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.

The viable system model, relationship enablers and creating the conditions for change

‘There are 2 groups of people – those who want to fight with each other about who is right academically and those who just want help to translate the academics into practical application. Until we can all learn to talk to one another in a helpful way then we are never going to move forward, even if we want to use the methods. If the academics come at us with their harsh academic arguments, we just can’t handle that because that’s not part of our world and if we can’t get across to them our challenges and how we need help, without being put off by their harsh arguments, then we are never going to be able to transform the good stuff into something useable.’

These were the words spoken to me back in 2015 by the Chief Executive of a Clinical Commissioning Group. A year later I left their organisation to set up my own venture and as you will see, I never forgot her wise words.

I have a lot of successes in my work. People are often impressed by the quality and insights I can give, and my ambition has always been focussed on helping others to experience the real power of systems thinking. To that end, I have spent the last couple of years going back over my work and really challenging myself about, ‘what I do when I do what I do’ – a phrase used in the Open University systems thinking courses that makes you seriously reflect not just on what you are doing, but how you are actually doing it. I wanted to take what I was learning and pass that on to others and I wanted to give them something outside of the academics and textbook models and methods to work with.

I have captured my learning in my Systems Thinking Change Wheel, and a set of 100 action cards that underpin each section of the wheel, to give people insights into creating the conditions to support change and as I have found, this is particularly useful for system change.

Those who know me know that I use something called the Viable System Model (VSM) a lot. I don’t use it in it’s first order hard systems thinking way, though. I use it in a more qualitative way, which for me makes it much more versatile. The trouble is, when people see anything about the VSM they quickly turn the other way due to its complex diagram and over burdening academic narrative. In addition, some VSM lovers shudder whenever anyone tries to make its insights accessible to the masses. So what I’ve done is not regurgitated the VSM, but taken my learning from using it and translated that into something useable for people who may never have come across it before, but still deserve to have the insights from using it made accessible to them.

One of the most powerful learnings I have taken from my work is that where some would say exchanges of information are critical, I have found relationship to be even more critical. Importantly I realised that throughout all of my work I was building in ‘relationship enablers’ at every point. In many cases, the information people needed, contrary to popular belief, was there. The issue was that there was no relationship in place that gave the incentive for the information to be understood, acted upon and the outcomes fed back into the system to enable change/ improvement. I have many years of examples of building in relationship enablers and linking this to my other work with the VSM and other systems thinking I have developed a set of actions that sit under the sections of the wheel to help people create the conditions for change. Many of my other insights are captured in the cards and I am now using these to run workshops to help those wanting to apply systems thinking to their complex situations and particularly to enable system change. It isn’t the sections of the wheel that are the powerful thing, it is the WAY you enact them (‘it aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it’). This is critical and my action cards and my workshops go through a process of helping people to see the difference between what they do now and doing something that might sound very similar but enacting it in a way that might give very different results.

Please note that the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and associated text does not fall under the creative commons licence for this website, but is separately protected by UK Copyright.

NB: workshops can be run for min 10 people, max 20-25. If you are interested, please get in touch.

Why it’s better to be helpful than to ‘know’

This morning I was reminded by Algar Goredema-Braid of a great little video by Gene Bellinger, which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKzdd63CdN0

There are some wise words in that video. You see, the cry I often hear from systems practitioners is, ‘but how do I get my organisation on board with systems thinking?’ and as Gene says, if you are asking this question, you have missed the point.

The talents of a skilled systems practitioner span much wider than the methods, models, tools, concepts of systems thinking. Some of the most talented systems thinkers I know have never been formally trained or educated in these areas, yet what they do know about is how to work with people.

One of the key skills of a systems practitioner is to guide people around to a systemic way of thinking without them ever having to learn the language or the concepts or the methods and models, in my opinion. Not everyone is going to be interested enough to do that, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.  Whether they are interested in learning the academics or not, we can still guide them towards a more systemic way of being, if that is in their interests.

Gene rightly points out, who wants to have things pointed out to them in a way that makes them feel stupid and then be told to think differently or sold a different way?

Listening, guiding, creating meaning, sharing, inquiring, sense-making and importantly – understanding relationships, how they work, why they don’t and what the implications of those relationships are is vital. When you move into this mode of using your systems thinking, this is when you become really skilled, I believe. Honour others’ perspectives (don’t criticise) and influence, use your skills to be helpful not ‘right’. The more you attempt to tell someone they are wrong, the further away you are likely to push them. If you really want change, then be helpful. Help others to make sense of their context and see things they might not have seen before but don’t sell to them. You’re a systems practitioner, not judge, jury and sales-person.

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

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.

Drawing1

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.