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

Training Courses Available

The following one-day training courses are now available

Both of these training courses require a minimum of 10 people, maximum 20. They are intended for groups of people who work together across a geographical place, and especially for those in public services.

Costs vary, depending upon number of delegates, location and provision of rooms and refreshments. Please get in touch if you are interested in running a session for your organisation/ group of colleagues.

Creating the conditions for change with systems and complexity thinking

Who is this training for?

This training if for anyone who is interested in creating the conditions for change using insights from systems and complexity thinking. It is particularly useful for front line teams and managers involved in system change.

What will I learn?

You will learn about the conditions that are required to make effective change in any situation. You will learn how to look at things from different perspectives, how viable systems work and what features are required in a system to enable system change.

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking?

No prior knowledge of systems thinking is required for this course. All concepts will be fully explained.

What will the format of the training be?

This is a highly interactive session using my Systems Thinking Change Wheel and action cards to understand system change. A case study will be used to apply the thinking to, and by prior arrangement, this can be a case study of the ‘place’ in which you work.

There will be some presentation whilst explaining concepts. However, the majority of the day will be group exercises and application of the thinking to the case study. You will identify where conditions might hinder system change and where effort can be injected to help create the conditions to enable system change.

Applying the viable system model

Who is this training for?

This training is for anyone who has an interest in applying the viable system model to a situation. You can be from any kind of work background, as long as you have an interest in the subject matter.

What will I learn?

You will learn the basics of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. You will learn about the five sub-systems of the model and what their functions are. You will also learn how to apply the model to a real-world situation, learning what to look for and how to spot areas for potential improvement in a situation, based on a diagnosis using the model

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking or the viable system model?

It does help if you have some knowledge of systems thinking but don’t worry if you don’t. Systems thinking is such a wide field that any key concepts etc will be explained throughout the session. It is important to do this because of the wide range of interpretations that exist.

What will the format of the training be?

There will be some element of presentation when explaining the model. The majority of the day, however, will be your practical application of the model to a given case study. You will undertake a diagnosis of a messy situation, using a number of ‘guides’ that you will be provided with to help you along. It will be a mixture of thinking about certain elements alone and in groups and you will be guided by the trainer throughout.

The case study will be a case study that the trainer has worked on. That way, she can share real insights as to how the model can be applied and what you can look for when trying to identify areas for improvement. It is a case study is from public services. This area has been chosen for its ‘messiness’ which gives opportunities to demonstrate areas for improvement in many places. You do not have to have experience of or a background in public services to understand the case study or undertake the diagnosis. In fact, it can sometimes help if you don’t know much about the situation in the case study.

Other bespoke systems thinking courses are available, which can be designed to meet your needs. Please get in contact to discuss your requirements.

pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Feedback from a previous course:

Why the viable system model is perfect for exploring and understanding the complex world of public services

 

It was over a year ago that The Guardian informed us of ‘a warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) that councils will soon need to make deep cuts to essential services. This will include anything from road repairs, parks, children’s centres, waste collection, leisure centres and libraries.’ Yes, one year ago. At that time, a third of local authorities expected their parks to decline within three years, things like meals on wheels and debt advice centres had already disappeared and managers were being forced into ‘one or the other’ dilemmas. (https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/feb/28/uk-government-cuts-parks-libraries-local-government-nhs-prisons)

The NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer was, and still is, being disrupted by endless reorganisations.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/18/10-truths-about-britains-health-service).

In 2016, health expenditure in the UK was 9.75 per cent of GDP. This compared to 17.21 per cent in the USA, 11.27 per cent in Germany, 10.98 per cent in France, 10.50 per cent in the Netherlands, 10.37 per cent in Denmark and 10.34 per cent in Canada. (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

In 2016, the NHS was dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

Sobering, isn’t it? We were warned back then that public services required better management. But what? Where to start? And how?

What if there was a way to look at public services how we might look at large, interactive socio-ecological systems? What if there was a way to look at public services that would help us to consider their ongoing co-evolution within a complex environment?

Well, after using the viable system model and blending it with other systems thinking approaches for over 10 years in public services, I believe there is such a way and I think the idea is beautifully explained in the teachings from the book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’ by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker.

Whilst it does not always explicitly mention public services in the book it isn’t hard to apply the thinking to the public services context.

The book talks about ‘open systems’ –  systems that are open to exchanges of energy and information with the environment with which they co-evolve. It tells us that, ‘all living systems are networks of smaller components, and the web of life as a whole is a multi-layered structure of living systems nestling within other living systems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2001, p6) which sounds somewhat like our public services to me. These ‘living systems’ may remain stable for certain periods of time but they do occasionally go through points of critical instability, where new forms of order might spontaneously emerge. This means that the ‘state’ of the system is not predictable and what is created may be dependent upon the systems structure and the path of development when new order emerges – Capra, 2008 (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p8). Again, this is sounding very familiar with my experiences of public services. These systems are otherwise known as a Complex Adaptive System. 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. Now, again, that sounds to me a little like the direction of travel being encouraged in public service transformation. At the moment the central control still predominates but I can foresee a time where this might be less so.

But wait, those versed in management cybernetics (where the viable system model sits) might now be saying 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 or moving towards, an open system?

This is where the writings of 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).

So, for me, over time, the viable system model has been hugely eye-opening and one of the most powerful ways to expose understanding of how a complex situation is working. A viable system can be described as, ‘a system which is able to adapt and maintain an independent existence as it co-evolves with a changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13) It is always embedded in, and composed of, other viable systems.

Espinosa and Walker explain that Stafford Beer, the developer of the viable system model understood that, ‘the focus of VSM anlaysis is to observe the ability of the organisational system to handle the complexity of tasks required to fulfil its purpose in the context of a highly complex changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13)

Stafford Beer argues that for a system to be sustainable, proper structures need to be in place. These are neither centralised nor decentralised but have the right balance between the two and are capable of dealing with the complexity in their environment. He sees planning and policy based on government being the facilitator of radical change which emerges at a local level (Espinosa, Walker, 2011). Viable systems have adaptability and flexibility, awareness and self-reliance and have the capacity to innovate and induce change in other systems in pursuit of their own purpose.

Think about that for a moment………. If integrated teams, and other such teams, got this right, their reciprocation may form a structural coupling that allows all organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way so that the purposes of the wider whole can be fulfilled. Espinosa and Walker tell us that sustainability is not about constancy but is about the ability of the living system to co-evolve with its environment. Could the right balance between centralised and decentralised structures and emergent local level change move us towards a more sustainable way of providing public services?

I think this is what we may already be seeing in some areas. But can these teams engage in the right kind of decision making that does not put anyone in a catastrophic domain? I’m not sure that we are there yet, with this one. That kind of decision making is different to what currently exists and may take a little more building of trustful relationships, different competencies and different ways of evaluating success across the whole of the network before it comes to fruition. Our idea of governance may well need to be different before governmental and non-governmental agencies can make effective decisions together. As Espinosa and Walker inform us, there currently may not even be a suitably acknowledged theory of governance to take account of the concept of sustainability. So, when public sector managers are troubled about how to enable this new world to ‘work’ isn’t it acceptable that, at the moment, they might not be 100% sure, as everyone tries to learn their way forward together?

The VSM, taking its inspiration from the natural world, helps us to identify structural factors which may constrain viability. It guides us through investigating how the system manages its interactions, identifying learning problems caused by communication issues that affect the system’s ability to deal with complexity, how our mental models affect what we observe and how to do a rapid, but very accurate, diagnosis of complex systems. It helps us to understand that empowerment enables the quick responses required for co-evolution and that our organisations are currently likely to be built for a much less complex world and their current structures are not adaptable or flexible enough for any kind of rapid response.

The VSM helps us to consider conflicts of interest and how to maintain stability, working towards collaboration rather than competition. It encourages us to understand that performance can be better together than if we were working in isolation. It supports us in understanding how joint management decisions, across a number of organisations, could activate a support network if one organisation becomes a risk to the cohesion of the whole. Of course, here is where we need a different kind of performance measurement and decision making, as we all know what it’s like when organisations have opposing performance indicators that encourage perverse behaviours of ‘self-preservation’ of the individual organisation.

The VSM helps us to bridge strategic criteria across different levels and consider effective bargains around financial, technological, physical and skill-based resources. This may, however, give some challenge to what are current ‘corporate norms.’ New ‘norms’ will need to develop over time. Questions we may well need to consider are:  What is the new context of the whole? What is the identity of the whole? What raft of creative and feasible strategies and policies are required to realise this new identity?

Espinosa and Walker are clear that sustainability will take cognitive, structural and political change. Policies will require a different focus around ‘deliberately building trust, understanding leadership in a collaborative context, building co-ordination mechanisms so that true collaboration can flourish and identifying critical measures for sustainability.’ We will need to observe and measure in as real-time as possible. Risk will need to be considered differently. We will need different information flows and we will need to make and assess decisions differently. Autonomy and empowerment will be critical to progress and we will need to be able to openly learn from mistakes, without fear of reprisal. We will require a new perspective of control that aims for a culture of respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity.

Seeing and enacting public services as a dynamic, adaptive, self-organising whole will no doubt be an enormous challenge. There is, however, as we have learned, a model of thinking that can help us to understand the emerging patterns of complex interactions. A systems thinking and complexity approach is exceptionally powerful and ‘the VSM is unprecedented in its power to diagnose and solve complex organisational problems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011).

Personally, I strongly believe that whilst you can use consultants to undertake a VSM diagnostic for you, the systems thinking and complexity way of understanding is far more powerful when it becomes part of your culture. In my opinion, the better use of specific systems thinking consultants is to use us to guide you through how to apply a systems thinking and complexity mindset. Use us as facilitators of a process of learning in your context. In my experience, this takes more than a one-off interaction. You may need our help and support over a period of time. But, we can help you to get started and we can guide you towards a way of considering your situation that will give powerful insights and help you and your partnerships to learn your way forward together.

Espinosa, A, Walker, J 2011 A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application. Imperial College Press