Using insights from the viable system model when designing your service or organisation

Back in 2018/2019 I ran a number of workshops on using insights from the viable system model when designing services and organisations. I also ran a number of meetup groups to share the insights with a wide range of people. These insights are the other side of the coin of my Creating the Conditions for Change work. There is the side that helps you to design your service/ organisation etc and the side that helps you to create the right conditions for it to adapt and survive over time (if that is your intention, of course).

The two sets of information and guidance have successfully formed my consultancy approach since 2016 and were part of my approach as an internal agent in employed roles prior to 2016. When I work with organisations I seek to pass on as much insight as I can to them, so that they too can apply insights from these approaches for themselves.

This week I have been talking to clients about designing services. Some of the insights I shared are below. They are by no means comprehensive, and they need to be coupled with my Creating the Conditions for Change actions, which give insights about the ‘how to’ when seeking an adaptable service with learning and humanity at its core. However, they are a useful guide when considering designing a service or organisation from scratch.

Considering needs

Things to consider:

  • Who are the stakeholders in the situation and what are their needs?
  • Which of their needs do you want to respond to?
  • Can you respond to all of their needs? If not, why not? Do you want to be able to?
  • Make a purposeful decision about what needs you can meet and make your boundary explicit to all involved.

Considering demand

Things to consider:

  • Is everything true demand? Very often, demand is created by failure elsewhere in the system and not by justified needs. This kind of demand can be created by lack of capacity in another service, poor information, lack of appropriate pathways for other kinds of care and support, delays elsewhere in the system etc.
  • Do an analysis of the type of demand you are seeing.
  • Is there any demand you can influence or change?
  • Make a purposeful decision about which of the types of demand you will respond to (for example, are you going to pick up things that another service cannot provide?)

Considering your purpose(s)

Now, consider what your intended purpose will be:

  • Do your exploration with other stakeholders, if required.
  • Make a conscious decision about your intended purpose(s).
  • Make the boundaries of your decision explicit and make sure you communicate the boundary to others. It is important that you make meaning of this choice with others so that the decision is properly understood.

Your operations (pink)

Communication exchange and value exchange

  • How will you identify and get access to the people you want to support? How do you know you will find out about their needs in a timely way?
  • What will your value exchange be? It can be useful to explicitly consider your value exchange with those your service is intended for. What is your offer and what do you expect to happen as a result? What do you expect from them? Remember that the process is two-way.
  • How will the communication between yourselves and the people you want to support happen? How will a feedback loop of communication work? Remember the process is two-way.
  • Consider the speed of this exchange. How quickly do you want this to happen?
  • How will you know that the communication exchange and the value exchange are continuing to work effectively over time?

Your operations – this is where you transform the needs into something else

  • Once you know what needs you want to respond to, think about what operational processes are required to meet those needs. Design against the demand you intend to deal with.
  • Now consider the activities that people will do within those operational processes. Make sure that the activities bring value to the process and are not just, ‘how we always do things’.

Closing the feedback loop

  • How do you know your activities and operations are providing the right result? This is an essential part of the process that feeds back into your service to allow adaptability of both your processes and the offer you make to those you are providing a service to.
  • How will you close this feedback loop? How will you know that what you did provided the right result for the person you are helping?
  • How will you gather this information?
  • Where will you feed it back into?
  • Will the people involved in the operations of your service have the permission and skills to make any changes, if required? If not, how do they access permission or pass the request to someone else? Will it be actioned or ignored? Ignoring when you need to make a change means you might not have adaptability and it could damage your viability.

Co-ordinating what you do (purple)

  • Consider how you are going to make the operations run smoothly.
  • It is important to make sure that staff have the right support in place to help them do their job in the best way possible. This support can be things like: quick communication, IT systems, HR processes, schedules, guidelines….anything that helps to co-ordinate what they do.
  • It is important that operational teams work in a way that supports rather than hinders each other. Collaboration, not competition is important.
  • Design how the information exchanges between teams inside the service will work and the information exchanges between the service and other teams outside of the service.
  • Consider how you will ensure that any corporate instructions are given to teams in a timely manner. Will they have the time, capacity etc to respond to them? How will you check?

Delivery – day to day management of your service (blue)

  • Decide who will manage the operations and what kind of autonomy they will have.
  • Purposefully consider how decisions will be made.
  • Decide who will allocate resources to the operations. How will that work?
  • Who will do the performance management? How? How often?
  • How will you check that you have appropriate resources to enable the required performance? Make sure there is a joint decision about resource allocation and performance management and they are not done in isolation.
  • Decide what things you will measure and why. Are you intending to measure the right things, not just the things you can easily get data for?
  • Consider how you will know if the service is working as intended?

Monitoring how effective you are (turquoise)

  • Consider how you will check if things on the ground are really working. This is not the same as looking at performance indicators. Performance indicators can tell you anything you want them to tell you. What is it really like, for the people you are trying to help and the people working in your service? This should not be a senior manager having a look, as this can come across as micro-managing and can damage trust with the teams. What other ways can this be done?
  • Think about how you will really know what it is like to experience your service from the inside and the outside.
  • How will you check that what you aim to do is really happening?

Intelligence and adapting for the future (green)

  • Purposefully consider how you will monitor what is going on in your external environment. For example, how will you know about new ways of working that would be useful to you? How will you find out about new legislation and guidance etc? How will you know if something is happening that will significantly increase or decrease the needs of your population?
  • If something in the environment is happening that you might need to respond to, make sure you have a way of checking that your internal operations are set up to respond. If they are not, then make sure there are ways that you can discuss the new requirements with your teams and decide together any changes that might be required.
  • Consider who will be responsible for developing your strategy for moving forward. Make sure it is a workable strategy, based on adaptability.
  • Could you adapt quickly if you needed to? Consider what might prevent you from adapting and what you might be able to do about it.

Governance and identity (orange)

  • Consider what your ethos, values and goals are.
  • What will the identity of your service be?
  • Consider how you will consciously devolve power and control to the relevant parts of your service, so that they can be adaptable and respond to any ‘shocks’ from the environment.

The external environment

  • Make sure you understand the diversity of your environment.
  • How do you find out about new rules, regulations, laws etc?
  • Are there any services out there for whom you are creating some kind of chaos? Are you duplicating with anyone? Are you confusing any pathways that are already in existence?
  • Who will you work closely with? In partnerships with?
  • What strategies of reciprocation do you need to make with people and organisations outside of your immediate service or organisation?

NB: colours represent corresponding areas of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and Creating the Conditions for Change actions

For further information about consultancy and training, contact: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Zoom out from the service

Taking the System Thinking Change Wheel into a different context took me to an area of familiarity – the NHS. Leadership development is always on people’s lips and in their thoughts, it seems, at the moment.

For this session I used a case study example of something I have worked on to run a workshop. It was a complex NHS service that, like most, was interdependent with a number of other health and care organisations and services. Nothing is stand alone in the NHS. Just about everything is a complex web of interconnectivity and interdependence, including multiple organisations and a multitude of people and processes.

Knowing about systems thinking is one thing. Knowing enough about it to be able to work effectively with it, without having to spend a long time studying about it, is another. Clients usually want to jump straight in and get to grips with the complex situation they face.

I sometimes find that people’s default position in the NHS is to try and improve the processes in a service, rather than zooming out to see the wider picture and think about the wider system aswell. This means that options for change and improvement are limited and an easy way out is to blame staff for poor performance of the service. But there is another way to expose more about the situation, leading to a wider range of opportunities for change and improvement.

The workshop

We start the day by exploring the biggest challenges people have whilst trying to make change and we have some discussions around what makes systems viable. It is an interesting and enlightening session with lots of interactive exercises and moving around. Ideas are flowing and people are engaged.

Then, we move quickly into a case study – no time to lose. After a short run through of the case study the room is split into groups and each group is given a section of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel to consider. Without considering any actions at this time, each group are given a different set of questions about the situation to discuss. More information is available to help discussions along, but only if people request it. It helps those in the room think about what information they might need to understand why the situation is like it is.

Bringing all of the discussions together exposes a tangled web at many levels of organisation – an individual level, a team level, an organisational level and at a wider system level. The information in the room is rich and enlightening.

We move on to using the action cards – a different set for each group. They get going, identifying areas where there is strength in the situation – where things are going really well. Then, it is on to the areas that need more work. Finally, the groups are given tokens that represent resources – money, people, equipment, innovation, training etc. They are challenged to show where they would invest time/ effort/ money and why. Not surprisingly, this does not go on blaming staff or just telling the service to ‘do better’. They don’t know it, but they have just done quite a sophisticated diagnosis of the situation. The levels in the situation are easily visible, the imbalances creating havoc are visible and they have identified many areas for improvement.

The benefits

The groups discussed, supported each other, considered the wider picture, motivated each other, challenged, contextualised and shifted each other’s perspectives several times. It was a joy to watch.

Using insights that I brought from the actual situation I had worked on, we shared stories and feelings and insights. We looked at things from several angles and quite unbeknown to them, they were collectively ‘systems thinking’. They were also co-creating a potential way forward. The vibe was high energy and I even heard the words, ‘oh, this is fun’ at one point. We explored the balance between autonomy and control, empowerment, adaptability, trust, power and enabling structures.

We explored the role of managers, flexibility, pivoting and the balance between generalist and specialist roles.

There were a few shifts in thinking that day and an assuring buzz in the room. We were focussing on how to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’, rather than focussing on individual ‘do this’ ‘do that’ actions. Each situation requires actions that are contextually specific. The trick for me is to guide people in the right direction and then encourage them to decide on those context specific actions themselves. No ‘lift and shift’ answers here.

Creating the Conditions for Change Workshop – available online and face to face