Creating the conditions to support learning about systems thinking

I often blog about my work on ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ in terms of how we nurture our working ecosystem to enable change to happen. This means change in ourselves also. I have been working for quite a number of years now on ways to help others on their journey into systems thinking and systems change. One thing I am sure of, is that giving someone a concept that they have never come across before and expecting them to understand it, just because you have explained it, is not going to get you very far.

In my opinion, systems thinking is an experiential journey. Only when you have been on the journey, often aided by someone shining a light into the dark corners and helping to unlock your own inner wisdom will things start to make sense. This often takes for the person to be along side you, to link the concept to what you are seeing in front of you and how you are feeling and experiencing it at the time. It can also come in the form of engaging and enlightening stories. Stories that are authentic, that demonstrate a deep engagement with a situation and highlight not just how a systems thinker understands things but how they feel and experience them also. These are the experiences that make things ‘real’. These are the things that people can relate to. These are the unwritten things that help people with understanding and are critical scaffolding for the learning journey.

We need to help people stand in the waterfall of the journey and let the whole experience wash over them, immersing them fully in it. Letting them feel the sting of the rapid flow and the gentle trickle closer to the edges. Helping them to experience the invigoration and the point at which it makes you feel cold. Helping them not to be scared but to step right in to the flow.

The conditions we create around the learner to enable them to experience systems thinking concepts allows them to enact a journey of learning with that concept that is different to being given a concept and told to apply it. The journey is stronger when it is experienced. My style of helping others to learn? Create the right conditions and take them on a journey. A journey of many emotions and feelings. An adventure of sorts. Who knows how it will end?

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.

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

Creating the conditions for change

At the moment we have some incredibly potent conditions that are enabling change to happen. Hard as it seems, some significant good could come out of our current experiences. That is, if we can recognise what the enabling factors are so that we can replicate the positive elements in times that are not so fraught.

When the time is right, I will continue to run my workshops on creating the conditions for change.

The approach I use in my workshops weaves together a number of systems thinking concepts and ideas, such as organisational cybernetics and social and technical aspects of a situation. It helps people consider how they might expand their multitude of responses to the complexity in which they exist in their working environments, enhancing their variety and adaptability to enable them to survive and thrive over time.

My approach considers concepts such as variety and self-regulation and seeks to enhance peoples decision-making capabilities. It helps people to consider how to work creatively within their boundaries of autonomy and control to enable better and more responsive problem solving and widen their range of responses to the complexity in which they are embedded.

It helps people to consider how groups can work together in an adaptable and flexible way, maintaining an appropriate balance of autonomy and spanning beyond the restricting boundaries of their work ‘function’.

It helps people to think beyond the confines of their organisation to consider how they might interact with others to develop social-systems with the ability to communicate, learn and grow, with a focus on enabling and developing relationships, developing channels of interactions and seeking to create the conditions for change.