, I deeply consider the people within it. My suggestions for points of intervention come from my wider explorations and within that, I don’t forget that it is people we are engaging with and those people crave social inclusion, belonging, nurturing and relationships. They have their own values, beliefs and identity. All of us, yes, all of us, crave to be socially connected in some way or another in my opinion. Exclusion hurts us as badly as physical pain. I’ve blogged about this before, after I read the book, ‘Social’ by Matthew D Lieberman. He explains that ‘when human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way as it responds to physical pain’. He tells us that, ‘we all inherit an attachment system that lasts a lifetime, which means we never get past the pain of social rejection just as we never get past the pain of hunger’.  Interesting isn’t it, that our ‘sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event, whether the instance of social rejection matters or not’.

We are wired to be part of the gang, to have connections and to belong. Now, if that belonging in an organisation is dependent upon keeping your head down, keeping quiet about issues and not doing anything radical, it is my experience that the majority of people are likely to conform to his norm. They need the belonging and they need the work.

As systems practitioners, it is useful if we can help people to challenge conformity, stick their heads above the parapet and make bold or different moves. Take chances. Be risk takers and dare to fail. But what about the fear? The fear of social rejection as a result of standing out? How do we help people deal with this? Do we really know the extent of the ask we are making of people and do we equip them to deal with it in a way that avoids exclusion and the pain of becoming isolated from their peers if they adopt different approaches to their work and even to their own lives?

How do we, and can we, manipulate the working environment to allow the authentic people that work there to showcase their gifts, their personality, their talents and their plethora of ideas and visions. Them, with their powers of connection and excellent networking abilities. Them, with their co-operative partnerships. Them, in their true sense. Not a shadow form of themselves that they adopt so that they can ‘fit in’ and avoid the pain of social inclusion.

Now, when I crawled out of bed early this morning and set up my laptop, I never imagined I would feel so awake in such a short space of time. By ‘awake’ I mean revitalised, energised and inspired. You see, I recently had yet another very stimulating and energising conversation about bringing the humanity back into the workplace. About allowing people to be themselves. About harnessing their creativity and about really living and enjoying their days, not just existing. At the end of it, I was ever more convinced that creativity and truly being allowed to ‘be your authentic self’ are key enablers to effectively applying systems thinking. And so, when people discuss ‘the barriers to systems thinking’ I wonder if they really mean ‘the barriers to people being their true authentic selves’ and it not really being about the systems thinking models, methods, approaches per se.

I know a plethora of people who are system thinkers. I observe them remaining hidden like shiny gems embedded in a dull rock face. They are the diamonds. The jewels that remain hidden with heavy hearts, shrouded in the identity of an imposing ‘grey’ organisation, where ‘fitting is’ is the only thing that avoids the pain of social exclusion or even worse, dismissal.  The pain of social exclusion avoided, but the pain of unfulfillment written all over their faces. Their true values falling from their tree of life like discarded leaves from an autumn tree because they are at odds with the values of the organisation they serve. Joy and fulfilment seen as things to keep hidden, replaced with monotony and regime.

But we can build relationships, alliances, supportive networks and communities. We can nurture, support and motivate. We can co-operate and form partnerships. We can encourage those gems to pop out from the grey wall and dance and shine in all of their beauty. We can encourage and help others to believe in themselves again.

There is a danger here, of course, that sometimes, not always, but certainly sometimes, others don’t want those gems to shine. They don’t want to create the conditions of nurturing, sharing and encouraging individuals to exercise their gifts to the full. They prefer power and control. They like to keep people ‘in their place’ so that their own world doesn’t get rocked in any way. This is what stands in the way of systems thinking, in my experience. Not the language (that’s an easy cop out). Not the approaches (if you don’t understand them, find the people who do, so that they can help you. There are plenty of people out there). It isn’t the heavy texts (although they do exist) or the fact you can’t draw (basic diagrams are powerful and don’t have to be polished works of art). The biggest barriers I have seen are power and control. They seek to stamp out the nurturing enablers that allow people to think freely and openly. To share and discuss. To listen and understand. Systems thinking is powerful when it becomes embodied but what stands in its way are the ever-present issues of power and control. Particularly power cliques who merge together and become toxic hives of manipulation. These are the ones who can find the true enablers of systems thinking unpalatable, because it takes away their power, dilutes their control and encourages people around them to peep their heads out from the hierarchy and show off their talents. They tend to like the idea of systems thinking, but only if they are the only ones to be able to ‘do it’. We all know how destructive that can be. So, if you really want to apply systems thinking, give these enablers some thought. Then, self-reflect and ask yourself if you are the one protecting a power base? Are you the one controlling others? Are you the one preventing those around you from shining brighter? If so, it is never too late to change that and who knows, you might even like the results.